Monday, April 12, 2010

Failure to shop as pathology?

Dear Prudence has received a letter from a man with a problem I'd have thought inconceivable: he's annoyed (see the first letter) that his wife refuses to shop for new clothes. I'd always thought that the role of men in heterosexual relationships was, among other things, that of cheapness-promoters. "Do you really need another pair of black boots?" Clich├ęd, yes, but I've found it's often altogether true. Men may spend elsewhere, but women notice subtle differences in clothing that causes many of us to buy what seems to many men to be a replica of that which we already own.

Anyway, the letter seems quite obviously to be about more than a mom feeling cozier in sweats. There's the question of why this woman wears rags to a wedding, and on the other hand of why her husband cares that she hasn't worn earrings in years. I mean, I have a tendency to lose earrings, and so tend not to wear any, but can't imagine my boyfriend or any other man noticing either way. I could imagine a man being upset if his wife stopped, say, showering, or gained 300 pounds. But who cares what their partner wears in public, unless it's at a meeting for your work or something like that? The guy seems way too concerned about non-problems (again, earrings?) while the woman seems truly uninterested in dressing up. What's her deal?

The husband hints at the possibility that it's about weight - his wife is not as thin as she once was, but not large, either. Could be. Or, as some commenters suggest, it could be depression.

Another possibility: Cheaporexia. Not as in anorexia, but as in orthorexia - the eating disorder less about self-starvation than about an attempt to eat healthfully taken too far. Women are stereotyped as shopaholics, wanting new clothes whenever possible. But we've been told that this is wrong.

Not only is buying new clothing frivolous and vain, confirming all the worst stereotypes about women, but it supports child labor (who if not an oppressed four-year-old made that new dress you're admiring in the shop window?) and contributes to landfills. Think of the environment! Moreover, money spent on personal appearance could just as easily be donated to Haiti relief or one's savings account, depending where one's guilt primarily lies. Sure, we all want to look appropriate at work, and no one's faulted for owning a suit for meetings when in theory sweatpants would do. But gratuitous clothes-shopping is, in our culture, sin, a particularly despised subset of gratuitous spending more generally.

The ideal woman would look amazing - stylish, put-together, well-groomed - but not shop. (A bit like the new idea that the perfect woman is one who's a cover model even without airbrushing - this, when the anti-airbrushing brigade is ostensibly all about making all women feel better about their own looks!) It could be that, on some level, the wife in the Prudie letter suspects that by not shopping, she's in fact more appealing - to her husband or more generally - than she would be if she did what her husband ostensibly wants. Because yes, he wants her in a nice dress, but does he want her coming home with shopping bags? Or, two dresses later, would there be a Lucy-and-the-hats situation?


PG said...

But who cares what their partner wears in public, unless it's at a meeting for your work or something like that?

Lots of people, I would think. Part of whether one looks attractive is based on one's clothing, and let's be honest, most of us don't like others to think that we were unable to get an attractive partner. And as with the wedding, it's also about showing that one obtained a partner who's capable of following the conventional social graces. If a woman had attended my wedding reception in khakis and sweater (and if I'd been alert enough after three days with a total of 8 hours sleep), I admit I would judge her negatively because it would give me the impression that she didn't care enough about this event to make the effort to dress as expected.

It's not just constrained to one's partner, either; when she spent more time at home, my older sister sometimes laid clothes out for my dad if she knew she was going somewhere nice (expensive restaurant, theater, etc.) with him. My little sister does the same thing with me if I'm going anywhere cool (bar-hopping, dancing) with her. I think this is a combination of wanting someone you love to be judged positively by others, and of wanting not to be judged negatively for your association with the loved one.

PG said...

Also, I'm skeptical of your analysis that this woman is just trying to live up to her husband's/society's desire that women not shop. My husband sometimes wishes that I wouldn't shop for clothes so much, but solely because he feels crowded out of the closet and bureau. His desire that I stop shopping for the kitchen (which probably is too small for the number of muffin pans and measuring gadgets I've acquired lately in my housewife phase if you object to storing stuff in the oven) is greater than his desire that I stop shopping for clothes.

To relate back to my first comment, if we are traveling and he wants to engage in an activity for which I didn't pack (going to the beach/pool; going to a club), he actively encourages and even participates in my clothes shopping. In contrast, since he's just as happy to get food delivered as to have me make it (possibly happier, since if I cook he feels obliged to help wash up), there's never a situation in which he says, "Let's go buy you a casserole dish."

