By Camille Dodero
I'VE ALWAYS HAD an ambivalent relationship with shopping. My mom is an obsessive bargain hunter, so enlivened by the never-ending quest for cheap goods that she brags about hitting 30 yard sales in one Saturday - her all-time record. When I was growing up, my family never went hiking or camping; we went malling. Our annual vacations consisted of trips to shopping centers in other cities. In sixth grade, my mom and I spent four days navigating the multifloor, 200-store-plus Crossgates Mall in upstate New York as if it were a theme park.
Then in junior high, for a transportation-challenged kid there wasn't much to do in my hometown that didn't involve prostitution or drugs, so my best friend Courtney and I became mall rats, our parents shuttling us to the local one and picking us up five hours later. We'd basically stroll around the L-shaped building as if it were a white-trash runway, ogling the longhaired David Coverdale wanna-be behind the counter in Sam Goody (the only record store for miles); sinking quarters into the jukebox of a greasy pizza joint; wasting hours flipping through goofy posters in Spencer Gifts. Even my adolescent dating life revolved around the mall: my high-school boyfriend and I actually went there for our first date.
At some point, I finally realized how pathetic it was that my idea of gourmand genius was a frothy Orange Julius. I got sick of malls and, by extension, the very act of shopping. It was like being poisoned by your favorite food - years pass before you want it again. I couldn't be bothered to shop for anything but CDs. Before the junior prom, I procrastinated searching for a formal dress for so long that I ended up having to throw on a three-year-old royal-blue maid-of-honor gown I'd worn for my older sister's wedding. I looked like a taffeta blueberry.
You'd think I'd have learned my lesson. Not so. In college, my disgust with commodities only grew. I went to a wealthy, conservative school where J. Crew catalogues were as prevalent as textbooks. So I gradually began to hate the idea that identity could be bought - I despised that very American notion that the right pair of jeans could change your life. I shopped like a stereotypical male: accidentally. If I happened to be with a friend and we happened upon a store and the friend wanted to go in, then maybe I would buy something. I'd fit a year's worth of shopping into one day. It was like one of those supermarket grab-everything-you-can-in-60-seconds game shows. Whatever happened to be on the racks of a store that day defined my wardrobe for a season - I cultivated a personal style best described as "arbitrary."
Then a couple of years ago, something changed. I got a new boyfriend who mocked my favorite slacks, a god-awful polyester pair he nicknamed "Man Pants." When the person you adore tells you that your comfiest pants make your ass look square, well, it makes you reconsider your closet. My "Man Pants" went to Goodwill. So did half my other clothes. And slowly, hesitantly, I realized that I not only missed shopping, but I really needed new things.
My return to shopping was innocuous at first, like flirting with an old mate you've forced yourself to hate but secretly still love. First was a dish scrubber at Bed Bath & Beyond. Then a pair of sauté pans at Target. That led to more: a secondhand Ann Taylor skirt at Davis Square's Poor Little Rich Girl; a pink button-down blouse at Express; a miniature curio at a yard sale; a shower curtain at Tag's Ace Hardware; a red spangly necklace at Pluto; a crazy brown shirt patterned with multicolor balls at Black & Blue. Then I discovered H&M, a place where, for $60, you actually could buy an entire outfit. So despite the fact that I'm always cash-strapped, I started shopping again. A few weeks ago I spent $91 at the Garment District (two sweaters, one winter coat with a fur-lined collar, a blue-and-gray striped jacket, a lavender button-down shirt, and a pinstriped skirt). But it really got out of control when I woke up one morning and found myself lying in a brand-new queen-size bed.
Even my relatives have noticed the difference. Recently, I went home for a family gathering wearing a new denim skirt and carrying a red patent-leather purse I scored secondhand at Harvard Square's Proletariat. When my older sister noticed that I was toting around a pocketbook, she freaked. Is that a purse you're carrying? What's wrong with you? Are you sick?
No. Just different.
A few weeks ago, I was walking through Filene's Basement and spied a pair of orange Puma sneakers buried in a clearance bin. I actually ran over to them. I couldn't believe myself. I turned to my boyfriend, whose closet is twice the size of mine, and whimpered, "Um, I think I'm turning into a girl. How do you feel about that?" He laughed. But me, well, I gotta admit: I felt pretty good.
Camille Dodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.