In a shoe shop in Paris recently, I watched a young Chinese woman struggle to choose between two pairs of practically identical trainers. An exasperated sales assistant muttered that the shopper had been there for two hours. When the woman finally left, carrying one pair (but still looking uncertain) I urged the sales staff to be sympathetic. “It’s la maladie du shopping,” I said.
I should know. I have a version of shopping sickness, too. I’m certain of my purchase while I’m in the store but by the next day – or at 3am – I regret it. Usually I sheepishly bring the item back, then fret about my envelope of about-to-expire store credits. Even using a credit doesn’t end the agony: I can spend the same €80 multiple times. (Salespeople cringe when I walk in again.)
I know it’s absurd to waste my time and money like this. I’d net far more pleasure from a film or book. In theory, I’d even rather exercise. And, of course, I already have a wardrobe full of clothes and shoes. Each piece was bought with the same care and anguish.
Some women treat shopping more rationally. A friend of mine buys nine pair of shoes each year, all at once. She knows her size and favourite brand, and negotiates a bulk discount. She’s so confident, she doesn’t even take the boxes. The whole procedure takes her just over an hour.
I suspect those of us with la maladie are more focused on the process than the outcome. Each purchase is the culmination of a mini love affair. I can spot a dress across a crowded store, approach to admire it, come back to try it on, think about it at night and then finally return to take possession. Once the dress is in my wardrobe, however, it often loses lustre. It’s just another conquest.
Shopping also induces a rare meditative state. In the rest of my life I’m easily distracted. But when I’m considering whether to buy that pair of silver sandals, nothing else exists. A good salesperson is like a therapist, probing the question with me. There’s a reason why in-store cafés mainly serve salads: like monks subsisting on broth, women in the throes of shopping barely need to eat.
The deepest pull of shopping lies in its promise of transformation. The hunt for the perfect trench coat is a hero’s journey – one of the few sanctioned in modern, middle-class life. We enter a “changing room” and emerge wearing something that we hope will defy age and body type. In that moment, in front of a full-length mirror, we are ourselves – perfected. Never mind that this feeling didn’t last the previous time. The next purchase promises to be life-changing.
You could call la maladie du shopping an addiction. The amount I’m willing to spend on a pair of jeans keeps increasing. I frequently hide purchases from my husband. I’m not in credit-card debt, thanks to all the returns. But I recently caught myself calculating that enrolling my sons in a fee-paying school next year will mean less disposable income to buy handbags. Maybe state school isn’t so bad?
A fellow addict I know forced herself to stop: she didn’t buy anything new for a year. By the end, the urge to shop was mostly gone; all she wanted were new cushions for her couch. I’m thinking of going cold turkey too. But first I want to try on those silver sandals again. They may be just the thing I really need.•