“Because when I shop, the world gets better,” says a wide-eyed Becky Bloomwood dreamily. “And then it’s not, and I need to do it again.”
The scene from 2009’s romcom flick ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ — a flippant slice of late noughts pop culture — forms the premise of its unusual narrative. Becky is more invested in mannequins than in men. She gets into sample sale catfights albeit severely debt-ridden. She staunchly believes a $120 pleated green scarf, as she self-affirms in voiceover, can help define one’s psyche.
At the time of release, the year’s global financial turbulence led to a recession recorded as the new millennia’s lowest economic point. The film, debuted during its tail-end, was deemed ill-timed — rendering Becky even more frivolous than she should be. Its takeaway was clear: The practice of shopping for pleasure was never to be taken seriously.
Although the cartoonish shopaholic may be on to something.
Almost a decade after Becky’s cinematic entrance, retail therapy still illuminates an unserious gleam. “The act of buying special things for yourself in order to feel better when you are unhappy” according to Cambridge Dictionary, is synonymous to the consumerist nonchalance of blowing a month’s income post-breakup. A fatuous coping mechanism.
Often dismissed as a postmodern blight, frenzied acquisition has its roots lodged deep for centuries. Plato once posited that acquiring luxuries would lead to the moral and dissolution of a city. Avarice was condemned as “the root of all evil” by Christian apostle Paul. In ‘Empire of Things’, author and specialist in the history of consumption, Frank Trentmann, chronicled the genesis of humanity’s passion for the possession of objects. He likened 20th-century department stores to museums for their almost-encyclopedic offerings, exhibiting the entire world of objects on display. These meccas of material goods embodied human desires.
Fast forward to the present, where mental health is at the forefront of wellness conversations and “self-care” is embraced as a requisite part of wholesome living, the notion of investing in oneself is not anchored in the tangible. Could retail therapy be harnessed beyond its simplistic association with the feel-good comfort of purchased objects then?
“The short-lived high from simply spending is a quick burst of dopamine that has no lasting benefit,” says Anabel Maldonado, journalist and psychologist behind The Psychology of Fashion, a platform where she investigates sartorial matters through a cognitive lens. “What works beneficially — the real retail therapy — is a sense that you have invested in yourself, and that requires mindful shopping or ‘conscious consumerism’.”
According to Maldonado, clothes and accessories, based on their aesthetical values, can be triggers for positive changes. When these wearable pieces are bought for their representation of certain qualities one may be seeking to have more of, they can propel those first steps needed towards one’s aspired self. Clothing-induced happiness can only be derived when the purchased item is aligned with the aspirative image one strives to be. Not unlike Becky and her green scarf.
Once, Maldonado bought a pair of Louis Vuitton suede flats. They were fairly simple, with nappa leather toes and tiny gold monogrammed dices. “Classic and almost intellectual, with a flashy twist,” she recalls. As a then-budding writer who relocated to London to get her foot in the door of the fashion capital’s competitive industry, the price tag absorbed half of her monthly salary at the time. She had to survive on scrambled eggs for the remainder of that month, but the flats turned out to be an investment which bore her priceless returns.
“Every time I looked down at them, they reminded me of who I was meant to become, and I made the hundreds of tiny decisions I needed to make, like passing up fun evenings out with friends to go home and write,” she muses. The shoes subliminally coaxed a sense of discipline into her.
While the experience of retail therapy itself — the thrill of stepping into a plush store or endless scrolling of enticing webpages, the piling up of garments on one’s arm or digital shopping carts, and the satisfaction of owning them — incites a surge of dopamine, it’s a short-lived buzz. Dopamine spikes are responsible for all addictive destructive behaviours, says Maldonado. It’s the perilous rush that drives reckless impulse. Superficial and inauthentic, it’s a deceiving resort which leaves one with the lingering of a bitter aftertaste. Just like other dopamine-backed retreats, retail therapy can go off the rails — destructive, excessive and numbing to the senses. This fluctuative dynamic is why the traditional concept of retail therapy finds it hard to shed its bad reputation.
“It can spiral out of control when you rely solely on retail therapy. Needing therapy implies that you are unhappy or stuck in your life somehow, and that can’t only be down to not having the right jeans. Buying yourself something new is one piece of the puzzle as it can inspire you to take action and make better decisions in line with who you want to be, but it won’t work in isolation,” Maldonado explains.
Mindful retail therapy isn’t the be-all and end-all cure, but it’s far more potent than what consumer culture or pop culture portray it to be. When backed with mindfulness, retail therapy can be an effective angle in a 360 approach on tackling the root issue. It’s more than shopping one’s way out of an emotional upheaval.
“Buy a new sweater, sure, but also buy a self-help book and devote some time to reading it every day,” suggests Maldonado. Assess and look at all facets of life — be it sleep, diet, exercise habits, productivity— and learn to differentiate between an impulse purchase and a conscious buy. It’s the make-or-break of mindful retail therapy.
If all else fails, Maldonado quips, “Thankfully, there’s returns.”
Subscribe to our newsletter