Shopping Socialization










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.


“Cause I’m Young, and I’m Hip, So Beautiful, I’m Gonna’ Be – a Supermodel”

California Girls, Part II

003 2016 07 14 Beauty magazines edit smaller

In Part I of this blog post series I shared my personal experience growing up in Southern California’s appearance culture. I’m glad to say that I am now pretty happy with the way that I look. It’s helpful that I have an amazing partner who always makes me feel attractive with his sidelong glances and his sweet compliments (he’s a keeper!). But long before I met him, I somehow got past many of the insecurities of my California youth.

Yet there are still regrets. I realized I had spent 10 years, from age 11 to 21, weighing myself in the morning every single day. What I regret the most is all that brain space that was taken up with caring so much about my looks – all of that mental energy wasted. Being thin and beautiful really preoccupied me. Anyone who has ever tried dieting can attest to this. Meal and snack times are daily occurrences. Compounding the problem, adolescence is a time when teens are already obsessed with checking each other out and are hyper aware of what their peers think. I wonder if I hadn’t been thinking about being beautiful for all of that time, maybe I could have been thinking about other, more useful and positive things. I could have been cooking up wild ideas. Or, I could have just been thinking about nothing, which would have done my psyche less harm.

Kooky social psychology studies show the danger of spending too much cognitive energy on one’s appearance. One study had women try on a bathing suit and then take a math test. Yes, you read that correctly. These women performed worse on a math test compared to women who tried on a sweater before taking a math test. The researchers speculated that objectifying their own bodies took up working memory that was needed to perform well on the test.

Despite these findings and despite being happy with the way that I look, I admit, it’s still hard to stop the pursuit of beauty from taking up brain space. It’s still hard to be immune to an appearance culture and to resist placing one’s self-worth on how one looks. It’s something that I’ll probably continue to struggle with and find frustrating. When I’m reading women’s magazines, which are usually focused about beautifying oneself, I think, what if I spent this time reading Kiplinger’s Personal Finance or Money magazine? I think, I should really pick up that latest issue of The Economist. I’m aware of the latest laser technologies out there to make me look younger. What if I knew the latest mutual funds with the best returns? Social media has given us so many avenues to satisfy the craving of how to look our best – Instagram, beauty and fashion blogs, YouTube makeup tutorials. Imagine if all that time spent learning about how to look better was used on something else more lasting and edifying.

Beyond taking up brain space, a high preoccupation with appearance is linked with a long list of other negative outcomes. Studies have shown that appearance preoccupation is linked to lower achievement and motivation in math and science, lower general intrinsic (self-propelled) motivation, lower self-efficacy (feeling like you can affect change and are capable), reduced self-control and lower self-esteem. Other studies find that making one’s self-worth contingent on how one looks is associated with psychological distressalcohol and drug use, sexual assault victimization, and even major depression. One in five women experience an episode of major depressive disorder at some point in their lives, and depression is also about twice as common in women than in men. Psychologists have shown that a high focus on and dissatisfaction with physical appearance contributes to the high rates of depression in women. 

Clearly, fostering a high level of concern about physical appearance so that one’s sense of self-worth depends on how one looks is unhealthy and harmful. What’s troubling to me is that in the face of this research, appearance culture persists and seems to start to evolve in very young children. A few studies have found that as young as in preschool, many children report being concerned with their weight. Half of preschool-aged girls surveyed in one study said they worried about being fat or wished to be thinner. These concerns with thinness become even more common in elementary school. Because of my own struggles with caring about my appearance (see Part I in last week’s post), it’s hard to watch the same standards and values being pushed onto the next generation. More to come on young children and appearance preoccupation in the next post.


California, Here We Come, Right Back Where We Started From

California Girls, Part I

California girls 002bI’m a California girl. Southern Californian, to be exact. The Northern Californians would likely enforce that distinction. I was born abroad, but from age 5 to 18, this was where I grew up. Later I spent my college and post-college years in the Bay Area and in New York and often dreamt about California’s gentle winds and the soft sun. Now I’m back teaching as a professor in Southern California near my family again.

California will do a lot of things to you. It makes you intolerant of any kind of weather fluctuation. When the temperature drops to the 60s, the beanies and boots come out. If it’s overcast for more than a day we get moody and wonder whether the sun will ever shine again.

I believe that California culture also socializes its citizens, and especially its female citizens, to focus on their bodies and their appearance. California girls have a reputation, after all, and many songwriters have selected them as muses. Who can forget the Beach Boys’ crooning?


“I been all around this great big world

And I’ve seen all kinds of giiiirls.

Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States

Back to the cutest girls in the word.

