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Eat, Shop, And Be Merry?
At the beginning of my consumer behavior study, I attended a national conference on eating disorders. Catherine Steiner-Adair, one of the keynote speakers, asked the audience what we thought were the two main activities traditionally performed by women to deal with life’s ups and downs. The silence was palpable. She then answered her own question: “Diet and shopping.” Her statement was immediately greeted throughout the room, first by sad silence, then by murmurs of assent all around. It was 1991. Over the next twenty years, I witnessed firsthand the intricate and complex relationship between shopping and eating, weight and wealth, being rich and being thin.
Diane Barth has explored the subtlety of the relationship. In “When Eating and Shopping Are Companion Disorders” (Benson, 2000), she notes that although “any therapist who works with eating disorders can provide anecdotal accounts of binge-buying binge-shopping, anorexics stealing, bulimics compulsively purchasing items that never use”, even the least expected combinations are plentiful. One anorexic “may also severely limit herself in all purchases… while another shoplifts regularly and… a third goes on frequent shopping sprees”. Barth sees shopping and eating as two perfectly normal ways to regulate and manage moods and feelings; they can calm us when we’re feeling “hurt, lonely, angry, or disappointed,” relax us when we’re feeling “uptight, overwhelmed, or overstimulated,” or energize us when we’re feeling sad or tired. They are related, in other words, by their similar function in coping with affects. When people cannot regulate or tolerate their feelings, however, shopping and/or eating can become “repetitive, compulsive, and undifferentiated responses to a wide variety of emotions and experiences.”
Barth notes that people with shopping and eating disorders often have little sense of their own internal processes, little ability to “conceptualize emotional cause and effect.” They lack, he finds, “the ability to use words symbolically to help metabolize emotions.” So even when they manage to articulate seemingly clear symbolic connections between their eating and buying behaviors and, say, their childhood experiences, their symptoms do not change.
Case in point: Now that Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss has taken her from a size 16 to a 6, the singer admits she’s addicted to shopping. Since she started enjoying her new body, she Hudson has bought many new clothes. “It got to a point where I could barely get into my bedroom,” she told InStyle magazine. When did you realize you had a problem? “Well, my bed is a canopy. I had nowhere else to throw my clothes. So I threw them over the canopy!” Hudson continues to shop whenever she travels. “Every city we go to, my suitcase won’t hold my new clothes, so we have to box them up and ship them home. Then I come back and I want to try on everything I bought, so clothes are everywhere.” Hudson seems comfortable with the issue. Her shopping may not stop, she says, but her weight loss will: “You’ll never see me thin.”
In a recent piece for the American Express Open Forum, Jean Chatzky cites research showing that “your health and wealth are inextricably linked,” including a recent German study showing that “serious debt makes you twice as expensive.” likelihood of being overweight or obese”. For people with both shopping and power issues, she offers this six-step plan:
–Start with one thing first.
It’s not easy to tackle two daunting tasks at the same time. And dieting, both on your stomach and on your wallet, can be incredibly daunting. Then choose your weight or your money as the first goal.
–Deal with feelings of deprivation.
When you start curbing your spending so you have the money to pay down your debt, you may actually gain a few pounds early on. Watch your impulses to switch from shopping to eating. When you cut back on your spending, if it feels like a deprivation, you’ll try to fill yourself in another way. Eating is the other most common way. To minimize the chances of this happening, set yourself small, manageable goals. Save $10 to pay off your debt this week or drink water instead of soda. Next week, you can aim to save $15 or start going for a walk during your lunch break. If even that seems like too much, alternate so you focus on your weight one week and your debt the next.
–Once you feel in control, layer up.
You’ve lost a few pounds or paid off a few hundred debts and now you’re feeling pretty good, right? In fact, what you have learned is impulse control. You tested your willpower. Now it’s time to add the second half of the equation. You will see that the challenge you have already won will help you. When you can keep your finances in check and you live in the black instead of the red, you’ll be less stressed, which helps reduce food stress. In the short term, losing weight boosts your self-esteem, which may make you less inclined to eat and emotionally shop. However, it could go the other way, as it did for Jennifer Hudson, so be careful about rewarding yourself for losing weight by excessive shopping.
–Choose a new distraction.
If you replace eating with shopping, or shopping with eating, you’re back to square one. Instead, try to figure out what will meet your needs and not erode your life in how it caters to food and things. Call a friend and see if she can get together for coffee, take a long walk, go for a run, or organize a space in the house that has gotten out of control. All of these things can help quell feelings that may be driving you to shop and eat.
We all need something to look forward to, and goals are often easier to achieve if we make them tangible. Give yourself some milestones, and when you reach them, have a mini-celebration: join a friend for drinks, get a manicure, eat that cookie (just one) you’ve been craving. To keep yourself on track, think about what it will mean to achieve your goals. If you pay off the debt, you may have another $300 to invest in something you want, like paying for a new car or a trip to the beach next summer. And if you lose the extra weight, you can wear a bikini on that trip with confidence or play with your kids without running out of breath.
–Finally (and this isn’t so much a step as a long-term change), dig deeper.
Once you’ve seen some early progress, it’s time to figure out why you’re overspending and why you’re eating too much. Often it is about loneliness. When you are at the mall, you are surrounded by people and all the sales people want to make you happy. Another common root is low self-esteem. You already feel guilty about your appearance, so you think one donut won’t make a difference. You need a boost, so head to your favorite store, where you can try on a new outfit and everyone will tell you how great it looks on you. Or maybe it’s just old boredom. You have too much downtime, at work or at home, so you keep snacking and shopping online. Whether you’re shopping or staring at the fridge, ask yourself a few simple questions: Why are you here? How are you feeling? Do you need this? Keep in mind this mantra for overshoppers and overeaters: “you can’t get enough of what you don’t really need”. Eating and shopping often spiral out of control because we’re trying to fill a void, but we’re doing it the wrong way. Once you figure out what really drives you to the store and the fridge — and it’s often the same thing — you can start tackling it constructively and lastingly.
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