Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship With Shopping

Posted by Jill Chivers in Helpful Books and Resources

Spent - book cover

I normally don’t like short story compilations.  I find there’s not enough of a through line to keep me interested.  But this book being on a topic I am positively fascinated by — our complicated relationship with shopping — was an exception to my usual rule of avoiding short story compilations.

Spent: Exposing our Complicated Relationship with Shopping, edited by Kerry Cohen, is an captivating potpourri of stories from women (no stories from men are included in the book), talking about shopping.

Various elements of and to shopping, it must be said.  The stories vary wildly in terms of focus, thread, story arc, characters, plotline, crisis points and resolution, and for me, interest.  Sure, they’re all interesting in some ways, but some were much more interesting.

And some stories weren’t really about shopping, but about relationships or relationship breakdowns or family dynamics, with shopping as the scenery.  I found those less interesting than the stories where shopping was the main event.  After all, that’s why I purchased the book – to read about these women’s complicated relationship to shopping! (not their complicated relationships to their mothers, which is another type of book altogether).

Intriguing excerpts

There were many fascinating fragments in this book.  I encourage you to get your own copy and read the stories in full for yourself.  For now, I’ve kept the most fascinating fragments to a number that can be read during the drinking of a large cappuccino.

[a quick note on the photographs: they are all taken by me, from various trips and expeditions around the globe.  I selected each one carefully to match the excerpt being shared.  I hope they add something to your reading and viewing experience].

To enjoy!

From ‘Where Nothing Bad Can Happen’ by Monica Drake

Some say the psychological source of compulsive shopping is rooted in a lack of love.  Maybe it’s true.  Holly Golightly, a young woman on her own, is a portrait of a compulsive shopper ready to launch.  As I saw the two twin sisters, with their Nordstrom bags, I wondered if they felt the mean reds, the soothing sense of commerce, Nordies is a place where nothing very bad can happen.  I wonder if they felt a lack of love.

I found that fascinating – that a big department store, and a high end one like Nordstrom, is considered such a safe place – nothing very bad can happen there.  I’d never considered shopping centres and particular stores as being safe, or not, so it’s a fascinating thing to ponder.

And this true but bold statement:

Of course, retail therapy isn’t therapeutic any more than drinking is medicinal – maybe less so.  Some call it “promiscuous spending”, a term designed to link shopping and sex, a carelessness to it, and a feminizaion.  Capote saw that coming.  There’s a reason he made Holly a call girl, an escort, a powder room whore.  We’re all supposed to buy into the system, but buy in too much, and you’re judged there, too.

Ah yes, the big lie that is “retail therapy”.  How refreshing to have someone say out loud that it’s not only a joke, but a travesty.  Those of us who have shopped too much know the price that is paid when shopping is used as an emotional salve.  Not only doesn’t it work, it leaves a bitter taste and a high price to pay, long after the ink has dried on the receipt.

And a bit later in this same story, this fascinating fragment:

It turns out that even Simone de Beauvoir, that Marxist, was a serious shopper.  It’s in her memoirs.  She spent her book advances on nylons and furs, chocolate, oranges, and everything or anything else she wanted.  Satre was having affairs, she was having affairs, and she was shopping.  Was that a lack of love, too?

Where nothing very bad can happen

Where nothing very bad can happen

From ‘The Things She Carried’ by Robin Romm

Possibly the most poignant story of the lot, sharing with us the period before her mother died.

I lugged the bags across the wood floors near the kitchen where I knew they would sit for months while my dad figured out where to donate them.  He sat at the kitchen table.  “Why did she buy all this shit?” I fumed.  “It’s wasteful and crazy.  It’s irresponsible”. … My father looked at me from his cluttered and dirty post-mom kitchen, the handmade plates now cracked and chipped in a greasy cupboard, hinges loosened.  …

Why couldn’t she have donated money to things she cared about? More money to loan repayment scholarships for public interest lawyers?  Money to help with cancer research? Money to save the environment, to give microloans to poor communities?  To buy thousands of dollars worth of clothes was downright gross and insane and shameful and consumptive!  So materialistic and capitalist and – ! I shoved a bag toward a window, then another.