…I wish they all could be California giiiirls”


And more recently, Katy Perry’s exhortation:

“You could travel the wo-orld

But nothing comes close to the Golden Coaast

Once you party with us, you’ll be falling in love, oh-ohhh

 California girls, we’re unforgettable

Daisy dukes, bikinis on top

Sun-kissed skin, so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle, oh-ohhh

California gurls, we’re undeniable

Fine, fresh, fierce, we got in on lock

West Coast represent, now put your hands up, oh-ohhh”

I have to admit, when these songs come onto the radio, I can’t help but groove to the beat. And every girl that grew up in California has memorized the Beach Boys’ lyrics. I know I have. It was the anthem for my high school volleyball team, the cassette playing every time we jumped into a van on the way to a game. What are California girls supposed to be proud of? Our cuteness, our hotness, our fine-ness of course.

A little digging revealed that the advent of film and Hollywood in the 1920s contributed to the emergence of a “physical culture” in Southern California. Success in Hollywood depended on looking good. In the warm weather and on the screen bodies became more exposed, and these displays of the body became more acceptable. Celebrity actresses and actors became objects of fascination, as if they were their own solar systems around which the public’s conversations and obsessions orbited. The scholar, Heather Addison, reports that these stars served as the ideal, defining standards of beauty in face and figure. They allowed audiences to see fantasies come to life with their glamorous lifestyles. These stars also served as examples of success to young men and women.

Along with the rise of consumerism, the 1930s continued this trend of improving and focusing on one’s appearance. At this time the Saturday Evening Post called this shift, “Dame Fashion” and poignantly wrote:

“Partly because Dame Fashion is like that, never satisfied with anything about us ‘as is’;   always trying to change something – our figures, our height, our complexions, our feet, our hair – just so as to give us a different look at least four times a year and make all our costumes passé long before they are half worn out. ‘Whatever is, is wrong’ seems her motto.”

One hundred years later, this persistent dissatisfaction and focus on appearance continues. One hundred years later, we still see this “star discourse” alive and well. Even my 69-year-old father knows who Kim Kardashian is, thanks to Extra! coming on right after the evening news. Hollywood’s values seep into the veins of Southern California’s culture.

*          *          *

Students often ask me, why did you go into psychology? Spending my girlhood in California played a large role in my interest in psychology and in gender development. Growing up here, I felt that I absorbed that ever-present value on physical appearance and beauty. It was impossible to ignore.

From a young age, I thought a lot about my appearance. I remember being eight years old and loving it when my older sister would curl my hair for me on days when we got home from school early. We would cram a chair into our small bathroom at home, and I would patiently sit while she worked her magic. One of my favorite activities growing up was raiding my mother’s make-up drawer. I was thrilled when she let me keep lipstick tubes in bright pink colors, leftover from the Clinique free gifts that she collected from Macy’s.

This preoccupation with my appearance worsened in adolescence. The first time I remember being concerned with my diet was in sixth grade. I’m sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant well, but when I learned about the food pyramid, I became obsessed with counting how many servings of what I ate each day. In seventh grade, I started running laps at the park after school to lose the weight I was starting to gain with puberty. There would be days when I tried not to eat anything. I distinctly recall one particular day where I was achieving success in fasting. I even got through basketball practice after school, dizzy with hunger, turning a deaf ear to the yelling from our red-faced coach. As soon as practice ended, however, I raced home and ate whatever I could find.

In high school, this preoccupation with looking pretty and thin worsened as my desire to be popular and attractive to boys increased. My ethnic identity also became more salient to me. I compared myself to other Asian girls and female celebrities, who seemed to have no muscle or fat at all.

When I quit volleyball after sophomore year, I gained a few pounds. The obsession with being thin and pretty continued. I wanted to be perfect in every sense of the word. This persistent dissatisfaction with my appearance contributed to the depression that I started to experience. I remember thinking every single day that I wanted to kill myself, which I later learned is called suicidal ideation.

At this point, a reader might safely assume, with all this obsession over looking pretty and thin, that I was a heifer of a kid. But this is the truly crazy thing, and this is why I think SoCal culture is insidious – when I was 12 and running those laps to lose my puberty weight? I was 104 pounds at 5’ 5”. When I look back at my photos, I shake my head at the lunacy. I was a growing, beautiful girl.

