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Finance, Fashion and Feminism: the Shopaholic stereotype

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Today is the first of the now monthly Feminist Fashion Bloggers events, and the theme is Finance, Fashion and Feminism. There are a million angles you could come at thing topic from – I have chosen to took at how gender and shopping overlap and a stereotope that is often used to describe female shoppers:

The Shopaholic

You know the kind of thing: an Imelda Marcos-style wardrobe full of designer clothes, handbags and shoes, and nothing to wear, going shopping every week, getting into debt, or at least spending every spare bit of money on buying things to the detriment of saving and financial security. Like the episode of Sex and the city when Carrie needs to buy her flat and doesn’t have a deposit, but does have 100 $500 shoes. The image of self-indulgent, reckless spending, more often than not described as a sort of moral failure.

I’ve been mulling this over, and it raised a few interesting thoughts:

  • This stereotype is almost exclusively applied to women, when excessive spending affects both genders. To take a completely unrepresentative sample, in the people I know in real life, there are more men than women who regularly spend above their means, or just within the very edges their means. I am surpremely sensible with money (I have an almost pathological obsession with financial security), while Dave used to be a reckless spender when he was younger, and although he’s been doing much better in the last few years that streak is still there. He graduated from university with a lot of avoidable debt that he took forever to pay off, whereas his sister had actually saved up a little for a deposit on her flat. The term shopaholic seems to mainly apply to shopping for clothes, whereas men in general tend to spend on more expensive technological things like TVs, stereos and games consoles. I don’t know why that is somehow seen as less harmful. Its just the same really, isn’t it, so lets treat it the same.
  • On the other hand, its not surprising that women in particular are feeling the pressure to shop. We are constantly bombarded with messages to reinvent our wardrobes and ourselves through them, to be newer and better and more fashionable. I can’t think of a product aimed exclusively at males that is nearly as aggressively marketed as women’s fashions. It may be changing, but by and large men are still seen as more defined by their personalities, experiences and abilities than their possessions.
  • Like so many things, the shopaholic is the product of the contradictions inherent in contemporary capitalist society. Because on the one hand we are invited to give into our impulses and shop!shop!shop! to keep the economy going and to express our love for the people in our lives through things, on the other hand we are supposed to exhibit restraints and self control. The shopaholic goes all in for the shopping part, and in 1999, 3-8% of the UK population that displayed addictive shopping behaviours, and somehow I can’t see this having gone down much since. But equally the proliferation of bloggers doing complete shopping bans is the other end of the continuum. Some of us (myself included at some points) need an all out ban because the balancing act of buying stuff but not too much is hard, as this post on breaking shopping addiction by Ashe Mischief attests.
  • Then again, for most of us, there’s nothing wrong with shopping. We might not be saving as much as we ideally want/should (I save 18% of my income every single month as an absolute minimum, and many months its more like 30%, and still my financial adviser tells me off), but as long as we are keeping up with our commitments and have something put aside, there really is nothing wrong with spending our money on shoes and dresses. Lets not forget the joy and satisfaction we get from clothes. As Sal said, its our money, and our choice, and we can do with it what we want. Clothes are as valid a thing to spend on as stereos. I’m studying economics at the moment, and we’ve been doing all these models involving rational, perfectly informed consumers buying things. And while of course these are ridiculously simplistic, and the thought that governments routinely develop policies on the basis of them worries me, there is something in the idea of utility maximisation. Lots of people obviously value the enjoyment of £200 spent on a pair of new boots more than the security of an extra £200 in the bank. And that’s fine.
  • So maybe lets recognise our shopping behaviours and learn to manage them, but lets also stop worrying so much. Lets stop referring to every woman a bulging wardrobe as a shopaholic. Lets stop judging so much, ourselves and others and enjoy our lives. And that includes, but is not restriced to, our stuff.

I’m aware that that last bit could be read as a defense of consumerism, which was really not my intention. I think our consumer choices should be made mindfully, and and in line with our own values and ethics. I don’t shop in the high street, and I favour second hand and handmade. But if I’m being completely honest, I also favour quantity over quality to some extent. I’d rather have ten dresses of varying quality from a charity shop than one designer dress, however well made. But that’s just me and my choices. And all of this is consumption anyway, just different types of consumption. So I’m not anti-consumption per se.

What do you think?

Here’s the link to a roundup of the rest of this week’s FFB posts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • poet 13 April 2011, 7:43 am

    Great post! I agree with all the points you put forward here. Though I've known stereotypically shopaholic women, I've also known men who overspend on superfluous techie gadgets (where, in all probability, the cost-per-use is much higher than for well-made expensive clothing). I would add – along the lines of marketing – the huge factor of personal insecurity, the false empowerment that shopping gives you, which is much more prominent in women, I believe. Men are taught to define themselves through what they do, so buying stuff doesn't calm their insecurities that much, while women are still taught to define themselves through how they look, or what they possess (you said so actually), which means shopping is an easier distraction from personal unhappiness. I can confirm that last part – I spent much more on fashion and cosmetics during a time in my life when I was deeply unhappy, than I do now.

