The Sickness of Shopping

-by Morgan Southwood

I very seldom engage in the ubiquitous, hallowed national pastime of shopping. The primary reason I do not shop is that I am starving-student poor, often spending the last week before payday in a comic exercise at the grocery store trying to figure out how to purchase adequate rations of both food and vodka. The other reason I don't shop is that shopping invokes in me feelings of guilt and anger at the knowledge of being manipulated. I am suspicious of my material desires. I recognize them for what they are.

My suspicion and recognition does not always save me, however. Periodically when delivering lunch to a friend who works at my local shopping mall, I pass a clothing store and am seized by the mannequin's dress in the window, by the new pair of boots, the smart, fashionable overcoat. I stop and stare, and I want it. The desire is impulsive, strangely automatic, and it is strong. I want it. I want that sky-blue summer halter dress, and I imagine how cute I'd look it in. I think that it would be just the thing to wear out with my girlfriends at Ladies Drink Free till Ten night.

Usually I don't buy the dress, or the coat, or whatever it is that's caught my eye, but sometimes I do. And when I buy it, and wear it (or use it), I am filled with a brief and oddly satisfying happiness. The happiness and the satisfaction are ephemeral, narcotic-like. And they are, like the desire that prompted me to purchase, so hard-wired into my brain as to be positively Pavlovian. My shopping experiences, and the desires-the greed, to use a more accurate word-and the shallow happiness that accompanies them are no different than those felt by the hordes of recreational consumers that flood the stores every day. Americans shop for fun. We shop for comfort. We shop out of boredom, we shop to escape stress. It's Saturday and the American citizenry-shit, let's not stop there, let's say the citizenry of the entire First World, proletariat and bourgeoisie alike, collectively hits WalMart, Macy's, Sacs Fifth Avenue, Nike Store, Victoria's Secret, and The Sunglass Hut.

Now, I'm not an orthodox Marxist by any means, but Karl sure was right about something-it's all Superstructure, baby. The desire to buy shit we don't need is quite possibly the universal and unifying psychological condition in our society. One could argue that it is almost democratic in its pervasiveness. Almost without exception, everyone with any disposable income at all (and many without disposable income, for that matter, as the number of Americans filing for bankruptcy rivals the number of annual college graduates) endeavors, consciously or not, to uphold our economic system. We are all caught up in something larger than our individual selves.

I find recreational consumption to be hideously vulgar. Worse, the knowledge that I've been carefully, dutifully conditioned since birth to base my happiness on how many fabricated, superficial wants I can gratify at any give time, makes me livid. Goddamn, I remember thinking whilst mooning over the WonderBra in the store window, my brain has been hijacked by Macy's Department Store.

Big Business has done its job well. Consumer Capitalism, in all its vapid and inhumane efficiency, has its art down to a science. We are bombarded and cocooned in advertising almost from the day we leave the hospital as infants, and by the time we are toddlers we know how to point at something in the stores on or television and say, I want. My local grocery store has miniature shopping carts with tall flags reading 'Customer in Training' for small children to push around while accompanying their parents. Commercials during Saturday Morning Cartoons have been engineered and directed by PhDs specializing in child psychology. McDonald's targets children with playgrounds and happy meals complete with Coke that rots our teeth and promotes diabetes. I could write a book elaborating upon this conditioning-somebody more educated and sophisticated than me probably already has.

For the sake of brevity, let's state the obvious: by the time we are adults, we desire, we want, for no other reason than wanting for its own sake and the fleeting pleasure that accompanies the purchase and possession. And there is a price to pay, believe it, because the fancy tennis shoes were made by fourteen-year-old Sri Lankan girls, and an old woman went blind weaving the Persian rug, and some migrant worker with a bad back sweated in the sun picking the apples that went into the Martha Stewart Thanksgiving Centerpiece for less than minimum wage.

And here at home in America, with a third of the population diagnosed as obese, we graze obediently on Jumbo Jacks with cheese and French fries with bacon bits and nacho sauce. We buy the stupidest products imaginable en masse, from contact lenses that make your eyes look like billiard cue balls and glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary dashboard statuettes and stickers with the likeness of Britney Spears on them. The second page of the New York Times today had a large ad selling a ladies' leather jacket for four thousand bucks. Yowza! Knock yourself out, folks!

It makes us happy, right? Just like a hit of smack. That's the thing about shopping: it's never enough. Whatever we buy today will not satisfy us come next weekend. Corporate Capitalism has reduced us to a world of junkies, pushers, drug mules, and heroin poppy and coca farmers.

And eventually we are going to have to go into rehab.

What about you? Morgan Southwood is a graduate of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. She can be e-mailed at

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