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Is Anxiety-Induced Shopping a Thing?

Liana Satenstein

Since COVID-19 started, I wake up at 4 a.m. like clockwork every day. The dreams are getting weirder. Yesterday, I had a bizarre nightmare where I was working in outer space and telecommunicating to a coworker on another planet. Suddenly, I lost connection and was stuck in the gaping pure black universe all by myself. I woke myself up yelling, “Who’s there?” No answer. So I went onto EBay to bring me firmly back to earth. It was time to shop.

Lately, I’ve really just been just looking at magazines from the late ’90s. I got a shipment of three the other day. One included a women’s rag with Laetitia Casta on the cover, featuring lots of terrible sex advice. The editorials were great, but mostly I love looking at the ads for the bronchitis medication Zithromax, featuring a disgruntled woman with a suburban-mom haircut, and one for Kmart that features the torso of a model in simple unbuttoned jeans in the desert. Everything just looked better back then. This time on my latest EBay trawl, I searched for Shalom Harlow and saved 10 magazines to bid on with her as a cover star. Each magazine is $20 to $30, probably around 10 times the original newsstand price. I even saw that one seller had more than 400 editorial and ad tears of Eva Herzigová that spanned over a decade. Yes, 400 tears! I wanted it all.

Most recently, I ended up buying an old Glamour magazine touted as “The Great Hair Issue.” The cover girl’s eyebrows were plucked to within an inch of their lives, as if Satan himself had the done the job, freezing her face into an expression that was both sinister and strangely hot. (When did thick brows even become a thing? I wish we’d go back to pencil-thin.) Since the lockdown started, I can only think about eyebrows through the lens of these dated magazines, and my outlook is growing increasingly warped. Where once my late-night panic purchases would be clothes, my buying habits have rapidly changed, as who knows when I’m going to get a chance to wear a new outfit again? At least with magazines, I can laugh about a bedroom faux pas involving expired lube, then re-read Gwyneth Paltrow’s profile from Vogue’s September 1999 issue. Did you know that America’s favorite WASP’s father was Jewish? The author failed to mention that. I learned this factoid because in the following December issue a reader sounded off in the “Talking Back” section and noted it. I bought that one, too. The things we learn.

I don’t know why I keep buying these magazines. It happens in bouts of stress. Right now, we’re living in uncertain times, and yet we are all still shopping. It seems counterintuitive. So, I called up the therapist Karen Steinberg of the Possibility Practice to ask about the link between times of stress and shopping. Of course, there is a connection, but an unexpected one—that the concept of nonessential buying comes down to comfort. “It’s an expression that says, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to live my life the way I’m used to living it anymore, so I might as well do this thing that doesn’t necessarily fit the logic grid because everything is up in the air now,’ ” says Steinberg. “People who are lucky enough to have homes are confined to their homes in a way that many people have never experienced. So there is kind of a deprivational experience from a sensory standpoint, and you want things that make you feel good or are pleasing to you. It feeds something in you as a human being, where you feel deprived physically and emotionally, if you can go online and find this thing that resonates with you and makes you feel good.”

I asked my colleagues if they have been purchasing nonessentials at a rabid rate. Are they also on a buying spree, even among all this uncertainty? It seems like the worst time to buy anything. Layoffs. Pay cuts. The “told-ya-so!” failure of late capitalism. When I sent out an email asking if they were buying, the answers varied. One wrote back in all caps “LOTS OF MAKEUP.” Another wrote that even though the RealReal has halted shipments till May 15, she is still trawling the site regularly. “I still stalk the RealReal daily even though they note that a lot of items won’t ship until May now,” she wrote. “I did luckily score a pair of vintage Chanel buckle loafers before shipments got massively delayed and their warehouses closed. I feel like I’m stress shopping to curb my actual anxiety about what’s going on in our reality. It’s a way for me to have something to ‘look forward to’ and fill that void temporarily with shiny new objects. Not proud of it, but it’s the truth.” When I had issues with my work computer, which has ceased to function, I had a video call with a man from tech support. He told me that he has redone his whole bathroom by buying new things for it.

No, we probably don’t need this stuff. We definitely don’t need this stuff. But shopping is a way of reaffirming that our lives are, somehow, still ticking along. Steinberg doesn’t find fault with this, but simply tells me to question these habits. “It’s important to slow yourself down, have a moment, take a breath, and ask: ‘Why am I doing this thing?’ ” she says. “ ‘Will it help me to have this thing?’ Maybe it will. But if you don’t create this space for yourself to actually be the agency behind these decisions, then they might not be great decisions for you.” Steinberg has a point: It’s time to breathe, and think about why we are buying. Fear? A reminder that there is a future? Whether you’re like me, and like to delve into the past to forget with old magazines, or if you’re like my colleagues, who like to know that life will one day resume (and a shipment of Chanel flats will eventually be waiting for them), the answer isn’t to stop shopping, but simply to be more mindful of why we’re doing it. The next time I’m trawling EBay in the middle of the night, I’ll keep that in mind.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue