In her new memoir, Spent, fashion journalist Avis Cardella shares her struggle with compulsive shopping—and how she eventually beat the habit. We asked her a few questions about why we shop, why she shopped and why we should all be more conscious about our spending.
There have been many compulsive shoppers throughout history, from Mary Todd Lincoln to Princess Di. Which do you most identify with, and why?
I can relate to many compulsive shoppers in different ways, but the shopper I feel I most identify with is Andy Warhol. Warhol was a compulsive shopper and something of a hoarder. Upon his death, his apartment was discovered to be over run with “stuff” including many unopened shopping bags. However, this isn’t why I relate to Warhol. I relate to Warhol because his art is based on desire and therefore on commerce. He understood commerce in this way—and he understood consuming.
This to me is thoroughly modern. Even though there have been reports of compulsive shoppers in the past, I think of this addiction as being modern. The scaffolds of social and economic supports that exist for a shopping addict to thrive are fascinating: easy credit, status chasing, shopping as entertainment, mall culture, are a few examples.
You mention the buying habits of celebrities, who conspicuously consume items like purses and shoes. Is this compulsive shopping, or someone who has the means simply indulging in collecting luxury items? Where do you draw the line between collection and compulsion?
Certainly, anyone who enjoys to shop and does so without any negative impact to his or her life is not a compulsive shopper. I do mention some celebrities in Spent, and their shopping habits, because I think we often look to celebrities for setting a standard. We want to see what they are buying and how much they are spending in order to emulate or approximate their style.
In terms of drawing a line, the thing mental health professionals say to look out for is when the shopping impinges on normal aspects of your life. If you obsess about shopping, if you are shopping when you should be working or taking care of other responsibilities, if you continually use shopping to avoid life and certainly if you are going into unmanageable debt, there is a problem.
Many Americans struggle to pay bills and afford basic necessities—were you worried that a shopping addiction might come across as frivolous to readers, or do you think the need to consume will resonate with everyone?
I wrote Spent because I wanted to understand why I had been consumed by the desire to consume. Why are we all consumed by desires to consume? I think many people today, not just shopping addicts, are questioning their relationship to spending and what fuels their desire to buy.
I was very conscious of the fact that shopping addiction has been depicted as being silly and frivolous in the media, and I wrote my story with honesty and seriousness because I know that it wasn’t frivolous at all. I believe this will resonate with a large part of the population.
How big a role do fashion and women's magazines play in the growing number of women with a shopping addiction? In your own story?
There is very interesting research and theory on this subject and I’ve only read a fraction of it. I think there’s so much to question and observe on this subject. For the sake of brevity, here I’ll just respond to my own situation. There was a point when I was shopping compulsively and my self-esteem was low, and I may have placed too much emphasis on the pursuit of the perfected images I saw in fashion magazines. I know from my own experience how easy it was to fall into this pattern. I realize that we are bombarded with perfected images today and mostly from advertising that relates obtaining a product to obtaining the perfected self.
Lately, magazines seem to be trying to address concerns about unrealistic images and their impact. One thing I’ve learned though, is that it is possible to simply read fashion magazines to instruct and inform about new things or something that may be relevant to your life and understand that those perfected images are not real.
Do you still write freelance articles for fashion magazines, or is researching and writing about the industry a “trigger”?
I do still work as a freelance writer but write about fashion infrequently. But writing about fashion is not a trigger for any compulsive shopping today. When I’ve analyzed my own shopping addiction I realized that the event that precipitated excessive shopping was my mother’s death. I couldn’t cope with that tragedy and shopping came to the rescue. It was an activity in which I could hide. Part of my hiding meant hiding behind a mask of perfection. Therefore, clothing, accessories, and cosmetics became the tools of creating that perfect me.
Today, I no longer feel that need to hide or desire to escape and this leaves me to relate to fashion in a healthier way. I love clothing and dressing up but not in order to avoid my feelings or my self. Sometimes I’m in a store and do worry if one purchase will set off an avalanche and I’ll want to buy the entire place. However, that has never happened. I think it’s just a residual feeling. I do wonder, at times, if an emotional trauma, could trigger shopping again. But I’m guessing that I’ve traveled far from where I was 20 years ago and it probably wouldn’t be the case.
Of the 1990s, you say "fashion had replaced drugs as the defining cultural pulse point of the decade." How do you think that changed (or did it) in the 2000s? What do you see fashion's role in society being during the 2010s?
There seem to be more ways to shop than ever! Online, on television, on your smart phone! 2010 looks like the year of exploding shopping opportunities. I think fashion and shopping is still a big cultural pulse point. I’ve noticed many things that indicate this is not going away anytime soon: hauling videos, reality shows about the fashion industry, websites such as polyvore.com where you can log on and be your own fashion editor.
That said, I do find more people talking about reevaluating their shopping. A consciousness about what acquiring all this “stuff” means, to us as a culture is creeping into more conversations. I’m hoping to open a dialogue on this: What is the difference between wanting and needing? When do we have enough? What are we searching for? I do still enjoy fashion and shopping and have found a healthier relationship to both. So, I know it is possible to rethink our relationship to consuming.
Describe the moment when you realized the depth of your problem with shopping.
I think the moment in the beginning of my book when I’m buying all that lingerie was when I realized I was in trouble. I wanted to believe that shopping was normal and that the way I related to it was perfectly normal. But that day, as I walked out of Barneys with my 20 pairs of underwear, and various other items, in my black glossy bag, it struck me that that kind of shopping was anything but normal.
At the end of Spent, you write about your shopping habits now—you allow yourself to “truly desire” something before making a purchase. Are there any items you currently have your heart set on? What designers or types of clothing/accessories are you drawn to today?
I’ve been so immersed in my book promotion and tour that I really have not had too much time to think about wanting anything! Regarding what I’m drawn to, I find myself drawn to things that have longevity. For example, a classic handbag that I’ll wear for years as opposed to the latest “it.” item. So my mandate now is craftsmanship, good materials and good design. I’m not as interested in a particular label as I am in things being well designed and well made.
You often talk about the way you used clothes to try on different personas and figure out who you were. What do you think your clothes say about you now?
I wear more color now and I think that’s a reflection of my being a happier person.