Making Room in My Mind: Notes from The First Quarter of A Year of No Shopping

In December, I was casting about for my 2018 annual challenge, when Ann Patchett’s article about her year of not shopping scrolled before my eyes. Before I’d finished reading, I knew, this was it. I’m now three months in, with no shopping for clothes, shoes, handbags or jewelry. And I feel cleaner, as if I’d cut something pleasurable, yet toxic, out of my diet.

If you had the same reaction — greetings to you fellow not-shopper. How is the year going?

With my few remaining week of 2017, I tried to settle into the psychological commitment. I also freaked out. Result: a serial shopping spree sprinting toward December 31. Like binge eating, by the time year-end came I was spreed-out. I had made myself a little sick.

I bought a black dress I didn’t need, but thought, hey, last new black dress for a while and when isn’t a black dress handy? I bought a blouse, a pair of shoes, five pairs of socks, three sweaters and a white and grey scarf that had a tiny dirt mark, which earned me a paltry 10% discount. I accidentally cut a tiny hole in my new scarf while trying to remove the tag.

The last item I bought was a pair of midnight blue velvet pants.

I had been looking for the perfect pair of black pants that would fill the spot that no other of my several pairs of black pants filled. I think of that spot as the black(pants)hole in my psyche, a phenomenon that Stephen Hawking had not yet investigated.

The midnight velvets arrived. They fit. But they were a shorter leg than I’d realized. And they had a snap closure at the waist, instead of a button. A snap waist is calculated to make a person feel fat. I don’t think it matters who you are, every time you bend at the waist in a pair of skinny pants, the snap is going to pop. I took the pants to be repaired and added a hook and eye closure; for the obvious practical reason. Also, to salve my embattled self-image, which unsnapped each time my pants did.

Between the snap and the hole in my new scarf, I felt like the universe was sending me a message: Stop your careless consumption.

Maybe you’re thinking — well she just had a shopping problem. Yes. Our society is fueled by consumer desire. Ubiquitous marketing targets our shortage of self-esteem, offering to redeem all our shortcomings and sadnesses with seven must-haves for the season. Most of my friends are surprised, when I’ve mentioned my challenge. One said she didn’t think shopping was the issue I should be targeting. I wasn’t brave enough to ask her what issue she thought I ought to be concerned about. Most asked me why, saying they weren’t aware that I shopped a lot. I’ll come back to that.

For all of January the persistent sidebar ads on my email account were for perfect black pants.

By February the perfect black pant sidebars had fallen away and were replaced by several brands I’d never heard of and that seemed to be aimed at women who have substantial cleavage. Rotita. LinkShe. I finally started clicking on the ads and reporting them as offensive. I was tired of looking at other women’s ample bosoms out of the corner of my eye as I was checking email and feeling self-conscious about my small breasts. The ads persist. At least the clothes they offer aren’t tempting.

Because, I am tempted. There are a lot of interstitial moments (like the moment now, when I’m writing this] when I know I might have “relaxed” by looking at some favourite online shop. But I’m not. There are days when I’m low and I think about how I might have used a purchase as a pick-me-up, or as an anti-aging remedy. There are days when I’m happy and I think about how I might have used a purchase as a celebration. But I don’t. I don’t even look.

You know how the day after you get better from the flu you feel clear, if a little fragile? That’s how I feel.

I’ve experienced a release from the occasional feverish nausea of shopping — the cycle of want-want-want, which is often followed by at least some consumption guilt.

I’m relieved by the simplicity of not shopping. Of walking past a store, admiring the window, and knowing that I’m not going to consider whether I want to own any of the display. I still enjoy window shopping; clicking through red carpet slideshows, admiring someone’s style. I love fashion.

So far I’m looking without provoking that needy angst, so common in the past. The rush of if-only-I-owned-that, as my desire tries to convince me that some piece of clothing is a wardrobe necessity, that it will fill some gaping hole, that it will endow me with the qualities of the person I saw wearing the item. Even if, for example, that quality is youth.

Though I never believed I spent a lot of time shopping, the days feel more spacious. I’ve always been a reader, but now I have even more time to browse online publications, the way I used to browse shops.

I’ve developed a renewed love for what I have in my closet. Shopping my closet is like making a meal out of what’s in the fridge; instead of buying more food and letting what’s already there go bad.

Having a limited wardrobe is like eating to 80% full. I take time to savor every bite. It feels more important now that I maximize my pleasure in what I have. I wear things multiple days in a row, just because I feel good in them. My partner doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s jumped on board and reports his own psychological findings to me. As for my friends, I don’t judge them for wearing something I’ve already seen. In fact, I appreciate the pleasure of seeing it again. I wonder why I felt like I needed to try to wear something different every time I saw a friend. Is it possible that not shopping can inoculate me, even a little, against society’s endemic affluenza and status anxiety?

If so, the vaccine is taking some time to have its complete effect. Earlier, I mentioned that some people have said to me, Oh you don’t seem like a person who shops a lot.

Ouch. Are they saying that I’m unfashionable? Do they not understand how curated I think my wardrobe is? How attached I apparently am to people thinking that I’m stylish?

This made me think about my style. Over time, I’ve purposely chosen a few simple recurring elements, from which I rarely stray, so that I can shortcut my shopping and dressing process. Black matches black. And doesn’t show sweat.

Here’s what I came up with to describe my style: streamlined-moto-chic. I imagine myself as the equivalent of the matte black Audi owned by the dubious, but ultimately good heroine in a double-cross heist film. An aspirational self-perception.

I’m mindful that what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside. But … big but … what is on the outside does reflect the inside. The tricky part is to find the balance of content and packaging, to not be one thing to the exclusion of the other. I believe in the importance of aesthetics as a source of beauty, pleasure and harmony. At the same time, I believe in ease and efficiency, leaving time to be physically, emotionally and intellectually engaged, to learn new things, to be curious.

I recently came across an art happening called JUMPSUIT. Two artists have designed a coverall jumpsuit, available in a broad range of fabrics. They are challenging people to buy the monogarment and throw out the rest of their wardrobe. While I appreciate the cute-Marxist look, as something to wear 365 days a year, it starves my eyes. A good reminder of why I make my choices in the balance of content and packaging.

Does it seem like I’m giving this whole what’s my style question way too much thought? I used to worry about that. Then the artist Georgia O’Keefe gave me permission to be as particular and intentional about my style as I wanted. If I’m not specific, I risk spending a lot of time on something that doesn’t merit the attention. And isn’t that often the problem with shopping? The process reels you in to a self-perpetrated and perpetuating merry-go-round of unfulfilled cravings, of possible selves.

Who am I? How do I want to be in the world? Those are important questions, from aesthetics to action.

Not shopping gives me more space to notice what I think and how I feel, because I’m not anxiously consuming. And though the not-shopping-for list of items is limited, I find that I’m more aware of every purchase I make now, from new ski balm to the replacement seltzer maker when the old one broke.

It’s only been three months with no new clothes, shoes etc… Winter months. Better not to think ahead to spring, when it’s likely a surge of desire will well up inside to own some open-toe something in a fresh colour or the perfect lightweight black pants.

Even though, of course, I have plenty.