Notes on Desire – Shopping to Fill a Void

Fashion Magazine

Fashion Magazine

Desire is one of life’s great motivators. When we get beyond basic needs, what we desire can bring great pleasure. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to think of the desire to shop as problematic. Psychiatric professionals will tell you that a lack of all desire is a sign of depression. But what happens when the opposite occurs, when our desires run amok? What happens when we find ourselves shopping compulsively, or hoarding ourselves into personal problems and credit card debt? How do we explain that?

For many years, my own shopping addiction was marked by impulsive desires, “the grab and the get.” But this was during the late 90’s when retail therapy was considered perfectly acceptable. In fact, the more I shopped, the more I found myself praised. Collectively, we all seemed to be yearning for “stuff.” Getting and spending was a form of entertainment. Together, friends “shopped ‘til they dropped.” More was more… at least for the moment.

And yet, at some point I knew that more was never going to be enough. I realized that the things that were supposed to make me happy did not. There was an ever-widening gap between the things I bought and the pleasure derived from them. I had a closet full of unworn clothing and shoes. My unmanageable credit card bills only added insult to injury. What was I really shopping for anyway?

Author Siri Hustvedt writes in her essay, Variations on Desire, “Desire appears as a feeling…. but it’s always a hunger for something, and it always propels us somewhere else, toward the thing that is missing.”

Stories abound about compulsive shoppers searching for that missing something. One of cinema’s most famous productions, Citizen Kane, revolves around the story of one man’s search for a mysterious object, the elusive Rosebud. The film, reportedly, was loosely based on the life of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who is known to have been a raging shopaholic. In his lifetime, Hearst acquired a vast art collection, furniture and objects. He leased storage spaces all across New York City to house his acquisitions. As it happens, for over a decade I lived directly across the street from the Hearst Tower in Midtown Manhattan. I often looked at the building’s cast stone façade from the window of my tiny studio apartment. I watched the incremental changes take place in the tower as it was being rebuilt. Today, the new building houses the offices of the Hearst magazine empire.

Clinical professionals say there are myriad reasons why someone might become a compulsive shopper: an emotional void in childhood, low self-esteem or a need for control. These are just a few examples. And yet, since I was a teenager I loved to shop, especially for clothing. I loved to read fashion magazines too. It was only after my mother’s sudden and untimely death that I began to shop compulsively. Had there always been a trigger there waiting to be pulled? A need, a void? I had no idea. I only wanted to know how to bring my desires into balance once again.

By then, the world seemed to be condoning and encouraging impulse purchases. Sex and The City was all the rage; Carrie routinely overspent. Post 9/11 saw Mayor Giuliani rallying New Yorkers to get out and shop.

Strangely, that was one time when I did not feel like shopping. So, I didn’t.

I stayed home and built a pyramid of photographs, family snapshots, and hung this on my wall. I went for long walks in Central Park. I worked hard to reduce my debt. I shut off the noise of consumer culture chatter and listened to myself.

Eventually, I felt the urge to clean out my closet. One last poignant attempt to search for what was missing in all that had been purchased over the years. Of course, what was missing was not there.

But in the end, this desire served its purpose. I would move out of that apartment and move on with my life. I would finally know what I had been hungering for.

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