When my Mum watched the screen adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s novel Confessions of a Shopaholic for the first time, she exclaimed: “Oh my God! That is so you!” And she was right: I love shopping and I could immediately identify and sympathize with Becky Bloomwood, Kinsella’s protagonist, when I read the books.
But Becky and me are not the only ones. There are a lot of shopaholics out there and sociologist Thorstein Veblen came up with a good explanation for what we are doing: He called it conspicuous consumption.
The idea is that in pre-capitalist societies you defined yourself by what you were doing. But then capitalism kicked in and your job was no longer a sufficient source of self-definition. This is why people started consuming goods and defining themselves in the act of consumption rather than in the act of production.
I just re-watched the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic and they pick up this idea quite literally when Becky’s father offers to sell his beloved caravan in order to make up for his daughter’s debts. She rejects this proposal, arguing that the caravan is what defines her father. It doesn’t matter whether it is a good bottle of 18-year-old Scotch, a Louis Vuitton bag, or a can of Red Bull: you always engage in acts of conspicuous consumption and define yourself by what you are drinking, wearing, or driving.
In 1999, famous photographer Andreas Gursky took a photo of a 99 cent store playing on Karl Marx’s* distinction between use value and exchange value. Although the exchange value of every article in this store is 99 cent, the use value can vary. You can decide whether you want to buy a bar of chocolate or a bag of crisps, depending on your immediate longings. If you fancy something sweet, then the bar of chocolate’s use value will be slightly higher than the bag of crisp’s one. When you’re starving the use value of a bag of crisps will even be extremely higher than the use value of a diamond although the latter’s exchange value is so much higher. Along these lines, it is also interesting to note that Gursky’s photo sold for 3.34 million dollars despite it being a representation of a place filled with goods of a very low exchange value.
See what I’m getting at? Becky, me and our fellow shopaholics consume because we attach a certain value – or rather: an expectation – to goods. We want the perfect pencil skirt to get us the job in a job interview, we want the statement necklace to get the attention of the boy we like, and we adore a simple coffee mug because it was the present of a very good friend. And as Freud already knew: the more obstacles between yourself and the object of your desire, the more you long for it. This is why exclusivity is so important when it comes to brands and why a lot of women spend ages on a waiting list for a Birkin Bag.
But just as French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued, the fulfillment of desire can never be achieved. Whenever you find the perfect pair of shoes you feel a short moment of jouissance, i. e. the feeling of perfect bliss and the illusion that you are now a perfect human being, but you will soon recognize that the shoes cannot make up for your imperfections and do not change who you are… which is why you continue consuming. Shopaholic Becky Bloomwood also alludes to this theory when she tells her love interest, Luke Brandon, that she feels so good after a successful shopping tour but that this feeling quickly dissolves and then she has to do it again.
In the movie, however, Becky Bloomwood can actually stop shopping and walks around in borrowed dresses and last season heels in the end. You wonder how she did it? Well, she found love. This is the problematic ideology behind the shopaholic narrative: as soon as you find real love you are actually whole again and can stop engaging in acts of conspicuous consumption. Now your partner defines you and not your designer purse.
Luckily for me, I know that the original Becky (of the novels) did not stop consuming bags, shoes and jewelry after meeting Luke Brandon. This is why I will always have a good excuse for shopping sprees: I just need this new (enter whichever object you like) because it is so me!
* The mention of Karl Marx is in dedication to a good friend who e-mailed me a page of Marx’s capital for my last birthday. To me the use value of this page will always be much higher than its exchange value. 😉