Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Inescapable Lure of the Fashion Industry - KM

Are you a Shopaholic?

This trailer for the recently released film "Confessions of a Shopaholic" is a great demonstration of the typical "shopaholic" prevalent today. There are many more among our society than we may think, varying greatly in intensity, of course. There have been numerous accounts of individuals, especially women, bringing themselves into great debt because they can not control their impulses to shop. Other studies have been done which determined that many more of us might be considered "shopaholics" than we would initially assume.

For instance, here is an account from a "real-life" shopaholic:

“As I lay in the darkness, all I could think about was going to the local shop, buying bottle of vodka and some paracetamol, and killing myself. My life had become a nightmare.”

“The only thing that stopped me was that I didn’t even have enough money to buy the vodka and pills.” (2)

Her problems began when she went off to school to study fashion journalism at the age of 18. Banks began offering her huge overdrafts and credit card offers for her kept coming in the mail. Since she had never had much money at her finger tips, it was very tempting to treat herself to nice things.

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She states, “I was living in a student house and driving an old car, but being able to dress up in new clothes and have expensive haircuts made me feel good about myself.” She expressed the fact that she loves clothes and that with this money at her disposal, she began buying pants she liked in every color instead of just one, splurging on designer sunglasses, and buying a full ensemble instead of just one piece. However, she explains that because she was never spending a large amount at once, she never realized she had a problem. She was spending about £500 more than she was bringing in each month, relying on fifteen different credit cards to feed her habit.

Finally, she began noticing the debt piling up. She refused to open her mail and avoided the problem. I wasn’t until she had thoughts of suicide that she finally reached out to her parents for help. They helped her determine that she was in £30,000 worth of debt. Lucky for her, her parents took out loan to save her from declaring bankruptcy and she is now paying them back by payments of £139 per month. (2)

What would have happened to a similar individual without parents to come to their rescue? What drives people to behave in such a way, to keep spending when they know they can not afford it, to want things so bad they will do anything to obtain them?

Another “shopaholic” interviewed explained how she got into such trouble with debt due to her shopping habits. In the beginning she explains, she had control, paying off her credit card in full each month. Then she went on a vacation and wasn’t able to pay off the card, the charges just kept building from then on. She would increase her limits, when a card filled, she’d open another. She thought, “Oh I’ll just buy this top and pay it off next month.” “If I used my credit card, I would pay it off in full the following month. Then, I went on holiday one year and couldn’t keep up with my payments.

An expert on addiction explains, “Shopping addictions are on the rise as society becomes increasingly materialistic and image-conscious.” She goes on to explain that today, “how you look is who you are, so it’s little wonder that women like Natalie are developing an addiction to shopping.” (2)

As Julie explains in her blog about housewives and their right to fashion, “There’s nothing to me like wearing something I like, something creative and colorful, something that says this is me! (3)

We all use clothing for different reasons, to fit in or to show our individuality, or as “Julie” explains, it brings out something about who we hope we are and who we want to be.

Shopaholism is a serious disorder in the field of psychiatry.

“Because we all shop and it is even encouraged in our culture, we haven’t been as quick to recognize the truly devastating consequences of this behavior/disease, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally.” (4)

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A study was done on 280 people in the UK. Of the people surveyed, 67% had bought items they had never worn or used, 84% had bought a perceived bargain on impulse, almost one third shop for non-essential items every week, and one fifth admit they think about shopping at least once per day – of this group 33% said this thought made them excited and 19% said it made them feel more confident. (4)

Clearly a majority of people are struggling with these types of issues of some level of shopaholism, and addiction to material things and fashion for many different reasons – especially self-esteem.

For real sufferers of shopaholism, “they don’t acquire things, things acquire them.” (4)

Much of the research I found directly addressing shopaholism was done in Britain, I thought this was an interesting side note. Have we not come to terms with this being a true disorder here in America? How devastating that would be to our consumption-driven society!

Why do we allow Fashion to decide who we are?

Why do people feel pressure to cooperate with fashion trends? Why is it so closely linked to our self-esteem? Why must we follow fashion trends to fit in?

"Products are social tools, serving as a means of communication between the individual and his significant references." The study found that self-esteem was the main motivator to both encourage or discourage participants to consume certain items, brands, and styles of clothing. Interestingly, women were found to be less brand reliant than men for identity communication. Consumers who considered themselves "anti-fashion" or dressing to show their individuality even experienced some situations in which they were more likely to conform to others' expectations.

The study found two motivating functions for fashion: social identification and distinction. The participants were able to pick out which groups they did not want to be considered part of through their appearance and which ones they did want to be apart of based on types of clothing choices.