  • Alexa Wasielewski 13 April 2011, 8:18 am

    The WAG thing is something that seriously annoys me. Like, seriously. I remember there being a childish girl at my old school who surmised her life goals as marrying rich. And in my opinion, if all a person has is designer clothes which represent nothing of his/her achievements or desires etc…then they are as empty as the people who wear them. I completely agree with your stereo console vs female shopper. Never thought of it myself, but it totally makes sense now, so thanks for that. Great post!

  • Ashe Mischief 13 April 2011, 1:20 pm

    "We might not be saving as much as we ideally want/should (I save 18% of my income every single month as an absolute minimum, and many months its more like 30%, and still my financial adviser tells me off), but as long as we are keeping up with our commitments and have something put aside, there really is nothing wrong with spending our money on shoes and dresses."

    Yes! God yes. It always bugs me a bit, sexism & shopping. Beau can drop $300 on D&D books every 3 months, but if I spend $100 a month on new dresses, I'm the one with the shopping problem? Why? The same amount is getting spent… we're just spending it differently….and we're equally both not saving.

  • Rad 13 April 2011, 3:15 pm

    I clearly had a shopping problem at one point. I feel that I've nipped it in the bud for the most part, mostly because I started writing down every penny I spent and realized that a lot of was wasted (I have so many extra clothes that I have to put a bunch in storage). But mostly, I see the shopaholic thing as a problem if someone feels unhappy with their life situation because they are in debt and feel they don't make enough income. Or shops because they are trying to compensate for some other problem in their life. I've been on GAAD (and I've thrifted 3x on it) for about 9 months now and I miss shopping.

  • La Historiadora de Moda 13 April 2011, 3:16 pm

    I cringe every time I watch the episode of SATC when she throws away unopened Visa bills and then is out shopping and the sales clerk cuts up her credit card. Personally, I haven't always managed my finances as well as I could have, and this has led to some pretty painful consequences during my adult life. I'm trying to save more now and to reshape my spending habits. I also know plenty of guys who got into the same situation – buying cars that they really couldn't afford, blowing their paychecks on video games and records, etc.

  • jesse.anne.o 13 April 2011, 4:22 pm

    Thanks for posting all of this; I agree on many points. I definitely struggle with the "want!" portion of my brain and while I can usually balance it with my actual needs and values (not only the environ/animal/labor issues but also how it affects my budget), it's an ongoing battle. But I'm definitely exponentially better than I was in college, when I ended up $14k in consumer debt over just a few years. Having to pay all that off in 3 years and the amount of interest I paid on it was so consuming that I have a really strong resistance to ever ending up there again.

    One thing I have noticed recently (within the past 5 years or so) is the glorification of and the self-identification of "shopaholics", which always strikes me as odd. Like when people brag about being an alcoholic. Is that really how you want to proudly identify?

  • jesse.anne.o 13 April 2011, 4:24 pm

    I cringe also, because of the painful consequences I had to deal with. It's hard to watch someone follow that same path, seemingly without self-reflection. I don't know if it's harder to watch someone in real life do it or a character that many women want to emulate!

  • The Waves 13 April 2011, 5:23 pm

    What a great post, Franca. I had a shopping problem in the past as well (to some extent, I blame my general unhappiness and working in clothing retail), and there are still moments when I really struggle with trying to understand my wants. I have become much better at taking my time and rationalizing my spending. I agree that there is nothing wrong with buying clothes per se, but it is scary how the society we live in encourages us to define ourselves on the basis of what we wear and how we spend our money.

    I also agree with jesse.anne.o regarding the (self-)glorification of the shopaholic; I see this in some of my friends. The crazy overspending on clothes and make-up has become "the thing women do". (Carrie's inability to buy her own flat because of the $500 shoes is the type of thing a lot of these women find acceptable – you know, in the story Charlotte gave Carrie the money in the end, and Carrie most definitely did not stop shopping.)

  • Elly 13 April 2011, 6:55 pm

    Great post, Franca! Very interesting points…I especially agree with the perceived difference between the spending habits of men and women because of what they're consuming… (my FFB post today was mostly about this angle of spending/consumerism/money). Even if a woman isn't a "shopaholic," it's more likely that her spending behavior, if on stereotypically feminine things like fashion or beauty items, will be viewed in a more negative light than a guy getting the latest tech gadgets.