To sum up, while spouses/society might find shopping sinful, they find one's looking slobby or inappropriate-for-the-venue much worse.

Phoebe said...


Honestly? I think the woman sounds depressed, and that you're totally right about people wanting their partners to look decent in public. The letter's a bit all over the place - I felt for the guy re: the wedding outfit, but 'she hasn't worn earrings in years' just seems like nitpicking. Assuming the wife is not in fact mentally ill, the problem seemed to be less about her refusal to shop than her refusal to dig up some more formal (than pajamas) outfits she already owned. It did strike me as odd that the husband referred to his issue as being that he wishes his wife would shop. In this, he did strike me as being a bit different from most men in this regard, above and beyond wanting his wife to look reasonable around other people.

Anyway, I do think there's pressure on women to both look as though they shop but not to actually go and do so. Same goes for the pressure to eat 'like a man' while maintaining a figure that suggests otherwise. Your dynamic with your husband notwithstanding, I think, from anecdotal evidence, that the woman-shops-and-man-rolls-eyes scenario is widespread. But do any women actually avoid shopping to this sort of extreme to please a husband or boyfriend? No, probably not.

PG said...

the problem seemed to be less about her refusal to shop than her refusal to dig up some more formal (than pajamas) outfits she already owned

If she's gained weight, the outfits she already owned may not fit anymore. I was at a post-pubescent low weight when I first met my husband, and have gained about 20 lbs. in the 5 years since then. If I hadn't shopped in the intervening time, I'd be wearing a cup size too small and pants that strained at the seams. I still have the clothes from 2 sizes ago (they're useful for when my little sister is going through a "fat" phase and needs to borrow stuff, and of course I can always hope that I'll get back to that size), but I'd look horrible in them right now: 10 lb. sausage in a 5 lb. bag, as someone once put it.

The thing about earrings is a little odd, but this guy might have a particular thing for that. I know guys who notice pedicures.

Phoebe said...


You're right that if she's gained too much weight to fit into any of her old clothes, that's not an option. But if she could dig up the khakis, surely some loose sheath-dress type thing is in a bin somewhere? So much of formality in dress is in styling choices, rather than in actually needing to go out and buy something in a different style or size. I mean, if this woman literally does not have anything but sweats she can fit into, fair enough. But it sounds, from the khaki story, like some choice is involved.

There's obviously a difference between the husband having a "particular thing for" certain details and the wife looking altogether inappropriate. These seem like two separate questions, one about the man preferring specifics, another about reasonableness, sanity, etc. The conflation of the two is probably why I found the letter so confusing.

Britta said...

I'm surprised, given that you're dating a European, that you feel like men don't like to shop. I feel like that stereotype is particularly true of American men, but less true of men in general. I'm dating a metrosexual, who definitely loves shopping more than me. He also critiques my wardrobe from a fashion perspective (e.g. that shirt doesn't go with your skin tone) all the time, and both tells me I need to go out and buy new clothes and likes to go shopping with me. That's possibly one extreme, but I do think the "men don't spend money on clothes, women do" trope is just a stereotype.

I also think, in terms of actual money, men may spend a similar amount, because men's clothes just seem more expensive than women's clothing, e.g. suits cost more than dresses, and I don't see a lot of $6 t-shirts for men, though I may be totally wrong about that. I do have H&M tastes while my boyfriend prefers Banana Republic, so that might play into my perception.

Phoebe said...


As to your first point, he's a European science grad student. So he looks put-together but isn't much of a shopper.

Overall, men might well spend the same or even more, if only because they have to wear suits (in certain professions), whereas there's no job a woman can't dress for in well-chosen H&M. (And that's just on clothes. The rest...) But I don't think it's a myth that women spend more time shopping than men do. A glance around stores and busy shopping streets supports this. Part of why men perhaps spend as much is that (in my anecdotal experience) they don't want to put the same amount of time as women do into a) figuring out what a shirt ought to cost, and then b) searching around for one that's a good value. As in, H&M could well sell men's suits, but many men wouldn't bother to find out. (Not sure if we're calling evidence like this stereotype or science.)

It's not necessarily all about inclinations, though. I feel as though I've heard (straight) men say wistfully that they think women have much better choice when it comes to clothes, and agree that the men's section of stores is always kind of dull.

