Photo: Travel Aficionado/flickr
When I got engaged, within days friends and family asked me what kind of wedding dress would I want for the big day. And, kindly, they were so excited to take me dress shopping. It did end up being a special event to try on dresses with my mother, sisters, nieces, and best friends. But these interactions made me reflect on the role of shopping in ‘girl’ or feminine culture. For many women shopping is a friendship glue, a time of communion among mothers and daughters, sisters, and girlfriends.
Shopping often feels intimate. With my Southern Californian Orange County upbringing, so much of my childhood was spent in malls. My first memories of shopping were the familiar smell of new clothes in gigantic windowless stores, hiding myself in the racks, giggling, playing games with my older sister. By the time I was eight, I knew where the petite-size section (my mother’s go-to) was located in every major department store. As I got older, I remember frequently gathering inside a cramped dressing room with my mother. It was a time of fun possibilities imagining our future selves dressed in this or that and also a tiring time of taking off clothes and putting them back on under the glow of fluorescent lighting. My mother would give her opinion on a piece of clothing. Usually she thought my choices were too tight. I would give my opinion on my mother’s choices, warning her if a clothing choice was too “mom”-ish.
I think as I’ve moved away and now that I live farther from home, this is the kind of time together that my mother misses with me. It’s a one-on-one time to chat together and share how things are going, to look forward to upcoming events, and a chance to feel prettier.
For many women shopping represents a leisure activity, a treat. A good friend of mine had worked so hard for the past 10 years completing a biology degree during her undergrad, her medical school training, and residency. Her first thought when she got a job and had a few hours of free time was, “Let’s go shopping!”
But I wonder, why is shopping a “girl thing”, and why is shopping such a part of girl culture? In our own studies, when we interview five-year-olds and want to assess their knowledge of gender stereotypes, one of the items that we use is, “Who goes shopping? Mrs. Davis, Mr. Stephens, or both Mrs. Davis and Mr. Stephens?” The majority of young children already think that Mrs. Davis, the woman, goes shopping. Why do so many men abhor shopping?
Last winter break, I went to the mall with my sister and two nieces. It’s something that we always do when they are here. Honestly, there are not that many other choices in the area that are adult- and kid-friendly – a commonplace reflection of consumerist America. There’s air conditioning, a fun carousel for the kids, and frozen yogurt, what more could you ask for? We only had a little time left, so we split up, and I was left with my seven-year-old niece. I had the keen idea of finding something for going out. Lately I had been feeling like I was wearing the same black top over and over again. So we raced to H&M, a Swedish discount store with the latest trends that they copy from designers. I felt a little bad at my feverish scouring of the racks up and down the aisles, but my niece seemed to have no problem occupying herself by browsing the cute little hair clips and knick knacks that they keep near the register. Then I corralled her into the dressing room to help me decide on a skirt I was thinking about purchasing. What did she think?
My niece gamely said it was fine, and then patiently waited as I waited in a long line to buy my skirt. Two things crossed my mind. First, what a change in my niece from age 5 to now. She was so patient! But was she more patient because of her better self-regulation skills and developmental growth, or was it also because her enjoyment of shopping had increased? Was my niece already being inculcated into the girl culture of shopping? One of her current favorite stores is Claire’s, a jewelry and accessories store with thousands of options. Second, my interaction with my niece in the dressing room was perpetuating the female shopping culture. I was contributing to this socialization of shopping.
Some common themes I’ve touched upon before are pertinent here too. Women often shop with the goal of looking attractive and maintaining their appearances. I helped foster this in my niece as well. It normalizes this goal and implicitly underscores that, hey, this is important. We spend time on dressing well and making ourselves look good.
Another theme that arises is finances. I know for myself that sometimes I struggle with not going over my budget. I’m often tempted by the fancy clothing in fashion magazines and blogs that make it seem like beautiful designer clothes are attainable for the middle-class consumer. During my poor graduate school years, I spent $500 on a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse, which was 25% of my monthly income. Given my miniscule budget, I could have probably put that money to use on more useful things, but I was willing to risk not even being able to pay rent to have one. Purses are big in many cities, but were especially prominent in the New York pedestrian scene. Purses and engagement rings are to New York women what cars are like to Angelenos in terms of signaling social status to others. I rationalized my expenditure by saying to myself, well, at least I wasn’t going for the $2,000 purse line! (Yes, what a warped view I had). However, imagine if I had bought a $100 purse instead, which would have sufficed my needs, and saved and invested that leftover $400 five years ago? I wonder if socializing young girls to shop and care about fashion has a cumulative effect on their finances and on the finances of women as a whole. One study on adults conducted in South Korea would support this link. People who were more fashion-oriented exhibited more compulsive buying habits and used credit cards more.
When I think of my own friends and acquaintances, I often see a negative correlation between their need for nice clothing and furnishings and their financial situations. The friends I know who have the biggest nest eggs are the ones who, despite having high-flying jobs, still buy furniture at Ikea and non-name brand leather purses from the local department store.
Just as with the appearance culture, the female shopping culture is situated within a larger context. America’s economy is based on consumerism. We are told to shop, shop, shop in order to keep America’s economy healthy. These days we are even told that shopping is our patriotic duty. However, a large body of psychological research shows that materialism is associated with a lot of negative behaviors and outcomes. For example, people who are more materialistic tend to believe more that their expenditures will change their lives. They are more likely to make purchases for emotional reasons and engage in compulsive buying. They are also more likely to mismanage their credit. Materialism is also associated with lower well-being overall. While not its total converse, financial well-being is associated with better health and well-being. Despite this strong evidence, it is still hard to not get sucked into a consumerist mentality.
I appreciate all the intimate moments I had with my mother bonding over clothing and cinnamon pretzels with caramel dip. The time together when we shop gives us a chance to talk about how we’re doing. But there are other environments that can facilitate female bonding to occur other than one that encourages spending and possibly debt. A few times some students have told me that I never wear the same outfit to class. To clarify – this is wrong, but apparently this was the impression I gave. I admit that I was probably overzealous in putting together my work wardrobe when I first began my professor job. Perhaps the students were trying to give me a compliment, but it honestly made me feel embarrassed because I probably do have too many clothes. Thus, the challenge that I have posed to calm the drive to shop is a challenge I continue to take on for myself.