Shopping Socialization

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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.

Anticipating Earning the Supplemental Income vs. Banking on Being the Breadwinner

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I am a professor. Why did I choose this profession? Several reasons come to mind. I loved psychology, I excelled in my psychology courses, and I always felt comfortable in a school setting. I was mentored by an Asian-American female professor and, through her, was able to see being a professor as a viable career. But a large part of my choice was also because others told me that being a professor was a family-friendly profession, especially for women. The schedule was flexible. If you had to take time off from work because your child was sick, you could do so. Professors have summers off. They have control over their time.

Discussing whether being a professor is actually a family-friendly profession deserves its own separate post. What strikes me now in my 30s is that I was already thinking about which professions were family friendly when I was 18, more than a decade ago. Life often brings you the unexpected. So was the case with my own life. Unfathomable to my 18-year-old self, I was single up until very recently and am currently childless. Yet, I structured my whole career, and spent years of training and schooling, around this notion of finding a family-friendly career.

This prioritization of personal relationships does not just abruptly appear during college. Even in preschool, girls engage in more fantasy play involving household roles and romance than do boys. In elementary school and adolescence, girls tend to read books with more relationship and romantic themes than do boys. In high school, as young as age 14, girls place more importance on marriage than boys. Girls also expect marriage to be more important than their careers compared to boys. In college, young women anticipate marriage and parenthood more so than young men. Where does this preoccupation with romance, family, and relationships come from? Intriguing new research suggests that even in infancy, girls tend to be more interested in people and faces than boys, whereas boys tend to be more interested in “things”, or objects, than girls, suggesting the role of biology. However, I also have a hunch that society cultivates this preoccupation with relationships from a young age in girls more so than in boys.

I don’t want it to seem like prioritizing family is a bad thing. I love being a professor, and I am grateful for being able to do work that I find interesting, challenging, and meaningful. However, I think that when making my decisions about which career to pursue, I unconsciously assumed that in the future: (i) I would be married, (ii) I would have children, (iii) I would have a partner that would help me raise these said children, and (iv) my financial contribution to the family would be less than my partner’s. What if I had thought otherwise? What if, since I was a girl, I thought I would be the sole financial supporter of myself? What if, as a girl, I knew that the weight of my family’s well-being would fall on me? Would I have chosen a different career? My sophomore and junior years in college were filled with daily angst about choosing to major in psychology or economics, another subject I found interesting. If I had banked on being the breadwinner or the sole supporter of my financial well-being, would I have gone into a more lucrative field? Why did I assume I would be able to count on someone else to make the “real money” in my household? I don’t think I ever articulated this or clearly thought this through when I was making these decisions back in college. It was more of an implicit assumption that seemed so assured that it did not need to be made explicit.

Most girls (and boys) are taught these marriage and family scripts and these gender roles at quite a young age and many believe them. Growing up in a conservative neighborhood, the child of middle-class Asian immigrant parents, who attended a conservative church, the male-provider/female-homemaker family structure was all I ever saw. Friends’ mothers who did work tended to earn the supplemental income, often working jobs well beneath their intelligence, schooling, and capabilities. They worked as administrative assistants and school lunch assistants. Many of my aunts with graduate degrees gave up their careers permanently to take care of their children.

As I write, I can hear dissenting voices reporting different upbringings. I realize that my upbringing was privileged. In lower-income families, women do not have the luxury of being the supplemental income earner or of being the homemaker. Their incomes are necessary and vital to the survival of their families. In many lower-income families, women are also more likely to be single mothers than in middle-income families. They may be the sole earners supporting their children and possibly even their parents. Their choices for career paths may have been more limited. Upbringings concerning expectations for work and family can also vary by culture. In several qualitative studies, when psychologists and sociologists interview parents about how they aspire to raise their daughters, African American parents stand out. They report a special emphasis on preparing their daughters to be strong and to expect to be the pillars of both their families and communities.

So far, I have reflected on my personal experience as a woman and as a younger girl. What about the experiences of men and boys? Promoting the norm of heterosexual families where the man earns the money and the woman’s income is supplemental, if at all existent, can harm men and boys as well. Imagine all the men we know in stable but staid jobs. Some of them genuinely love their jobs, sure. But how many of them felt pressure to earn a certain income to provide for their future families? How many boys feel that they have to put aside their true passions in order to live up to societal standards requiring men to be the providers? Gender roles are constricting for women and girls, yes, but we often forget how punishing they can be for men and boys. As more men voice their desires for work-family balance, and as more women attain higher education and climb the corporate ladder, society might slowly change. However, a handful of very recent studies suggest that, as of now, men receive severe approbation for deviating from masculine work norms. For example, if they work part-time or choose to use flex time, men are penalized in various ways, such as receiving lower job evaluations, being judged as less masculine, and even earning lower wages.

Teaching children gender norms regarding who should be the financial provider of one’s family, teaching girls to invest much time and energy on romantic relationships, and teaching girls to expect and desire traditional marriage and family structures in the future might have harmful consequences, especially if life brings you the unexpected, as it often does. Girls may end up finding themselves not being able to be financially independent. Boys may end up whittling away at a job they don’t much care for, but that pays well. I hope we can make a conscious effort to provide more diverse examples of how families can be like both in real life and in the media. The models children, especially girls, see around them can affect their anticipated family roles and occupational aspirations (also see here).