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When I moved to New York in 2002, still in the shadow of 9/11, I had a well-paying job at a corporate law firm. I also entered into a sudden and emotional relationship, the kind you only have when you are in your early twenties and new to New York and feel like love is a thing that will solve all of your problems. Even though he was a great guy, it didn't last. I remember what I wore when I realized it was finally over: a pink pleated skirt and midriff-baring t-shirt. Going to meet him for what would be our last conversation for a long time, I felt like Carrie Bradshaw: brave and ready to lay my heart on the table.
And so I began to shop as if I could buy the thing that would make everything better.
Needless to say, my bold move didn't work, and that loss multiplied into more losses, a dissolution of my identity. I grew increasingly dissatisfied at my job. I moved firms, hoping that a different environment would do the trick, but I had the same feeling, an illogical sense of dread and a sickening boredom that manifested deep in my intestines. And so I began to shop as if I could buy the thing that would make everything better. I shopped on my way home from work, during my lunch break, and online. I spent lonely Saturday afternoons at a local boutique where the salesladies would bring me things they thought I might like and hugged me like I was their friend.
I wasn't alone in this. My friends and I used to joke that shopping was a socially-appropriate way to express our feelings. As the mantra says "Treat yo' self!" But for me, it quickly became a crutch. Even in therapy for shopping, I thought about the shopping I could be doing and what I could be buying with the amount of money I was spending on therapy. The hunt for, say, the perfect navy jersey dress—not too prim, not too tight—took the place of sitting with my feelings. There was always something new to buy, another item to covet.
After a few years, the clothes were everywhere: piled behind the couch, stacked inside and on top of unused suitcases, pouring forth from underneath my bed. Many of them still had tags, wrapped in the pink and lavender tissue paper that the stores use to conceal your excesses, with the receipt discretely folded into thirds. There were frothy silk blouses with delicate ties and plush cashmere sweaters. Some were clothes for the lawyer I'd imagined I'd be: tailored pants and crisp blazers. (I used to model my attorney style after Angie Harmon's character on Law & Order.) Others were fitted dresses for cocktail dates I imagined I would attend.
Even in therapy for shopping, I thought about the shopping I could be doing.
Even worse than failing to discover anything useful about myself, I reached a level of debt that was unsustainable. I could barely make my minimum payments and, when I called to respond to a credit card offer in the mail, I was declined. Yet, I kept buying. I always found a way. One of my therapists told me that it was all about my sensory needs: that I needed more touch, that I was especially sensitive that way. She asked me to think back to sensations I enjoyed: the crispness of freshly-washed sheets, the satisfactory clink that beads made when I played with my necklace, the tears I shed when someone washed my hair at the salon.
One Saturday, I walked by a shop with a jet-black shearling coat in the window that I decided I needed to have. It was beautiful: lovely and plush, a calf-length hug. I couldn't afford it—it cost several thousand dollars—but I purchased it on a layaway plan, where I stopped by every few months to pay a few hundred dollars here or there. I'd only heard of layaway plans for furniture or appliances. I suppose for me that coat had the same sort of necessity. I wore it on an icy night in mid-February, slipping in heels outside a sake bar, on a tryst with an ex-boyfriend with whom I thought I'd again found love.
I can easily see how people might see me as privileged and selfish, and I felt that way, too. In some ways, it's unfair. I don't mean my particular situation, but rather the fact that the only words I could find for it felt stupid, whereas I didn't feel like a stupid person, only a very sad one. When I finally called a therapist for help, I could barely whisper into the phone that I thought I was a "compulsive shopper." I had gotten the term from a book that described ways to track and curb spending, which for me had all the appeal that calorie-counting has for a person who likes to eat. I hid the book in the very back of the cabinet underneath my TV, getting on my hands and knees to pull it out every so often, the same way I used to stash Mint Milanos underneath my bed in college.
The truth is that there's nothing funny or cute or charming or feminine about having trouble with money.
It's unfair, I think, because while people may have some sympathy for the overeater—or at least a vague patronizing view that they are "eating their feelings"—shopping as a way to deal with feelings has become almost normalized. It's even become something of a sport, to vicariously watch women shop on TV without much thought as to why and what part of themselves they are trying to fill. Shows like The Real Housewives franchise revel in letting viewers watch women buy things, totally frivolous things, extravagant things. People laugh, but there wasn't anything lighthearted about my situation. The truth is that there's nothing funny or cute or charming or feminine about having trouble with money.