One participant shared, "If you are seen negatively it is like rejection... being seen as not fitting in or being rejected or whatever... you are accepted if you are OK, you are middle of the road, you are totally accepted if you are not just making fashion statements... (Chloe, age 25)." (6)
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An interesting thing to note about this study is that each of the participants fully acknowledged that they are judged by others on their appearance. They actively consider how they will fit in when deciding what fashion trends to follow and what clothing to wear. They know which looks to avoid and which to adopt. It just seems to be acceptable that we are all judged by how we dress ourselves. It leads me to ask the question, what about people who can not afford certain types of clothing, or afford to buy new clothing. Are they then denied entry into a certain social group? How can this be so readily accepted?

We can't seem to escape this relationship with fashion. It seems to be deeply engrained in each of us, a need to label others by their appearance and the way they have decided to present themselves. We are taught which types appearances belong to which group each and everyday by the media we are bombarded with.

A study using personal shopping diaries was able to point out two "vulnerability factors" which seem to raise the risk of being a compulsive shopper. The first of which is a "materialistic value system", meaning that a person looks to what types of material goods they have and how many to determine whether or not they have achieved major life goals, like happiness. These types of people tend to feel that material goods are a solution to any and all of their problems.

The second factor was found to be "concerns of the self-concept". This means that if a person feels far from what they would like to be, far from their ideal self, they are also vulnerable to a shopping addiction. This type of person uses spending and buying material goods as a form of "self-repair". They buy goods which symbolize the ideal self they are trying to emulate. For example, a person with concern of the self-concept might think, "If I buy a glamorous dress, I might feel like a glamorous person." Many people fall into this second category because fashion is so closely linked to self-image. (5)

The Fashion Trap

Because we are so wrapped up in fitting in and how we match up to the people around us, we are an easy target for retailers and the fashion industry.
Fashion magazines make you feel subpar and that you need to go out and buy things, or change the way you apply your make-up to keep up with fashion and be attractive.
One blogger who recently struggled to pay off more than $30,000 of debt posted a blog, "Throw Away the Fashion Mags". In it she explained fashion magazines were hard for her to let go of, but in the end realized she was just torturing herself by viewing the things she wanted but could not have. She realized that these publications "sell an impossible lifestyle". She exclaimed that in magazines with the “‘What’s hot, what’s not’ sections – the what’s not was what was hot last month!” (1) How are we supposed to keep up?
"The media 'bombard us with ideals and role models that are likely to make us feel inadequate and in need of fixing'". It is not necessarily fair to pin point one advertisement or magazine that makes us feel this way. We are faced with these images every way we turn, sending a general message that we are only what we have, bringing us back to the checkout counter to better ourselves. (5)
Because fashion magazines are both commodities and cultural productions, "in which the not-entirely-separate interests of advertisers,
the fashion world and readers come into play, all kinds of contradictions emerge in their contents."
I did a project last semester for Lynn Phillips, dissecting an edition of both a women's and men's magazine. I chose to work with Women's Health and Men's Health, thinking they might be less ad filled and less likely to send negative images to their readers. However, what I found was much the opposite. Each of the magazines contained ads on more than 60% of their pages. On top of this, advertisements were embedded in many of the articles. Articles detailing which beauty products to buy typically choose to showcase products from whichever companies are willing to send the magazines free samples, not which beauty products work the best. While these magazines focused on health, they showcased every piece of clothing or workout equipment you "had to have" to stay fit and look good while doing it. These magazines were not about the health of their readers, they were created to sell more products, to sell the new idea of health as fashion.
A writer for the Economist wrote a piece, Fashion is a way of defining our identity. He begins by pointing out the unnecessary nature of the fashion industry, the overzealous runway outfits and fashions so outrageous we would never see them on the streets. He mocks the outrageous prices for things we can find similar for a mere fraction of the cost. But, just as he is about to bid farewell to fashion, he admits we are all trapped within its grasp. He summarizes his feelings well for all of us, "a resentment of the fact that we are all fashion victims." He makes a great comparison about an elegant Parisienne who must have her top notch designer fashions to identify with her particular crowd. While, a London businessman fashions himself in a classic pinstripe suit and a dreadful tie to fit in with his crowd. If either of these individuals chose to switch it up, the Parisienne to wear some totally out of season accessory, or the businessman to don a flamboyantly colored coat, they would stand out from their particular group and be turned away. "The underlying paradox is that fashion, by definition ephemeral, is always with us. Fashion is a mark of "collective identity." (10)
So how do we fight this?
It's clear that something needs to be done to alter our relationship with the fashion industry. Far too many negative effects come from the current relationship, overspending, self-esteem issues, body image and health problems, and more. The problem is, changing the current relationship is not an easy or simple task. It needs to be apart of a change to the entire layout of our society. Our capitalist system requires that we function as consumers, consumers who respond well to messages from advertisers and corporations, so that we act as they need us to for the system to function. The fashion industry is a prime example of this relationship. The current fashion constantly changes and we feel obligated to participate because the industry has invested deeply to ensure that we are constantly consuming and servicing their profits.
An interesting organization was put together to help transform the fashion and beauty industries to put these problematic relationships to an end. The organization, Inside Beauty, has created a list of "5 Resolutions to Transform the Fashion and Beauty Industries." These steps are written from the point of view of those in the fashion and beauty industries, what they can do to help transform the industries in which they work. I've included them below as my paraphrasing allows important content to be lost from their original content.


