From the time I got my working papers in my early teens and my first job, I shopped too much. I purveyed fashion magazines looking at fashion and beauty trends, trying to find an affordable way to mimic what I saw. My family was less well-off than most of my classmates and I paid for most of my clothes myself since I was fourteen or so.
I spent much of my time feeling cheap, conspicuous and ugly. I was the ultimate consumer. I studied makeup tips, believing if I found the right cosmetics (and the techniques to go along with it); I could cover up my acne and transform my face into something more attractive. Each new product represented newfound hope. But the makeup never really lived up to its promise, and the pimples always seemed to push through, uncontainable. My lips never got plumper, and my cheekbones didn’t come out of hiding. My ruddy complexion refused to be erased by creams or powders; it revealed itself, red and angry.
I thought the right clothes could make my body look slimmer, more appealing. I hid beneath clothes that were much too large. I saved up for name brands—Espirit, Benetton, Jordache, Guess (yes, this was the 80’s and I’m dating myself.) I thought the right label would make me legitimate, help me fit in. Once, I was thrilled to find a cheap Benetton sweatshirt at a flea market. Silly me, I was new to the concept of knock-offs. A helpful, richer, and savvier classmate pointed it out to me. I was a fake, a fraud.
Who was I, what was my style? Fashion had the infinite possibility to allow me to express myself, establish my identity. Cashing my minimum wage paycheck, and circling my suburban mall on Sunday afternoons, going from store to store and trying to buy self-expression. I even cut school periodically to go to Macy’s One Day Sales. Yes, I was a rebel.
I went through a stage when I said screw self-expression, I just wanted guys to think I was sexy. Anything that I could wear that would attract men, I was all for. It was a push and pull game between trying to expose as much as I could, while hiding all that I felt I needed to. Show cleavage but hide my stomach rolls. Show some leg, but not the fattest part of my thighs.
Complicating the issue was that my body refused to stay one size. Gain weight, lose weight. Clothes scaling up and down the size charts. Not only was I spending too money, but the days were numbered as to how long I could wear what I bought before I outgrew them or they were too big. I felt dizzy, out of control.
So much money spent. Makeup that got old, unused. Clothes with the tags never taken off.
I slowed down my shopping. As my weight went up and down, I tried to pull from my stash, the ready-made wardrobes I had in a variety of sizes. I winced at bad purchases I made (did I really think I was going to wear that?) Things went out of style. Gradually I purged, cleaned out my closet.
I don’t shop like I used to. Save the very occasional impulse purchase, I only buy makeup when I really need. I wear less and I don’t really experiment so much anymore. I don’t have the time. Besides, who has the money in this lousy, downwardly mobile economy? Certainly not me, that’s for damn sure.
Clothes too, I try really hard to buy only what I need. I’m still trying to stabilize my weight, to be one consistent size. I thought I was there, and now I’ve fluctuated a bit. I’m a bit scared; I’m trying to regain my footing. I’m trying to get a sense of who I am, to bring my life into clarity and focus.
I want to look my best. Both for my own self-esteem and because everyone judges you based on how you look. Which is so wrong, but that’s another story. I still feel rushes of insecurity, the urge to buy myself something, to indulge in some retail therapy. I want that perk, that pick-me-up. I tell myself that the security of having my money in order, of having the free time and ability to pursue what is fun, interesting and important to me is more important than stuff.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s important to enjoy your appearance, to have fun with it. I love clothes, makeup, accessories, even though they play a lesser role in my life. And I still think it’s important to express yourself. I’m not ready to lead an austere existence by any means. But if I’m buying something I don’t strictly, strictly need, I want it to be something that I’m going to enjoy. I want it to be something that makes me happy, rather than something that has the unwieldy, impossible task of making me feel less sad and bad about myself.
My credit cards don’t need to bear the weight of my self-esteem. And I work too hard to have to pay those bills. It’s hard enough out there as it is.