PG said...

there's no job a woman can't dress for in well-chosen H&M

I don't think that's true. I could get away with Ann Taylor suits at my office (and even Ann Taylor is a step above H&M in terms of visible quality of fabric and stitching), but my husband's firm really does have such a strong norm of formal dress (he can't wear jeans even to go in on weekends) that $750 suits are expected, not exceptional. I'm guessing similar norms probably hold for certain positions at the top i-banks, consulting groups, etc. If they pay you a lot and it's not reflected in your appearance -- particularly when you're meeting the clients whose money funds your salary -- there's going to be disapproval.

This goes back even to Mad Men days: a successful man had a set of suits well-tailored to his figure that were supposed to last at least until his daughter's wedding. H&M isn't interested in trying to sell anything that holds up and looks good that long. Heck, even some of Hugo Boss's outlet stuff doesn't survive more than a dozen dry-cleanings before it starts having loose threads and shiny creases.

So I agree the standard of American masculinity is that a man shouldn't need to shop often, because fashion is foolish frippery fit only for females, but that doesn't mean he's supposed to buy cheap either.

Phoebe said...


I appreciate your comments, but it can be frustrating responding to them since they've (lately at least) been that whatever it is I've written, the exact opposite is true. It can seem as though your aim is to be contrarian rather than to correct something about which you genuinely believe I'm mistaken, which makes it harder for me to know which comments to seriously. It could, however, just be in your wording. Here it seems we barely disagree - we both seem to think men are expected to own fewer but higher-quality clothes than are women, at least in certain professional spheres (I don't shop at Ann Taylor and so don't know how that differs from H&M in terms of quality), yet you've phrased your comment as though you think I'm way off.

PG said...

(1) I thought the last para of my prior comment made clear that I was agreeing on a particular point you and Britta were making.

(2) I should clarify the rest of the comment: my point was not that my husband's office has different standards for men and women, but that it has a higher standard for everyone who is an attorney than my office did. In other words, I am pointing out that there are jobs that a woman can't dress for in well-chosen H&M, and that you therefore are factually in error asserting otherwise. Admittedly these are jobs that are in the top 5% of wages, and thus irrelevant for most of the population, but they do exist and are probably more salient for the portion of the population attending Harvard, Chicago et al. and reading Slate.

Phoebe said...


As I said, it might just be phrasing. Even when you agree, I sometimes get the sense you're starting up on my immense wrongness... so thanks for clarifying. Tone can be hard to read on the Internet.

As for the jobs that don't allow H&M... I accept your opinion, and that it comes from having jobs unlike those I've held, but am not convinced, if only because so much of appearance is styling, accessories, etc. A woman really careful in choosing the right items and fit at only H&M, Old Navy, Uniqlo, GAP, pairing this with the right accessories, hair... in short, someone who looked well-off but wasn't actually wearing expensive clothes could, I think, get through the day in absolutely every last job office job that exists, except perhaps assistant to a fashion designer who demands assistants wear that label. I've seen women like this in Manhattan (and on street-fashion blogs), who seem so very put-together, and then it turns out you're noticing everything except the clothes themselves. As in, it's a safe bet to shop for clothes somewhere nice (Banana Republic, at least) if you're not one of these women in the first place (and this is what I've had to do on the rare occasions I've needed real-grown-up clothes), but there exist women who look 'done' but are wearing $20 worth of attire. Men, meanwhile, look 'done' according to price of suit because they're all in suits, and they don't have the same leeway when it comes to accessories and other non-clothing aspects of physical appearance. This is, at least, my impression from living in the Financial District and observing the blue-shirt-wearing hordes pretty much continuously since September.

kathleen said...

This guy sounds like my ex-husband (he divorced me if you're curious but then regretted it).

3 reasons:
1. Some people don't care about clothes or grooming or any of that. [My idea of beauty regimen consists of brushing my hair in the parking lot on my way into the store.]

2. I'm also overwhelmed by the plethora of product in the marketplace (too many choices).

3. Clueless about fashion or no color sense. I've worked in fashion most of my life but if my socks match (each other, that they don't match my outfit is a foregone conclusion) it's a happy coincidence.

At the same time, I've had to learn that dressing poorly in certain circumstances implies diminished respect for others. So, I crib from other people. I have a friend who tells me what to buy. I get most of my travel-work clothes from my mom who has always been a clothes horse and cycles stuff out of her closet on a regular basis. The stuff is always too big but I've never been comfortable in form fitting attire.

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