We invite all members of the fashion and beauty industries to unite and...

Educate Our Audience
We recognize that our industry sets trends and influences millions. We take that power seriously. We will celebrate the true spirit of fashion and beauty with healthy messages and images. We are aware that girls are especially vulnerable to the idealization of thinness and the drive for perfection, and that it is critically important to set positive examples for future generations.

Educate Ourselves
It is imperative that we learn from tragedies like the recent death of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, who succumbed to anorexia. We will align ourselves with trusted experts to ensure that all members of our industry are prepared to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disordered behavior.

Take Responsibility
We are deeply troubled that eating disorders and poor body image have reached epidemic proportions around the world. While we acknowledge that these are complex issues with no single cause, we will do our part to respond proactively because we know that some sufferers are young models and many others are our consumers.

Take Action
We understand that eating problems do not always appear in the form of skin and bones, and that every sufferer should receive support and referrals. We will reach out to those in need. We will also participate in the creation of ongoing industry-wide programs, events, and awareness-raising campaigns rooted in honesty and compassion.

Stay Connected
We believe the best way to bring about change is to bring the most passionate, open-minded, and creative people together. Therefore, we will form a network of professionals dedicated to holding the fashion and beauty industries to the highest standards of integrity and social responsibility. [11]"

As for us, those not working in the fashion or beauty industry, fashion and beauty consumers, I think the steps are fairly similar. Education is key. Media literacy is something we need to have ourselves, and we need to educate those around us, especially young, impressionable girls, on how to digest the media they are bombarded with everyday. We need to teach them that what they see on TV and in the magazines is not the truth and it is not reality. We also need to create strong programs for young girls to build self-esteem in other ways to prepare them for the harmful images and messages they will soon be bombarded with. Once we have done what we can to deal with the consequences of the fashion industry, we then need to take it step further and limit the consequences from the source. We need to lobby for more regulation on how things can be advertised and who they can be targeted at. The issue of the fashion magazine especially, that material needs to be presented in a more clear way. It needs to be common knowledge that those pieces of print are not our friends, they are purely advertising material for fashion and beauty retailers throughout. While this seems like a problem bigger than any of us can solve, the most important part is to shed light on the issue, to let people know their is a problem, and it NEEDS to be changed. We need to educate our youth, we need to educate ourselves in order to stop these negative effects of the fashion industry. We should not be slaves to something that we ultimately drive, through our participation and purchasing, we should have more of a say.

- Kayla


[1] (2006, March 27) Throw away the fashion mags.

[2] O'Hagan, Eimear and Christina Windsor. 'My 33K fashion addiction almost KILLED ME'.

[3] Leung, Julie. (2004, October 4th). Buying sly and sexy for self-esteem.

[4] Moyo, Lynda. (2009, Mar 23). Confessions of a real-life shopaholic.

[5] Mundell, E.J. (2005, Sept. 28). Compulsive Shopping Carries a Heavy Price.

[6] Negative symbolic consumption and consumers' dive for self-esteem: The case of the fashion industry. Emma N Banister, Margaret K Hogg. European Journal of Marketing. Bradford: 2004. Vol. 38, Iss. 7; pg. 850.

[7] Krcmar, M., Giles, S., & Helme, D. (2008, May). Understanding the Process: How Mediated and Peer Norms Affect Young Women's Body Esteem. Communication Quarterly, 56(2), 111-130.

[8] Stillion Southard, Belinda A. (2008). Beyond the Backlash: Sex and the City and Three Feminist Struggles. Communication Quarterly, 56 (2), 149-167. Retrieved April 21, 2009, from

[9] Moeran, B. (2008, July). Economic and cultural production as structural paradox: the case of international fashion magazine publishing. International Review of Sociology, 18(2), 267-281

[10] "Rags and riches." The Economist (US) 370.8365 (March 6, 2004): 4US. Academic OneFile. Gale. Univ Mass Amherst. 20 Apr. 2009

[11] Fiona Bawdon. (2007, October). No model for girls. New Statesman, 136(4864), 28-29. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global database.

[12] Amadei, Magali and Claire Mysko. 5 Resolutions to Transform the Fashion and Beauty Industries. Inside Beauty

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