Throughout the COVID pandemic (and even beforehand), you’ve probably come across reports and articles on the subject of online shopping. Specifically, on the relationship between increased online shopping and poor mental health, with some going so far as to call for the recognition of a specific addictive disorder.
Looking to the offline world, there has long been an informal notion of “retail therapy” and buying things to make yourself feel better. Of course, this isn’t something that’s necessarily unhealthy — we’re all allowed to ‘treat ourselves’ without it being a problem. Many of us do, however, have a problem. A 2007 World Psychiatry article discusses “compulsive buying disorder”: a phenomenon identified as far back as the early-mid 20th Century when sufferers were crudely referred to as “buying maniacs”. Compulsive shopping behaviour has since been mentioned in volumes of the DSM, a world-renowned diagnostic manual used by psychiatric clinicians across the globe. Some commentators have even suggested a link between compulsive shopping and OCD, although, as is often the case within social scientific study, the jury is still out.
Rather than contemplating the precise ways in which we can categorise compulsive buying, I think it’s useful to understand how this sort of behaviour might manifest in daily life. You can, without a doubt, argue over the threshold of what counts as “compulsive” until the cows come home. At present, however, I want to talk about my own relationship with shopping and poor mental health. It’s not for everyone, but I find reading about others’ mental health quite helpful in terms of rationally analysing my own behaviour. I hope that I’m able to somewhat return the favour here.
At 16 I found my first proper job. I was in my first year of A-Levels and had previously saved my pocket money up if I ever wanted to buy something. Struggling with depression (amongst other things) in the latter stages of high school, I had turned even further inwards to social media. By the time I was employed, I was knee-deep in “aesthetic” Instagram/Tumblr posts and “indie” Twitter circles. I was also now extremely aware of how other (both straight and queer) guys presented themselves online. A formative set of items included my first pair of Dr Martens boots — you know the ones — as well as the “spray on” black jeans that were massive at the time. I also had a huge burgundy parka from Topman, but we don’t need to talk about that.
Around this time was also when I was probably at my most dysmorphic. I’d also suddenly become drastically more aware of how my hair looked and every day became a desperate struggle to style it in a way that looked “normal”. In my teen brain, “normal” meant both the height of stereotypical attractiveness, along with inconspicuous masculinity. I craved what I thought would be approval from other people (cool ‘indie kids’ and str*ght boys) whilst also wanting people to see the “real” me. The “real” me wasn’t quiet, anxious, nerdy or unusual. On top of this, I started to notice that I was a lot skinnier than pretty much all of the other cisgender boys my age.
Fast forward and my first paycheck comes in. I buy a new iPhone, obviously. But I also order what would at the time be considered a lot of clothes from one Popular Online Clothing Store that happens to offer cheap next-day delivery. I would often ask friends or other people online whether they thought the clothes I was buying looked “cool”, which was in hindsight a very subjective question and most people just humoured me.
I was ready to be transformed, to become the cool person I *knew* I must be inside. I opened the parcels, tried on the new clothes and waited for the next day so I could fulfil the cool kid prophecy. And then morning came. And I didn’t feel any better, and I didn’t look any “cooler”. And any photographs of me still gave me an intense feeling of disgust, as did my side-profile in the reflections of parked car windows. So I scoured the world around me. I made a mental (or sometimes physical) note of what other people wore, what looked cool, the exact colours and fits. I imagined how I would look in the clothes. I would trawl social media in my spare time. And then I’d trawl through the shopping sites. Eventually, it wasn’t just clothes, shoes and rucksacks. At one point I walked all the way to the shopping centre double the distance from my house to pick up some ring binders I’d ordered. They were part of that popular set of items that looked like they were made of bog-standard beige cardboard. Books began to turn up at my house — not really to be read, but to be posted on Instagram.
“Perhaps it’s selfish to constantly feel like you’re being watched and judged, but it’s a feeling that can be next to impossible to escape.”
Engaging with the things I bought was too much hassle, too much of a task. After the instant gratification wore off, I needed to keep buying. There was always something new to buy — especially when it came to clothes. A new jacket, a different style of T-Shirt. Eventually, single items weren’t enough. If I thought a style looked “cool”, I needed to have multiple sets of similar items so that I could wear them every day of the week and people wouldn’t remember the “old” me in my “old” clothes. Fast forward again to my first year of university — my wardrobe was probably the fullest in our flat. Most of the time it wouldn’t even close. I would become completely obsessed with a new item each day, having seen someone wearing it on the way to a seminar and feeling like the walls would close in and destroy me if I didn’t buy something similar as soon as possible. If I didn’t, people wouldn’t be able to see the real, cool me.
A big problem, however, was that a lot of the things I bought didn’t actually suit me, or rather, didn’t look the way I expected them to. The person in the mirror didn’t match the person in my head — the clothes didn’t fit this person the way they were supposed to. But rather than returning the items, I would keep them, because returning them meant going back to the old, uncool, disgusting me, who could never be seen in public again.
I was, by now, aware of how dysmorphic I’d previously been. I still was, but perhaps not to the extent I had been in the past. It didn’t occur to me until a lot later, however, what this had meant for my own self-image. It all hit me in a teary realisation months after. The only way I can describe it is that the idealised image of myself in my head was actively blurring my vision. The obsession was actually changing what I saw when I looked in the mirror. My mind, every day, had been convincing itself that the reflection staring back looked completely different from the way it did in reality. Imagine one day realising that your skin is actually a bright royal blue, rather than the colour you’d always thought it was. It felt like this had happened to me over time. I realised I’d been seeing myself through warped glasses.