My father turned his most fierce stare on me.  “She hoped to wear them, Robin”, he said. “She hoped she might get better and live and wear them”.

Ah, if that doesn’t hit you like a knife in the chest!  I can imagine Robin’s frustration and irritation at what she was as all this wasteful shopping her mother was doing in the months before she died.  And to have it so simply and powerfully explained by her father — a possibility she clearly had not considered — hits you like a bomb going off.

The shopping is still wasteful, after all she’s never going to wear all that stuff, but now it has a context.  Now it doesn’t quite make sense, but you can glimpse a little into why she did it, why she bought all that stuff.  Shopping as a way to stave off imminent death.

Brought a tear to my eye.

Unfortunately this is not just a Halloween inspired window display - it's possible to shop til you drop dead

Unfortunately this is not just a Halloween inspired window display – it’s possible to shop til you drop dead

From ‘Welcome, Valued Customer’ by Emily Chenoweth

My turquoise blouse has become a Smock of Shame, too, and I haven’t shown it to anyone yet.  It tells me that I’m cheap, that I very possibly have no taste, that I’ve all but given up on being an attractive, reasonably well-dressed person.

Wow, isn’t it amazing the qualities and characteristics we imbue certain items of clothing, purchased at certain stores in certain ways, with?  That one item of clothing, with a particular purchasing history, can make an otherwise accomplished woman feel she has no style, that she isn’t attractive, that she is cheap.

How can one item of clothing DO that to a grown woman?  Why do we make clothes mean certain things, and not others?  Why do we allow our clothing, and our shopping, to affect us so, right down to our core, our sense of ourselves, our identity?

No wonder we attach so much meaning to our clothing when we're being told to from outside the store!

No wonder we attach so much meaning to our clothing when we’re being told to from outside the store!

From ‘Worth It’ by Ru Freeman

What I was learning along the way was that there was nothing wrong in wanting to possess something I considered beautiful no matter what was considered fashionable.

Ah I loved this!  A focus on individual style and what one loves, as opposed to a focus on fashion.


Truer words were never spoken

Truer words were never spoken

From ‘The Book Money’ by Aryn Kyle

The more I bought, the less I seemed to have.

Ah, an interesting insight into enoughness.

And a bit later on that same page:

“I’m paying for everything!” I cried.  “So stop!” he said.  But I couldn’t stop.  Paying made me feel useful, important, in control.  It made me feel absolved.  Well, it made me feel as thought I might someday be absolved.

An insight into why we shop, and how our shopping is not for necessities alone.  Our shopping has more than commercial requirement at its heart.  Shopping brings emotions with it, it evokes emotions in us, it leaves emotions in its wake.

Shopping is not just shopping.

Shopping is not just shopping

Shopping is not just shopping

From ‘For Your Age’ by Susan Senator

Sure, I felt kind of fabulous some of the time, but what happened then was I would get the qualified fabulous.  I would tell people I’m fifty, they would usually say something like, ‘Wow, you look great for your age!”  Why did they have to add that last bit! And so, it was the “For Your Age” Fifty, and that did not feel that fabulous.

An yes, the intricate interwebbing of age and attractiveness.  Of age and beauty.  There are some simple truths about getting older, and in  my view, it’s a privilege – not a curse.  But unfortunately, that viewpoint appears to be in the minority, at least where shopping, fashion and beauty marketers and merchandisers are concerned.  Television and movies are filled with simply stunning women over 50, some deep into their 60s, who defy this notion of young = beautiful.  That to be fabulous means being under forty.

This is also something I discuss in a hybrid documentary I was the focus of, called Preloved (you can read about my story of filming that documentary in this three-part post starting here) ,

Antique shopping - does this mean shopping for your age once you're over 50?