I used to watch the TLC show What Not to Wear, and was always moved by the end when women cried as they wore clothes that for the first time represented who they wanted to be, not who they thought they were. Clothing is aspirational; it's a way to cloak ourselves and feel like someone different. It works up to a point, but it's not a permanent solution. Eventually, the clothes need to come off. Still, I desperately wanted to believe that I could transform myself.
During those nights watching What Not to Wear, I got the idea that I would sell of some of my clothes on eBay. It was a way for me to purge myself of the things that were beginning to feel oppressive, that were now becoming representative of all of the debt and sadness I struggled with. eBay also offered the benefit of anonymity—no one would need to know what I was doing. I chose a seller online ID that would have no association with my name: my favorite flower. I invested in some indestructible white Tyvek envelopes and tissue paper and got started taking photographs.
I started with the items I'd never worn, writing up descriptions using the eBay parlance, "NWT," "NWOT." The positive responses trickled in at first. eBay is self-policing, which means that buyers give you a seller rating and have the option of leaving a message about you as an eBay-er. More good comments lead to better sales. I began to get comments like, "A+++++," "Great seller, nice lady," "Love the pants!" My rating was, on the whole positive, aside from one person who complained that I sent her a pair of pants with a stain.
Emboldened by my success, I began to shed everything, addicted to the feeling of losing as much as I had been addicted to the cycle of buying.
Emboldened by my success, I began to shed everything, addicted to the feeling of losing as much as I had been addicted to the cycle of buying. The truth was that I didn't make that much money selling my clothes. Things that I had paid over $100 for were selling for around $12. But it did feel cathartic to drop the mound of envelopes off at the post office.
Then the emails starting coming from the buyers, personal messages about where they wore my clothes. Before getting these missives, I had pictured these women as faceless, like headless mannequins, or like the neck-down pictures I posted online of myself wearing my clothes. But I was wrong. It was a community of buyer and sellers, a personal exchange of recycling that was different from the sense of dropping of a trash bag at Buffalo Exchange.
One woman wrote that she wore a brown corduroy jacket with pink trim that I'd originally bought at a sample sale on her first date with her husband since the birth of her infant. Another wrote to say that she'd worn a brown pinstriped wool Theory suit on a lucky interview. A mother bought a Velvet strapless dress for her teenage daughter, and I wondered if a girl that young should wear such a flimsy top. I even sold the shearling coat, carefully packing it in a large box and sending it off for someone else to buy. I imagine her opening it up, putting it on and feeling the warm embrace of the soft, black fur, almost like the animal it had once been. Did she feel different now? I fervently hoped that she would have better luck than I had wearing it.
For a moment, her outsides had matched the way she wanted to feel on the inside, and maybe that was enough.
These notes were comforting to me in a difficult time. It was heartening to hear that my clothes were being worn by people who were enjoying them. I thought about these women, the ones on dates with their husbands, the bargain shoppers pleased with their purchases. The women who wore the jacket told me that she was so pleased to get such nice clothing for such a good price. She wanted me to know how happy she was. And I felt happy for her, picturing myself passing her on the street and recognizing my own clothes on someone else. "It looks better on you," my expression would say, and I would mean that I saw her, all of her, and she was okay.
I never wrote them back, although I kept the emails and re-read them sometimes. I imagined them as similar to the women on What Not to Wear, the ones who felt despair and hated their lives as well as their elastic-waist pants. Someone had put on that corduroy jacket and looked in a mirror, flipped her hair, and thought that she looked good. For a moment, her outsides had matched the way she wanted to feel on the inside, and maybe that was enough.
I didn't know these women, and they didn't know me. I don't know if they were young or old or somewhere in between, whether they still have the clothes they bought from me or whether they took them to Goodwill. They gave me a gift, though, an invitation into their lives and the very humanness and beauty of wanting to live as the person you think you really are. Clothes are sometimes just a costume, but they can also provide a way to explore another way of being. Their emails gave me hope that one day I might be able to get dressed, look in the mirror and see someone who had organized her clothes around her life, rather than the other way around. That I'd see in the mirror the same person I'd always been: flawed, perhaps, but also okay.