Confusingly, this worked in two ways. On the one hand, in the mirror, I saw someone with “ugly” features that contrasted with “normal” features. On the other, I saw someone with the features I wanted to have, namely those I found to be attractive when I saw them on other people. This would explain my visceral reaction to photographs of myself that weren’t taken with my front camera. Why I’d spend hours trawling old social networks to eradicate every visual trace of myself before a certain point.
I realise that this may seem quite specific, but let me explain. At the moment I’m less bodily dysmorphic than I’ve probably ever been (even as a child). And, to some degree, I’m a lot more careful with money — I have to be now that I don’t have a student loan to rely on for rent payments. But the compulsion to buy hasn’t gone away. Hell, today I bought resistance bands because someone on Instagram was using them in a photograph of them exercising. And I couldn’t think about anything else until safe in the knowledge I could become that “sort” of person who has and uses resistance bands. This is despite the fact I’m still in my student overdraft and have just started a new job (cue Emergency Tax!) with no sign of a P45 as of yet.
From what I can tell, the compulsion seems to be part of a wider inferiority complex I still have. Now that students have moved back to the area, I’m constantly exposed to a range of (often questionable) on-trend fashion choices, exercise fanatics, and performative social activities. Even outside of the student bubble, at my new job I spent the first few days panicking about the dress code as well as obsessively trying to find out how to get my hands on a lanyard. Whilst seeing a counsellor last year, I was enlightened to my preoccupation with being “seen”. This is something I mentioned earlier — I’ve spent years thinking about how I present myself to other people, trying to fruitlessly micromanage how strangers around me think about me. Those of us in the Tiktok generation might pejoratively call it a “main character” complex. They’re not necessarily wrong. Perhaps it’s selfish to constantly feel like you’re being watched and judged, but it’s a feeling that can be next to impossible to escape.
Truthfully, it’s hard to know how similar our experiences of compulsive buying are. I’m no expert in psychology and couldn’t possibly tell you how far you could generalise my behaviour, but I do think part of the way we’re taught to engage with the world of consumer goods feeds, no, leeches off of our insecurities from a very early age. Could it be that once having notable nervous tics, as well as being a relatively unmasculine child, is the reason why I’ve just bought a jacket similar to my old supermarket uniform, to wear at my new job? If we take my old job to be a place where I felt like I was an essential part of a team and not someone ostracised from a perceived group, then perhaps.
I often find that there’s an internal battle when I’m about to click the “order” button. At the moment I’m hyper-aware of the amount of money in my bank, often excessively tracking my spending and working out my budget multiple times a week in case my maths was wrong. But at the same time, the dopamine rush of actually buying something overrides all other feelings, at least for a while. Until it doesn’t, and I’m thinking about something else I should buy.
What I’ve also found is that a lot of the things I spend money on I don’t even keep for very long, even when I can’t reasonably afford them — which is the majority of the time at the moment. Something I may have spent hours, days, even weeks pining for might seem like the worst purchase I’ve ever made after a short while. My purchases fill a hole for a time, but then the hole gets bigger or changes shape. Or the purchase itself becomes a hole because I’m embarrassed that the person I “used to be” would spend their money on such a thing when they could’ve instead bought something that present me actually wants. And sometimes that’s the problem — I buy a lot of things I think I should have, not necessarily the things I want, because that would be a waste of money. Instead I could settle for something that will ultimately make me more unhappy.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that compulsive buying, for me and others that I’ve discussed this with, manifests as a means of self-sabotage. I often wonder whether keeping things I don’t really want, is, at heart, a way of punishing myself for being silly enough to buy something so ‘wrong’. Or for being so physically small, or unattractive. Or perhaps even for being queer. If you’ll excuse the pun, I think there are a lot of parcels to unpack when it comes to compulsive buying that the proliferation of online shopping has only made more difficult. If anything, it feels almost like the more we buy, the more detached compulsive buyers become from tackling their mental health problems. Deep down I know that buying my way to happiness isn’t going to work. Plus, if I’m not careful I’ll probably have my [redacted] account suspended for “serial returns”.
Angry emails from retailers aside, it’s alarming to consider this in a context of complex targeted advertising techniques. This in particular is becoming a more prominent feature of our everyday lives (2020’s The Social Dilemma is a good illustration of how algorithms work against us). I consider myself to be in the best state I’ve been in mentally since my teen years. Yet the extreme compulsion to buy, especially after using social media, hasn’t ever gone away. Sure, I’m able to rationalise at times, but the rush of a naughty purchase always manages to creep up on me.
In terms of wider implications, unhealthy purchasing behaviour is something that has been suggested to affect social groups disproportionately (namely women). If the insatiable urge to buy can permeate so deeply and specifically, often without regard for our personal improvements, what can be done to counteract it? A more sinister question may be to ask who is the beneficiary of our suffering? Online sales (like the sort you can make from your bed during a depressive episode) account for double the percentage of total UK sales now compared to 2015. In a world where it’s easier than ever to spend, I believe we need to look more closely at this urge. For many, it feels almost like a physical reaction, and this is increasingly extorted by retailers and advertisers. Identifying this predatory buyer/seller relationship is key to our understanding of the structural economic changes we need in order to be mentally well.