    And yes! "as long as we are keeping up with our commitments and have something put aside, there really is nothing wrong with spending our money on shoes and dresses." Female-stuff purchases tend to have much more questionable value/moral weight for me. But how is this any less worthwhile than spending a bit of my extra money on going out to dinner, or getting something for the apartment, or renting movies, or anything else, really?

  • Simone 13 April 2011, 9:56 pm

    I think that the shopaholic stereotype is sooo damaging. I am just so over the whole cutesy "oopsies… I cleaned out the shoe department and can't pay my rent now!" schtick. It paints women as irresponsible and as I mention in my post about the shopaholic's just-as-bad cousin, bridezilla, can even support the stereotype that women are bad at math. There's nothing wrong with enjoying shopping for clothes and shoes and bags and make-up… but as with any consumer action, it helps to be aware of what the mainstream media is telling you and what your motives are. It's all about informed choices.

    Another problem I have with this is that within the context of a relationship where income is combined, women's income tends to be thought of as supplemental to men's incomes. I can't help but wonder if that view is part of the reason there is still a huge pay gap.

    Really great post!

  • Jess W. 13 April 2011, 11:25 pm

    It is sad that as a society women are the target of this shopaholic double standard. It's assumed that when men shop a lot, he must be rich, but if woman shops a lot, she must have a lot of debt or married a rich man. But what it's not the case at all? I think if we all curb our consumerism, not only in relation to clothes, but make it lifestyle choice of moderation, we'd be a lot less stressed and pressured to buy all the time.

  • Dear Girl 14 April 2011, 12:41 am

    wow this is fun in the feminist bloggers, i checked the blog and still thinking to join, I just am chasing my time…..this is a fun and true post of shopaholics! I wish there's a pill that can stop shopping!!or let's say, "cure" the shopping addiction reliever..lol…but believe me or not, I had made a limit since I turned 30 last march…so i saved a lot and is able to buy a spendy shoes yet still have savings that gets going=)

  • E. Sedia 14 April 2011, 4:17 am

    Great post! Let's not forget gaming and golf, expensive hobbies that grown into subcultures because they're traditionally associated with male interests and thus get elevated, while traditionally female ones get disparaged. Historically, when men were interested in clothes, knowing different kinds of stitching and shopping at the "right" tailor (Saville Row in Victorian London, frex) was not at all frivolous but vitally important.

  • Jeanofalltrades 14 April 2011, 4:53 am

    Excellent points. I agree about the double standard. Consumerism comes in all forms (and it's not always bad) but women shouldn't be chastized for being shopoholics when men buy just as much.

    On the other hand, we've got to make it cool to save (by the sound of it you're doing an awesome job).

  • annimal 14 April 2011, 4:42 pm

    I must admit to a bit of a shopping compulsion myself, but as I hate most new things I am purchasing from thrift stores, flea markets, ebay and etsy so my money is going to like minded people recycling and not sweatshops and corporations. But I'm also sick of the mindless spending women stereotype, it's so limiting and shallow!

  • Ceri 14 April 2011, 8:15 pm

    Love this post. I am also incredibly sensible about money and never spend outside my means but have also always considered myself a bit of a shopaholic, I have loads of shoes. Perhaps I shouldn't beat myself up about treats occasionally. For me it is more about the environment and sustainability of our lifestyles but I guess a little treat now and then won't harm as long as I wear it loads .

  • frumpfactor 14 April 2011, 11:09 pm

    Love your point about the mixed message (consumer culture encourages women to shop while vilifying them for it). This will be the 2nd time I've referenced this in blog comments, but I loved Carolyn Knapp's take on that in her book, "Appetites." Women wanting food? Sex? Professional success? Not ok, says the culture. Women wanting shoes? Expected, and perpetrated as stereotype. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  • chelsea 16 April 2011, 2:58 pm

    I too know more men who are bad with their money than women. That said, I have met a lot of ladies since moving to the big city who shop constantly. They are always looking for a sale, a good deal, even if they do not need said items. They don't do much else than shop. They definitely define themselves by the things they buy. I didn't see so much of this in my little art town, but maybe I was hanging around a different sort of person there.

  • The Compassion Fashion Project 17 April 2011, 12:16 am

    Very informative piece. The stereotypes between men and women are painfully true. It's up to us to change that view and inform. Very well done. I will also add that I believe it is extremely important to choose companies to buy from that are well wrapped in philanthropy…this makes spending much easier to justify.

  • Adelle 19 April 2011, 4:54 am

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post! When I was younger I identified as a shopaholic (in a problematic way), because I would constantly buy then return. I would constantly bring stuff home and either not like it or regret it. I eventually moved past that phase, and after a while moved into a phase where I loved everything I bought, but I realized I was missing out on other things – and damaging my long-term financial security – by shopping as much as I did. I put myself on a 3 month cleanse where I didn't buy anything for a month, and no clothes for 3 months. One thing I learned is that there's a difference between what you WANT, and what you're being told you should have.