Two realizations shaped my perspective on my personal history. First, there was such a vast discrepancy between my actual appearance and my self-perceived appearance. When I was growing up, my perceptions of my appearance were mangled and distorted. Second, many others went through the same experience. As I was writing this, I struggled with trying to make this entry zippy and interesting. I didn’t want my story to sound cliché. But think about that – why is it a cliché? Isn’t it sad that we’ve heard the eating disorder-depression-teenager story so often that it makes us bored? The prevalence of eating disorders is increasing. Body image issues are also affecting boys and young men and increasingly so. Physical appearance, in general, is the topic of conversation among many young girls. These realizations showed me that a force greater than myself made it likely for this preoccupation with appearance and its negative consequences to unfold during my development. My unhappiness was not just due to me being me, but largely due to a bigger, broader macro culture (a la Bronfenbrenner, for you developmental psychologists). In large part, I went through that awful experience simply because I was a girl. And more than that – I was a girl who grew up in Southern California.

Being beautiful is of paramount importance for a woman, not just in Southern California, but across most cultures. There’s a long history of equating a woman’s, or a girl’s, worth with how she looks, perhaps as long as the history of (wo)mankind. I hope we can redirect this long trend into another direction where a woman’s and a girl’s worth is more about what she does. What if, instead, the Beach Boys sang:

            I been all around this great big world

            And I’ve [met] all kinds of giiiirls

            Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States,

            Back to the [most capable, confident, awesome, [add your empowering adjective here] girls in the word

            I wish they all could be California giiiirls (or, womeeen)

Elsa and Blonde Envy

Elsa doll

If you interacted with a small child this past year, you will likely know the immense popularity of Disney’s latest animated feature film, Frozen. It seems like every young child and their (unwilling?) parent can sing “Let it Go”, its pièce de résistance musical number, verbatim. I just checked, and as I write, there is actually an official Frozen website, where the first headline you read is, “What to do while waiting for Frozen 2.” You might have also noticed a seemingly universal obsession with Elsa, the ice queen and Disney princess du jour in Frozen. At one point, some parents were shelling out over $1,000 for the elusive Elsa gown that stores couldn’t keep in stock. However, parents managed. For Halloween last year (and even on regular school days), every other preschool girl seemed to be wearing a blue sparkly Elsa gown. To make sure they were not mistaken for other princesses, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, young girls adopted Elsa’s signature coif, wearing a platinum blond wig with a long braid trailing down the side.

Now, watching young girls struggle to keep this wig on is quite ridiculous, especially when their tiny heads are covered in smooth, shiny black hair, like my friend’s daughter’s. The standard Elsa wig is quite dinky on the top. When you hold one in your hand it looks like a scalping prop in an old cowboys-and-Indians Western. I tried not to laugh too obviously when I watched my friend’s daughter engage in pretend play with the wig. She’s so observant, even at four; she doesn’t miss a thing. But while I was laughing I was inwardly cringing at the same time because, I thought, this is where it starts. This is where we learn that blonde is beautiful – and not just any blonde, but platinum blonde. This is where we learn that blonde means nice, blonde means good, blonde means privileged, blonde means rich, blonde means pure, blonde means better. This is what society teaches us and teaches us early. And I cringe because Elsa is a heroine. Millions of girls worldwide look up to her character, including brown-skinned girls with black hair and brown eyes, girls who look nothing at all like Elsa.

Particularly disheartening, was when another friend’s daughter, an adorable brown-skinned Asian American girl (let’s call her Maxine), at age three, would consistently point to the blonde girl in books and say, “She’s my favorite.” Bless those publishers, there would be Asian girls, Black girls, Latino girls, brunettes, redheads, all equally distributed in the sticker book. Every single feature about the different girls was the same – same cute chubby cheeks, same cute dresses and bows, just the skin color and hair were different. But inevitably if there was a blonde girl on the page, yup, that would be Maxine’s favorite. Once she said, pointing to another blonde girl, “She’s my favorite,” but then pointed to the girl with black hair and brown skin and said, “But that’s Daddy’s favorite.” Maxine’s is growing up in an open-minded, loving, race-conscious household. Despite all these advantages, Maxine’s example shows that it’s so difficult to keep children immune to these messages and to prevent this pernicious learning.

Tina Fey mentioned a similar occurrence with her daughter in her terrific book, Bossypants. In the chapter, “All Girls Must Be Everything” she writes, “When I read fairy tales to my daughter I always change the word ‘blond’ to ‘yellow,’ because I don’t want her to think that blond hair is somehow better.” She describes a reversible doll her daughter has with Snow White on one side and Sleeping Beauty on the other. Tina Fey reports that she always flipped the doll on her daughter’s bed so that Snow White (the non-blonde) would be facing up, but her daughter would consistently flip it back to Sleeping Beauty. Her daughter explained to Tina Fey, “I don’t like [Snow White’s] hair.” “Not even three years old,” Tina Fey writes, her daughter “knew that yellow hair is king.” In that chapter, it struck me that Tina Fey, as a brunette, also had issues with blonde hair growing up. She writes about New Jersey in the 70’s where the standard of beauty was “Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley. Small eyes, toothy smile, boobies, no buttocks, yellow hair.” Apparently, blonde envy is not just confined to Asians (my friend’s daughter), but to Greek-German American comedians as well. But seriously, why do children need to learn that blonde is supreme and then work their whole adult lives to unlearn the same adage?

