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Are You A Slave To Fashion?

Cosmo dishes out the lowdown on shopping addiction and its serious repercussions.

When I decided I wanted to have my own designer bag,” begins Georgia, 24, a call center agent, “I knew having a credit card was the only solution. To cut a long story short, I got three credit cards at the same time. Big mistake. Big disaster.”

Georgia isn’t exaggerating. “Disaster” more than aptly describes the state she’s in after maxing out her cards and accruing debts from all the shopping she did in—surprise, surprise—a span of two months. “For the first time in my life, I had two designer bags. I also got a new iPhone, plus scores of clothes,” she says. She shopped like she had never shopped before, deliberately ignoring the credit card bills that arrived at her doorstep. She reasons,  “Ayoko sila makita. At that time, wala akong paki how much I was going to spend, basta go lang nang go.”

Months passed before Georgia finally summoned the strength to open the bills that had piled up on her nightstand, and when she did, she nearly had a heart attack. All in all, she had to pay almost P300,000.

She had no idea how she was going to pay it all off. “Now that I think about it, grabe, all because of wanting to look fasyon, and look where it got me. I can’t even get bank loans to pay off my debts because of my bad credit. I really didn’t know what to do.”

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While most women naturally clamor for clothes, shoes, and accessories, Georgia’s extreme love for shopping is a cause for worry and hints at a bigger, more pressing issue. She is, according to psychologists, a shopping addict or shopaholic. Shopaholics “will spend over their budget and get into deep financial trouble, spending well above their income. People who ‘shop 'til they drop’ and run their credit cards up to the limit often have a shopping addiction,” says Ruth Engs, EdD, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University.

“The normal person will say, ‘Oops, I can’t afford to buy this or that.’ But not someone who has an addiction—she will not recognize the boundaries of a budget.”

Georgia admits budget was never an issue when swiping her card. She thought nothing of the consequences nor the risks: getting summoned to court, or having to pawn her mother’s jewelry to save her ass. “I was in denial for the longest time. My motto then was ‘just do it.’”

Overspending is just one of the signs of an affliction with compulsive shopping disorder (CSD). Doctors have considered shopping addiction as a reasonable disorder and medical condition. “At the disorder level, compulsive shopping is an addiction. Victims feel a relentless drive to shop. They deny the negative consequences of their actions (as in lacking income or savings to cover their credit purchases) and got a serious lack of impulse control,” explains Letty Workman, assistant professor of marketing at Utah Valley University.

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Like alcoholism and drug addiction, shopoholism or oniomania promotes the release of endorphins and dopamine, “naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain that get switched on, making the person feel good. And if it feels good, they are more likely to do it—it’s reinforced,” says Engs. Georgia admits she felt inexplicable joy after every shopping spree. “I was so happy,” she recounts. “So, when the high subsided, I’d look for it again. Each craving [for the high] was intense enough to merit another trip to the mall.”

Adds Amy Twain, author of Surviving Modern Living, “A shopping addict may own and collect a hundred pairs of shoes, or bags, or even glasses—usually the obsession or preoccupation being restricted to one kind of thing or object.”

For Tanya, 28, an assistant manager, it’s owning the ever-popular Longchamp Le Pliage tote (about P6,000 for the smallest kind) in all sizes, handle-lengths, and colors. While she doesn’t incur debt to achieve her goal, she starves herself to save on cash. Subsisting on crackers alone in lieu of meals has already given her ulcer attacks, yet she’s still hell-bent on completing her collection. Such devotion to this branded bag reveals that Tanya herself is a shopping addict, “who buys to relieve anxiety and [whose shopping habits] create a dysfunctional lifestyle,” says Terrence Shulman, author of Bought Out and $pent: Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending.

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In a country of mallgoers in the millions, a Nielsen study reveals that “women remain the main shoppers in Philippine households at 67 percent.” So how can you tell if you’re a normal shopper or an addictive one?

The answer is simple: “The shopping addict’s profile is the same profile that people with alcoholism and food addiction share,” Workman says.

