Love to Shop?

I love to shop.  I love clothes, jewelry, and makeup.  I read InStyle magazine and the Sephora cosmetics catalogue from cover to cover, pouring over every detail about the colors, fabrics, designers and cost. Style and fashion is one of my hobbies, and I love a good designer bargain, wearing bright colors, and layering on the bracelets.

I have been like this ever since I was a little girl.  I can remember spending hours with my Barbie dolls, just changing their clothes. I had a HUGE bag of Barbie doll clothes. My mother should have realized then that this was a foreshadowing of things to come.

I have never given up an opportunity to shop.  I remember being very sick on a family vacation to Toronto, where they are known for their haute couture.  I dragged myself out of bed (I was later diagnosed with mono) to accompany my mother and grandmother to Holt-Renfrew, the upscale department store downtown.  I got the cutest tartan-plaid dirndl skirt that day. I could barely stay awake and keep food down, but there I was trying on clothes in the dressing room.

As I got older, fashion became a way for me to cope with my negative body image. Because of my pear-shaped figure, I had a difficult time finding clothes that fit, especially pants. I didn’t look like the other girls at my suburban Chicago high school who wore boy’s Levi’s to school.  I wore “outfits”, matching pants and jackets or vests, and even skirts and high heels on occasion.  Although this may not have helped me to fit in with my peers, it did help me to feel attractive and well put together.

I would also buy a lot of tops-sweaters, t-shirts, blouses.  Whenever I wanted to buy a new one, my mother would order me to “go into my closet and count how many sweaters” I owned already.  It was never enough, really.  As many members of my gender would agree, buying new clothes, or a lipstick, or an inexpensive pair of earrings can be a way of treating ourselves-a reward for a job well done, or a small comfort for a disappointment or loss.

In all probability, I spend more money than I should on clothes (my husband would certainly agree with that).  I likely spend more time than I ought to in stores. Perhaps I even place too much emphasis on my appearance, despite my feminist, therapeutic, “everyone deserves to have a positive body image” reputation. I do have a positive body image, and I think my shopping helps. If something makes you feel good, it will make you feel good. Within reason, of course.  But if something makes you feel good, and it doesn’t interfere with your job, health, finances or relationships, then it’s a good thing.

However, some people (maybe you?) live by different rules. Some people don’t want to draw attention to themselves with their attire.  They attempt to conceal their undesirable bodies by sticking to a safe range of colors (black) or styles (loose) to camouflage themselves, much like a hunter wears special gear in order to blend in with his surroundings. These people won’t wear shorts, bathing suits or sleeveless tops in summer.  They avoid bright colors, horizontal stripes, shirts tucked in and belts. These people wear their negative body image on their sleeves, if you ask me. I remember when really long sweaters and leggings were in. The bigger and longer the sweater, the better, right?  It seemed like the perfect way to hide a big stomach, fat thighs or wide butt. Until one day my husband looked at me and asked “What do you think you are hiding under those clothes? Do you think that people can’t see that you’re fat?”  Some people might have been insulted by this remark.  But he was right! He blew my eyes wide open. Think about it.  Loose baggy clothes just look sloppy.  Most people, no matter what the size, look better in tailored, fitted clothing. Not tight, just fitted.  Plus, with all the advances in fabrics (Lycra, for example), there is no reason to be uncomfortable in a pair of blue jeans again.

Other people live with the opinion that they should not buy any new clothes until they reach their desired weight. They will wear the same old, ratty, unstylish or even ill-fitting clothing, until some far away time when they consider themselves worthy. It’s almost like a punishment for not having the body that they desire.  That attitude just strengthens negative body image by reinforcing the notion that you are undeserving of new, pretty clothes.  You probably assume that this is a very effective way to get someone to actually change their eating or exercise habits, but it’s not.  Research shows that our thoughts and feelings manufacture our reality.  So if our thoughts and feelings about ourselves are negative, we never learn to take good care of ourselves.  The best way to accomplish a positive long term goal is by positive thinking and positive reinforcement, not by punitive self-sacrifice, deprivation, negativity and guilt.

I told my body image group the other day that I walk around my life as if I looked like Elle McPhearson. Now, those of you who know me know I look nothing like Elle McPhearson. But, I walk with my head held high, my chest out, and my size 16 pants swinging around my hips.  And, it works!!!  I eat healthy and I stay active, much more so now than when I hated my body.  Plus, my doctor just said to me last month when we were discussing my weight- “You always look thin to me”.  So either he needs to get his eyeglass prescription checked (he should probably do this anyway), or I have internalized a positive body image so well that I actually look how I feel.  Besides, John Lennon once said “life is what happens when we’re making other plans”, and he was right. Live for today, and make the most of each and every moment.  Sure, set goals and work towards them.  But there is no good reason to deprive yourself in the process.

So, go shopping. Buy some new clothes.  Don’t wait until you lose weight, go to the gym, or have your varicose veins lasered before you allow yourself to show some skin or try on the newest look. Celebrate summer with a few new things that will actually reinforce your health and well being and rejoice in the uniqueness of you. And, if you need some help figuring out what to buy, let me know.  I love to shop…

Dr. Stacey Nye, PhD, FAED

– Stacey Nye is a clinical psychologist specializing in the individual and group treatment of eating disorders, body image and women’s issues.