Antique shopping – does this mean shopping for your age once you’re over 50?

From ‘A Clotheshorse is Born’ by Allison Amend

But I’m dressing for me, to make myself feel beautiful.  For reasons best shared only with my therapist, I find my face and body grossly inadequate.  What to do so that when I look in the mirror I like what I see?  Buy beautiful clothing.

Ah, an honest telling of how much her body and face disappoint her.  Even though we may theoretically agree with the concept that no body is perfect, somehow we can still hold ourselves up to an impossible standard.  And I do mean impossible.  The bodies and faces of the women we see depicted in the media are not real, surely we know that by now?  At the very least, they are Photoshopped to such a degree that the realities of the women are irrevocably obscured.

Somehow we find it hard to believe we are beautiful, flaws and all.  That, in fact, it is precisely because of our flaws that we are so uniquely beautiful.  If only we would stop being so mean to ourselves and engage in greater, more regular self care.

I believe that’s the answer, self care and self kindness – more so than buying beautiful clothing (although there is always a place for beautiful clothing, it isn’t the long-term, soul sustaining answer to the question of self loathing).

If we buy covetables, does that make us covetable?

If we buy covetables, does that make us covetable?

From ‘If The Shoe Fits’ by Ophira Eisenberg

I wanted to believe that I could have those shoes, even though I could feel them mocking me from their pocket in my shoe rack.  “Will you ever feel adequate enough for us?” they asked.  “Will you ever be able to wear us without feeling shame?”  I desperately tried to justify their purchase in  my head.  Maybe I could rent them out to friends?

Ah, the burning shame of a purchase that we know isn’t right, even though we felt we couldn’t help but to make it at the time.  And there’s something about shoes, and luxury items (which the shoes in the story were, clocking in at a whopping $1145) that can really get our emotions racing.  As in Emily Chenoweth’s story about the turquoise blouse, this story reminds us of the connection we make between our value, our self worth and the items we purchase.

Advertisers and marketers know this — that we connect self worth with certain items – and they play on it.  Nothing that happens in a retail environment happens by accident – it’s all designed to have us buy and buy and buy.

Our emotions are being manipulated at every turn, including trying to convince us that certain items are of such quality, occupying such a rarefied position as to almost be deified, that we need to be live up to them somehow.  What utter nonsense!  It’s the other way around – certain items have to live up to us!

Do these shoes live up to you?

Do these shoes live up to you?

From ‘Spring Dishtowels’ by Nan Narboe

I am arguing a different premise: that effective shopping, shopping that leads to satisfaction, is aligned with desire.  It doesn’t matter whether the object of desire is a sunset or a non-stick skillet, laughter or a shiny new speedboat. What matters is finding a link between an internal desire and its outward expression. Ineffective shopping – the kind that leads to outfits that age in the closet, untried recipes, vacations spent at someone else’s dream destination – is shopping unmoored from the self.

Now this was fascinating.  The idea that the best kind of shopping is the kind that is conscious on many levels. When it comes to making purchases, a key to happiness is identity expression: Does a particular purchase express your personality and values?

The idea that our shopping, especially for items so tied to our identity as clothing, have a relationship to our self concept is an intriguing one. And one with a great deal of merit, I believe.  I loved that expression “shopping unmoored from the self”.  What a beautiful turn of phrase!

And I agree that a large part of becoming a savvy shopper is to understand authentic, legitimate needs, and to make sure all the shopping you do is aligned with those needs.  Sometimes, many times, shopping isn’t the answer.

Often, almost always, shopping is not the answer

Often, almost always, shopping is not the answer

In closing

I enjoyed Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship With Shopping.  Definitely worth getting a copy yourself and reading the stories in full.  What you glean from it may differ from the gems I discovered.  But whatever you discover, I hope it encourages you to consider the place shopping has in your life.  Perhaps it will encourage you to shop differently, or to shop less.

Because a full and rich life isn’t found in the mall – this much I know is true.



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