    "Fast fashion" probably also helps cultivate the female shopaholic stereotype. The industry is pushing women to buy more and more, faster and faster. Although in this case it's hard to tell which came first, the chicken or the egg.

    And finally, a friend and I have an ongoing discussion about where we spend our money. She is a foodie, and will drop $100 on a nice dinner; whereas I consider $30 a big night. I have other friends that cab across the city and spend $100 on bottle service, or friends that blow their money on sporting events. It doesn't matter. We all have our hobbies and what's meaningful to us and one activity isn't more legit than another.

  • Veshoevius 19 April 2011, 9:13 pm

    Wonderful post and you raise many interesting points. I agree with you that there is a bias towards painting the stereotype of a shopaholic as female and the goods being frivolous clothes and shoes. Meanwhile expensive male pursuits like games consoles and flash cars are not painted nearly as much as being unnecessary frippery in the same way. You always see the finger pointed at women being more likely to be in debt but I wonder if there is any real evidence of this and I wonder if we could correlate it to women being more likely to be earning less than men (remove the shopaholic outliers say!)
    And the issue of being advertised to more as a woman to change our image – it's true! We are! (I posted about this at length on a Friend Friday thing) – and then you have the glossy magazines pushing the idea that marrying rich is the way to go – I said in an email conversation with another blogger that reading Vogue gives the impression that the only women who matter are those who were born rich or married into money or are celebrities – is that the sort of career aspirations we want to be giving young women?

  • MrsBossa 21 April 2011, 10:00 am

    "men are still seen as more defined by their personalities, experiences and abilities than their possessions" – that is the crux of the matter. No-one bats an eyelid that Mr B spends a small fortune on Polaroid film and photography books, but clothes are definitely seen as more frivolous. Hell, never a week goes by without someone making a crack about my shoe collection. Mr B also thinks spending cash on 'going out' is wasteful, whereas I see Date Night as an essential investment in our relationship. It's quite interesting to discover what money means to people.

    I've yet to pick my jaw up off the floor at the news you save so much of your income. Mind you, we don't have that luxury at the moment, but kudos to you for being so sensible! xx

  • oranges_and_apples 21 April 2011, 10:18 am

    Its because I started at my work on a ridiculously low entry level wage on
    which I managed for years. I then moved up two grades very quickly, so I was
    able to save the extra money without it feeling like I was missing out or
    getting used to spending more. And yes, I am super obsessed with saving and
    financial security, I don't know why! But its a good thing now we are a
    single income household.

    Spending money on socialising is definitely important! and posh food.
    Cooking and eating out is probably my single biggest expense.

  • bestofbklyn 21 April 2011, 7:07 pm

    What a thoughtful, well written post!

  • Tymbre 23 April 2011, 2:18 am

    I thought I was alone, I much rather buy a lot of more affordable things as opposed to buying one super expensive top. I don't live beyond my means, and I often shop second hand (considering I work at a consignment shop) and h&m … and I just learn to take care of my things! Great post!

    xo
    -Tee

  • Pullyoursocksup 23 April 2011, 11:26 am

    Hiya Franca, Great post my lovely. Like you, I buy mostly second-hand not to prove some point, but I love the design, fabrics and PRICES of vintage. But I've recently decided that I'm not going to torture myself and buy ugly shoes second-hand as that's all I seem to find in op shops in my giant canoe size feet! I'm buying new shoes. Period. Besides I don't smoke, I'm teetotal and I rarely get out as I'm full-time carer to my disabled partner. No-one should have to justify their pleasures and I guess I just have. I just think it's the business of the individual. Thanks for sharing this post. xoxo

  • For Those About To Shop 24 April 2011, 1:05 am

    I am so grateful that I don't suffer from shopaholism. I do believe it is an addiction like any other and, although I do have addictions like chocolate and coffee, those don't put you into irreparable debt.

  • Birdie 4 May 2011, 6:15 pm

    WOW. I love the thought and research you put into this post. Having studied econ, I also truly identify with the fact that basing policy on simplistic economic models is ridiculous. And frightening.

    I'm with you – My family saves a good 45% of our income. When I lost my job, our allowances for fun stuff (clothes/shoes/videogames/fancy dinners) went down – not our savings. And one might say I am a shopaholic because I do revel in bringing new, exciting, unique pieces home. I still haven't found the ultimate balance. But I know husband wants a "this".. and a "that"… and an expensive and nice one too! So calling me the only shopaholic in our house seems a little off.

    Great food for thought!! 🙂