By Ruth Nemzoff
I prided myself on not liking shopping. I was above that sort of material focus. Then my house in the Boston suburbs burned down. Left with only the acrid smelling clothes on my back, I had to go shopping, like it or not. I didn’t even have a change of undies! A privileged problem, I acknowledge.
Some friends sent me to upscale shops with personal shoppers. Others sent me to discount stores. My favorites were the stores with communal dressing rooms where I learned that shopping is far more than material acquisition. It touches on our insecurities, forces us to question our place in society, and allows us to bond with others.
Communal dressing rooms are a chance to enter the lives of strangers. I heard about upcoming weddings and all the decision-making around the color of the dress, the style; I also heard the family’s worries about the new in-laws. I learned that shopping can be a social event, far less fattening than eating (unless you make a stop at the food court). I learned the thrill of the chase; there’s an adrenaline rush when you find the “perfect” dress.
Shopping is a way of letting people into your life and an opportunity for friends to come together, stripped not only of their clothes but of their titles (mom, lawyer, doctor, waitress, cleaner) and roles. What better way to grow a friendship than to share your dreams.
Sometimes we shop because we are moving to a new stage of life, and bringing friends allows us to pilot our message before it goes to prime time. When I was elected to the New Hampshire State legislature, my go-to-attire was jeans covered with peanut butter stains, a peace sign, and a plaid shirt. That changed when I entered the legislature. The first thing I did was buy some business suits, sensing that dressing, like the packaging of my views, is a political act. I needed old friends to assure me that the new me was still the ‘real” me. I was trying on a new self-image, not just a new suit.
For my book tours, I felt the need to swap my buttoned-up persona for a breezier, artsier (yet still authoritative!) me. Without my friends I would have dressed like Madonna or Margaret Thatcher, two extremes I hoped to avoid! Describing my desired “look” to my friends required sharing how exposed I felt by the writing and promotions process. On the one hand, I wanted people to read my books. On the other hand, I feared they would not like them … or me. Though our outings were officially just to find speaking clothes, the discussion surrounding every minute choice gave me opportunities to share my insecurities and build closer ties.
Shopping allows us to create memories and share in big events, even if we won’t be present. Once, I helped a flutist select a glamorous-but-not-too-flashy dress for her upcoming appearance with the symphony, and read a review of her performance in the newspaper weeks later. I had not attended the performance, or ever heard her play, but I still felt like part of the show.
Insecurities come out during shopping no matter one’s body type. Any of us can look stunning or sloppy. In recent years, stores have been expanding their repertoires to include styles specifically designed for different types of bodies — curvy women, big women, skinny women, anyone can feel beautiful in the right fabric. Clothes to the rescue! I have overheard teenage girls gabbing about how they want to have plastic surgery so they don’t “look like a whale.” In well-designed clothing, anyone can look and feel pretty; no bodies are ugly, and dressing can allow us to transform daily. It’s far cheaper than plastic surgery, and a lot less painful.
In the dressing room, we envision our futures, but can also reunite with our pasts. It allows us to be kids playing dress-up again. I have overheard mothers-of-the-bride giggling as they try on different outfits, imagining themselves in their new role: Frumpy or classy? Sexy or past expiration? I have seen grandmothers preparing for Halloween, excited to be the neighborhood’s most evil hag or benevolent godmother: They are anticipating the chance to play a fleeting, temporary new personality.
My supercilious aversion to shopping melted as I learned that materialism can mix with genuine bonding.
Ruth Nemzoff , www.ruthnemzoff.com
Resident Scholar, Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center
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