Why We Shop

At the end of the day, all we have is ourselves and what we’ve made.

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Guido Mieth/ Getty Images
Guido Mieth/ Getty Images

 To many, shopping is nothing more than a frivolous pursuit, a desperate attempt to acquire superficial trappings that denote success. However, if you look beyond the notions of immediate gratification via dopamine release, societal infatuation with egocentric gain and consumerism as an untenable pillar of our capitalist nation, what remains is actually a very noble quest for identity in an overwhelming world of constant flux.

Take a look at what you bought today. Whether it be an iPhone case or those flowers that caught your eye at Whole Foods, this purchase is an extension of some aspect of your personality that you’re trying to bolster. Perhaps it represents how you want others to see you or maybe you’ve associated it with who you want to be. In an age where confidence can crumble depending on Instagram likes, it comes as no surprise that we’re all seeking a tangible tactic to affirm our very own existence on a day to day basis.

When browsing any given store, the art of personal selection is practically cathartic because for that single moment we hold all the power. The staggering, stress-inducing responsibility to dexterously shape our lives gets reduced to a remarkably simple decision: to buy or not to buy? Swiftly, we exercise freedom of choice to customize our lifestyles as templates for a spectrum of failures and successes. This all hinges upon what we select; does it support or hinder us from manifesting our innermost desires on the physical plane? We must be overly cautious not to inadvertently endorse some self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s just say if you’re using that box of Godiva chocolate to replace the love you wish you had, good luck with that. I tried it myself in 2015 with the help of Postmates, and to this day I cringe upon hearing that dreaded question—“how many people in your party, miss?” I’d always make up some elaborate answer on the spot like how it’s my cousin’s surprise party but I forgot if she’s allergic to red velvet so please send a white cake too, just in case. And yes, there’s always the debate of want versus need. I’ve been called a spoiled brat due to my predilection for Balenciaga and an entitled, shallow snob for spending my spare time devouring Vogue. (Where the correlation between interest in aesthetic and lack of psychological depth is beyond me.) But for the purpose of this article, I’m asking you to look deep down inside and realize that if you’re going to buy something outside of yourself to fill some sort of existential void, you might as well go with Cartier.

My point is although items intrinsically carry meaning, their value is contingent upon who possesses them. We attach certain feelings and states of beings to our belongings and mentally fashion them to suit our liking by virtue of subconscious projection. We’ll truly be happy once we own that Birkin. I can feel like a celebrity when I put on my Tom Fords. My nail polish. My perfume. Possession becomes reassuring in and of itself because ownership automatically enables us to assume the dominant role in an ongoing one-sided relationship, albeit with an inanimate object. But what’s fascinating is that our favorite objects accumulate memories over time, so with each use we’re adding an additional experience to the vast repertoire it contains. Sort of like Pandora’s Box; you pull a childhood relic out of storage and are instantaneously hit with visceral flashbacks of when you got it for Christmas, the sheer terror you felt upon misplacing it after school, even the smell of that old toy chest it called home. This is automatic recall—you’ve endowed the toy with a baffling sort of power that undoubtedly has a magical sway over the current neural connections firing off in your hippocampus. Sometimes, even cleaning out your closet can turn into the Chronicles of Narnia because whether you left early in tears or went with the man you’re now married to, that prom dress becomes a portal to your past, each purse is linked to a certain period of your life, and believe it or not La Perla is part of your narrative. It’s up to you whether or not you’ll choose to utilize said garments as triggers to activate otherwise dormant regions of your memory and stimulate new neural connections based on their resurrected reveries.

Believe me, even the type of dish soap you pick says something about your character. Think about it: someone who prefers Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon Verbena is likely completely different from a Dawn Ultra Platinum or those who opt for an old-school bar of soap. One of the best aspects of shopping is that all prior input—from the media, our friends, parents—becomes irrelevant, and for but a brief instant it’s just you and your credit card. It’s fucking liberating; nobody’s dictating what brand of boxers or peanut butter you buy (unless you live with a micro-managing roommate or are financially dependent on your mother, in which case I’m very sorry but try Melody’s “Codependent No More”) let alone cares, so your favorite boutique becomes your very own narcissistic supply just like that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about narcissism in terms of the personality disorder or some toxic character defect. This is healthy narcissism; you know, the kind that tells you to stand up for yourself when that asshole at work makes yet another crude remark. It’s that little voice that tells you to go ahead and reward yourself for getting straight A’s with a trip to Sephora. According to Psychology Today, it’s “ecstatic joy in oneself,” and what renowned psychiatrist Margaret Mahler deems, a “love affair with the world.” In this sense, every item in your shopping bag has a unique purpose to validate and strengthen the nuanced facets of your identity. And in turn it’s you who will breathe life into them and determine their worth, not the other way around. On it’s own, it’s just a 3$ pen, but once you invest your experiences in it—once it’s enriched by the significance of your story—it’s priceless.

So what would happen if we were to get rid of all our belongings? What if the luxury of preference was removed and we were all forced to buy the exact same food, wear a uniform and live in identical homes akin to Communist Russia? Even though we’re innately capable of manifesting and ultimately safeguarding your identity regardless of the presence of external reinforcement, the impact would be monumental. We simply can’t help but develop a sense of security through our acquired possessions because they consistently mirror who we are, and above all reflect the type of person we strive to become. That’s why we take the time to pursue and purchase accoutrements fit to be canvases, on which we’ll create the lifestyle best suited for our unique ambitions. For at the end of the day all we have is ourselves and what we’ve made.

Think of the aspiring chef’s extensive pantry of spices or the beauty queen’s makeup cabinet. These are vital tools that accompany them throughout their journey toward self-realization. What is it that you need? What do you long for? What could possibly be the missing key to that door you’ve spent years trying to pry open? Your therapist probably posits that you’re merely trying to fill a void—something along the lines of loneliness, insecurity or dearth of what Martha Beck coins “your true north,” when ever you click “add to cart.” But I’m suggesting that it’s actually quite wonderful to procure the perfect accessories to complement your dream. Once you’ve found an indisputable array of specialized totems that anchor you to better reach your goals and help guide you along your path, you’ll be all the more prepared to tackle challenges and face the inevitable obstacles that await you.

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