“I want you to admire me for my style of consumption” – The Case for Tantric Shopping

“You have to buy that dress, it is so you”!

My daughter’s exclamation isn’t making it any easier for me to resist temptation. I’m trapped in the dialogues between myself and the mirror image; myself and my pocket-book; and myself and the other (represented by my daughter in this case). There’s a major negotiation going on inside my head, where I’m debating economy, self-identity, sustainability as well as what makes me feel good. And it’s never easy to tell the outcome beforehand.

Girls of  all ages spend a great deal of time  looking for that perfect match. I’m not talking about the mister Rights, or the Mister Right-Nows (or “miss Rights” to avoid being orientation-biased); rather, I’m pointing to the time  dedicated to finding that one dress that will make you feel pretty or sexy or different or part of a group; exactly what you need at a given moment. If television is any reflection at all of reality, the right dress, or shoes or interior design, don’t just keep us warm and dry and gives a place to sit or sleep; they give us an identity, tell others who we are, and, if things go right, change our whole outlook on life (for the better, one hopes).

The great success of the “Shopaholic” book-series relies heavily on how women identify themselves in the thinking of Rebecca Bloomwood. She’s like us, when we’re in that shopping mood, she’s just more eloquent about it:

A man will never love you or treat you as well as a store. If a man doesn’t fit, you can’t exchange him seven days later for a gorgeous cashmere sweater. And a store always smells good. A store can awaken a lust for things you never even knew you needed. And when your fingers first grasp those shiny, new bags… oh yes… oh yes. (Confessions of a shopaholic)

I smiled my way through the first book of the series, and I saw myself in certain moments of my life : that swimsuit addiction I had in my first year of university, awarding myself a new swimsuit whenever I felt a bit down; the deep connection I’ve felt with certain small boutiques, where I may have been able to buy just one item, but even being there gave me solace.

Over the years I’ve turned into more of a surgical shopper, who determines need, decides to intervene, goes in, and closes up; but I still enjoy window shopping at night, commenting on the esthetics of display windows with whoever I’m with. So while I’m no shopaholic, I’m someone who definitely feels the allure of a good cut, a flattering colour, and that intoxicating feeling of new shoes.

The shopping itch, however, usually comes with a sour aftertaste. The psychological “high” you get from shopping, can give serious lows once you get home: because you overspent; because in a different light that colour makes you look like a vampire; because you remember you already have a similar pink t-shirt; because your friends don’t seem to value what you bought. Shopping hangovers usually last longer than hangovers from too much wine, and frequently give headaches too.

Beyond our personal shopping failures, shopping has even more far-reaching consequences. Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report 2010 deals with the effects of consumerism on the environment. Under the subtitle “Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability“, it  tries to chart a path away from what Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin calls “the consumer culture that has taken hold, first in the U.S. and now in country after country over the past century”.

This consumerist culture is the elephant in the room when it comes to solving the big environmental issues of today, the report says, and those issues cannot be fully solved until a transition to a more sustainable culture is begun. The motor of the world economy has been American consumption. Our culture and politics are centered on it, and ever-increasing levels of consumption has built the US economy. Our economic structures are dependent on consumption, and consumption, at a personal and symbolic level, expresses who we are socially, and is an important ritual that binds us together with our families and peers.

The impetus to change our style and volume of consumption is in this way hindered, both on a political and on a personal, psychological level. It would be political suicide to implement policies that effectively put obstacles in the way of consumption, since economic growth, in its current definition, relies on growth in consumption. And giving up shopping, cold-turkey, even when done by the most convinced, is hard because it challenges so many of our social relationships, our traditions and rituals.

According to the sociologist Giddens, cultural meanings are necessarily embodied (or ‘encoded’) in every object we make. In acquiring or using (consuming) goods, we associate ourselves with the meanings embedded in those goods. These adopted meanings therefore become part of the perceived ‘self’. We use these goods and services to tell others who we are, what others in our social group mean to us, and to gain status, respect,
admiration, a sense of belonging etc.

So what can we do about our addiction to consumerism that doesn’t leave us “naked” of the symbolic meaning of our shopping?

There are 2 primary problems our shopping-habit poses:

First of all – the fact that most of our consumption becomes trash within an embarrassingly short time. According to the short film “The Story of Stuff“, 99% of what we buy is no longer in use after 6 months.  The cost of this very short life-cycle on the environment; on our resources; on our landfills, is tremendous.

Secondly, the joy of shopping and the self-expression that comes with it, is very short-lived. Reality TV tells us daily how hard it is for people to deal with all the stuff they have, how we get overwhelmed, how we still wake up with “I’ve nothing to wear” even right after a shopping spree, how we don’t know where to put our stuff.

The political solution to our over-consumption would be adding taxes to pay for the real environmental cost of the products we buy, or even making laws that make some products not even reach our shelves. If we had to pay for the real cost to the environment of the plastic stuff from the dollar store that breaks after 2 days, it wouldn’t be so convenient anymore.

On a woman-to-woman level, I don’t see banning shopping all together as feasible. There is too much cultural meaning attached to shopping for that to be a sellable idea. But shopping as a frenetic leisure activity, where we shop as if we were buying fast-food, doesn’t give us much long-lasting pleasure either, so maybe we need to restructure our shopping habits instead.

Buying stuff in a hurry, without any knowledge of where it comes from, with no attachment to its production process, often feeling guilty and unsatisfied afterwards, has a lot in common with one-night stands.

You believe there’ll be satisfaction, and indeed there is some, but it’s neither long-lasting, nor something that makes you proud.

And that brings me to my tag-line. The slow-food movement has brought attention and credibility to the fact that food is more than filling your stomach to keep you going, and to the fact that real enjoyment comes with the rituals and preparations that surround eating. “Slow shopping”, though, is a term that doesn’t ring quite right. I’d propose “tantric shopping” as better expression, not only because it reminds me of Sting and his 8-hour Tantric sessions, but because it stresses the tension between doing – and not  doing – as an intrinsic part of the act, and it is much less concerned with the quick and final climax (“buying the object”- in shopping terms).

Thinking of shopping as a tantric experience will inevitably make you shop less. You’ll feel the need to know about what you buy, understand whose hands and what materials produced it (probably turning you away from some very “unfair trade” goods). You’ll stop yourself more often to reflect, and in the end the satisfaction will be much greater.

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~ by Hege on August 20, 2010.

One Response to ““I want you to admire me for my style of consumption” – The Case for Tantric Shopping”

  1. As brilliant as I felt when putting together the term “tantric shopping”, I discovered after writing it that there was indeed someone before me, who had had the very same thought: http://www.frugallawstudent.com/2007/09/20/tantric-shopping-in-practice-i-want-a-macbook/

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