Also, “shopaholics will hide their purchases because they don’t want their significant other or family to know they bought those because they’ll be criticized. They may have secret credit card accounts, too,” says Engs. Tanya keeps telling her friends she’s been eating nothing but crackers because she has to lose 15 pounds, not because she envisions herself a Longchamp-lugger.

Ana, 24, a writer, knows she’s a shopaholic, but it’s a secret she keeps from her family and friends. She’s no Paris Hilton—her parents are OFWs in Dubai who have been working for years to support Ana and her four siblings who are still in school. Ana has been shamelessly asking them for more money to feed her addiction. “I tell them the money is for my siblings: their allowance, lab fees, etcetera,” she says. “My writing assignments don’t pay much, so I use their money for shopping. Sometimes we even run out of grocery money! I know it’s wrong, but I tell myself, ‘Okay lang, it’s worth it. I deserve it.’” Unfortunately, Ana’s “I deserve it” mindset is “more akin to vanity,” says psychotherapist Rachel Morris, who adds, “I don’t believe people with a realistic sense of their own worth feel the need to buy things they can’t afford or put their family’s happiness at risk.”

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For the shopaholics themselves, being told they have compulsive shopping disorder seems petty, because really, it isn’t exactly a life-threatening issue, like anorexia or drug addiction. But CSD shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial, because “the reality is that it has serious consequences, like other addictions. It can lead to severe financial debt, the breakdown of relationships and families, and impairment at work and at home,” says Helga Dittmar, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex in the U.K. Guilt and remorse haunt Ana every night, knowing that the chic new pair of palazzo pants hanging in her closet cost her siblings a nice meal.

“One time, I told my youngest sister to be absent for two days, because wala pa allowance niya, but the truth was, I used her money for the last Midnight Madness sale. I’m discreet naman with my purchases. I’d never go home with shopping bags in tow—I stuff my stash into a recycling bag.”

She justifies her spending habits by blaming it on her past: “Before my parents worked abroad, wala akong magagandang damit.”  Says Rolando Tolentino, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and pop culture expert about the issue: “Kapag napagkaitan ka ng panahon, at sa panahong may kakayahan ka nang bumili, bibili ka na with a vengeance.”

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Shopping is a feel-good strategy—a surefire way to get out of a rut, a temporary solution to a problem, a way to validate the self. “Compulsive buying concerns the self concept,” says Dittmar. “They’ll buy those consumer goods that symbolize a part of their ideal self: ‘If I buy a glamorous dress, I might feel like a glamorous person.’”

Tolentino points to the extensive Western influence on our culture, buying habits included. “Global imperialism is one of the major causes of this culture of materialism,” he says. And even if many Pinoys get trapped by all the trappings, who can deny the major ego-boost shopping can provide? “Mas marami silang nabibili, mas naka-chin up ito, mas may confidence,” he says.

Georgia is still figuring out how to pay her debts, ignoring calls from collectors and the letters demanding a dialogue with the credit card companies’ lawyers. Ana isn’t done lying and conning her parents and siblings, thinking that “baka magsawa rin ako kabibili.” Tanya will keep starving herself—gastric ulcers and three trips to the E.R. notwithstanding. CSD may be messing up their lives, but it’s not yet too late to get rid of it.

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“The cure of the addiction and the possible repair of finances may be possible only if the shopaholic accepts that a shopping addiction truly exists,” says Twain.

Donald Black, professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, suggests four ways to jumpstart your recovery from CSD:

1. Admit you are a compulsive spender.

2. Get rid of your credit cards and checkbooks.

3. Find other meaningful ways to spend time.

4. If you should go shopping, do it with a friend. “[You] should have a self-proposed ban on shopping or have someone else controlling your finances for you,” says Black.

Bottom line is, staying out of shopping troubles entails changing your behavior, particularly with “how you feel about yourself and the way you go about meeting your authentic needs,” adds Benson. Learn to value what really matters, and if you’re up for a shopping spree, shop within your means. “Understand who you are, what you want and need. In general, having more things means enjoying life less. Acquiring objects can so fill up our lives and environment that there’s little time or space to use what’s been acquired. What we consume ends up consuming us.”

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This story originally appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine, November 2011. 

* Minor edits have been made by editors