Society places so much value on the beauty of girls and women. If a girl doesn’t feel beautiful because her hair is not blonde, and places her self-worth on how she looks, it could lead to psychological distress. She might feel that she’s inferior to other girls who are blonde. Even if she doesn’t feel that way, she may be treated that way by others.

Boys are not immune either. Boys get duped into the same media machine, learning that blonde is more attractive. Want to put a dollar price on hair color? A disturbing article in the Economist did an investigative piece on the sex worker industry. Blonde sex workers apparently get paid more on average for their services than sex workers with any other hair color. Trying to place myself into a man’s shoes, this would make me upset. We like to think our preferences are ours; they are unique individual differences. What if your preferences are just shaped by society?

I grew up in a neighborhood in Southern California that was mostly White at the time (you know, the kind of neighborhood where if there’s one other same-race kid in the class, your classmates either assume you’re related or dating, even in first grade). When I was 15, my school volleyball team and I were lucky enough to take a trip to Maui for “conditioning” to prepare for the season, but really more for a fun vacation, as our awesome coach had family in Hawaii. Yes, this team was basically all blonde, with two brunettes, and one Asian girl (me). You can believe we got a lot of cat calls walking across roads in our twiggy teenage bodies (thanks to the blondes). The last night we went to dinner at a fancy restaurant. As we were getting ready, an older teammate offered to do my make-up. I consented and upon completion, with heavy eyeliner and a deep purple eye shadow, topped off with a hundred layers of black mascara, another teammate looked at me as if with new eyes. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “May Ling is pretty.” It was a kind compliment, but the way she said it made me realize that she had never even thought of me as a candidate for prettiness. Like, in her world, Asian and black hair just wasn’t considered attractive. And I think a lot of boys in my high school thought the same way.

Blonde envy has been around for a while. In 1984, Whoopi Goldberg wrote and performed an amazingly funny and poignant monologue on Broadway, where she pretends to be a 6-year-old Black girl. She arrives on stage with a large white-collared shirt wrapped over her hair, shirt sleeves swinging back and forth, and says to the audience, “This is my long, luxurious blonde hair, ain’t it pretty?” She continues on: “When I get big…I’m gonna’ have blonde hair, blue eyes, and I’m a be White.” She later takes off the white shirt from her head, hesitantly revealing her black curls to the audience. The audience inevitably responds with a pitiful “aww.” She says about her hair, “…it don’t blow in the wind. It don’t cas-, cascadade [cascade] down my back…and I want some other kind of hair to do something else. I do!” At the end, she works through her hair issue with the audience and lays aside the shirt on the stage saying, “I’m never gonna’ put it on again. Never, never again.”

This brings me full circle back to Elsa. Why does the sight of my friend’s brown-skinned Asian-American daughter tossing a blonde braid around make me cringe so much? I think it’s because Elsa is not only blond, but she is ice blonde. So blonde. She represents an ideal that is hard to attain for most girls, even for naturally blonde girls. The father of my friend’s daughter and I had this same discussion. “[Elsa’s] just so White.” Elsa looks Scandinavian, like Nazi Germany’s ideal of the Aryan race. It’s not that White is bad, of course not. It’s just that we non-Whites already have to contend with the White, European beauty ideal when we are far from it. Push that White ideal even further with the white blonde hair, and we worry about how non-White, non-blonde children will deal with it.

The issue of hair and hair color gets crossed with preferences and attitudes about race. The African American community is well-aware of this (e.g., Chris Rock’s Good Hair). The Latino community has its own issues combatting kinkiness and curls for straight locks. When I lived in Harlem during graduate school, I learned that a “Dominican blowout” meant blow-drying your hair until it was super duper straight. We want kids to love their hair color because we want them to love who they are, to love their cultural heritage, and to be proud of their racial/ethnic identities.

Blonde is beautiful, but so is black, brown, red, white, purple, green! Straight is beautiful but also curly, kinky, wavy, and everything in between. Kudos to Sesame Street for writing an “I love my hair” song to address this issue (in English and in Spanish). Apparently the song was inspired by a caring father’s concern about his four-year-old African American daughter’s desire for straight hair. Let’s work towards making sure that this generation of Elsa girls can similarly belt out with conviction, “I love my hair.”