Avis Cardella has good taste. In her former career as a model and then fashion editor in the 1980s and ‘90s, she acquired an impressive wardrobe of Commes des Garçons dresses, Yves Saint Laurent skirts, Jean-Paul Gaultier suits, Coco perfume, elbow-length leather gloves, and a “substantial assortment of Jil Sander clothing.” But in her new memoir about shopping addiction, Spent, she talks about how empty those clothes made her feel. “I had used shopping to avoid myself,” she writes, in the repentant prose of a former junkie. “I had used shopping to define myself.”
Cardella’s sentiment could be shared in any one of the recent books by women about the unsatisfying search for fulfillment through purchasing. In an essay called “My Misspent Youth,” written more than a decade before the release of her new memoir, Life Would be Perfect If I Lived In That House, Meghan Daum struggles with trying to get her “realities to match [her] fantasies,” in the form of sushi lunches and fresh-cut flowers. She racks up nearly $8,000 in credit-card debt, $60,000 in student loans, and overdraws her checking account by $1,784. Her solution is to move from New York to the much cheaper Nebraska. But it turns out old habits die hard: Now she is living in Los Angeles and has just written Life Would be Perfect, a book about the pursuit of real estate. In Hot (Broke) Messes: How To Have Your Latte and Drink It Too, reporter Nancy Trejos also tries to use her own story of living beyond her means as a model for other women to clean up their financial acts. But what separates Cardella is pathology; this isn’t a case of simply living beyond her means, it’s a case of hitting rock bottom. “By the time I made the decision to stop,” she writes, “both my emotional and basic needs were hardly being met.”
Cardella defines shopping addiction simply as “shopping that impacts life in a negative way.” She racks up thousands in credit-card debt, is late on her rent, and alienates friends, family, and lovers. And yet she always soothes herself with a quick enabling trip to Madison Avenue: “The way an alcoholic might be found clutching the bottle, I’d be found clutching the Barneys bag.” Onimania is the clinical term for the compulsive desire to shop; she reports that the word “shopaholic” dates back to a 1984 Washington Post story about Diana, Princess of Wales. “To declare oneself a ‘shopaholic’ elicited smiles and pats on the back, maybe even envy,” she notes. But she wants us to treat her shopping binges with gravitas rather than jealousy. She’s the kind of person who buys three pairs of yoga pants and a $500 denim jacket and never takes them out of the bag. At one point, Cardella practiced something she called “hoarding,” in which she had to keep a recent purchase displayed in her closet until an identical replacement had been tracked down.
As a term for a psychiatric condition, compulsive shopping disorder didn’t come to be used until the early ‘90s, and she points out that it remains unrecognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But that doesn’t stop Cardella from including an aside on famous compulsive shoppers throughout history: Imelda Marcos, Marie Antoinette, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mary Todd Lincoln. (A further question she doesn’t address would be: Why so many wives of heads of state?) Six percent of the U.S. population, per a 2006 study at Stanford University, suffers from the compulsion. She cites a study by psychiatrist Dr. Donald Black that states the mean age of onset for compulsive buying to be 30 years old; a separate study by psychiatrist April Benson found shopping addicts are not commonly thirtysomething women—it runs across age and gender—but are often those who suffer from some kind of childhood emotional deprivation. *For Cardella, it was a replacement for parental love and solid relationships with men. “Shopping was my escape, my friend, my balm, my release, my pacifier … .” Well, you get the idea. I half-expected her to add “Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
Shopping also became a way for the author to costume herself for roles in life she took on, whether it was Hamptons Hostess or Girl-About-Town. “I finally looked the part: perfect, polished, and flawless … I had reformatted myself, reconfigured myself.” Her love for fashion is obvious, but she loves the power that comes with looking the part even more: “So much was about appearances, not letting your guard down. So much was about looking good rather than actually feeling good, actually being good.” In 2001, the London Independent called this “Madame Bovary syndrome,” in which women drowned in credit at upmarket boutiques in order to avoid boredom and stay au courant.
Spent’s best moments are when she describes the rituals of these posh stores and how they fetishize the process of spending money. There are the flannel sacks for leather bags, the careful wrapping of cashmere in tissue paper, the way in which the receipts are discreetly tucked into an envelope. Sample sales require both “stamina and preparation,” with slip-on shoes and clothes that can easily be taken off in public. It’s a routine I’m probably too familiar with, as someone who has stripped down at the Phillip Lim sample sale and organized ostensibly romantic vacations in Italy around visits to the Prada outlet. So not only do I understand, but I felt a pang of guilt when Cardella recounts a low moment while buying “candy-colored Cosabella thongs and Ripcosa tank tops” at Barneys—I have purchased those very items at that same store.
While Cardella pads the memoir with enough anecdotal accounts of spending sprees to insure that any avid shopper will be sure to have moments of superficial recognition, her story suffers from a lack of dramatic tension. Her addiction is real, but the stakes never feel high, as there are always jobs, cheap apartments, and rich suitors who function as dei ex machina. The starts and stops of Cardella’s spending and remorse and resolution to do better start to get old, especially when we know we have her reformation on the horizon.
She’s very skilled at accepting the blame for her habits, but only barely hints at the underlying reasons we—women, typically, but men as well—are encouraged to buy things as comfort or to show status. Overall, she misses an opportunity to place her spending in a larger cultural context. She only briefly talks about the way credit-card companies prey on spenders, the ways glossy magazines manufacture desire, and the fad for luxury goods, instead pondering her own reasons for spending money. “Was it low self-esteem? Was it unresolved grief? Was it a lack of something that resided in me all that time?” she asks.
Once she quits shopping, she finds herself paralyzed, unable even to replace her worn-out Nikes. So she learns to “shop consciously,” learning to forgo instant gratification for “meaningful choices.” It leads her to a rewarding bout of self-discovery: “Instead of being defined by all the brands and labels that I once found myself attracted to—a definition of self through the gaze of others—I could finally be defined by my own burgeoning sense of self.” Too bad the revelations about recovery are inevitable and cliché. If only she could muster the same level of style and description that she achieves for those Barneys binges when she’s writing about her newfound soul.
Correction, June 25, 2010: Originally this article incorrectly cited Cardella as stating that shopping addicts are most commonly thirtysomething women. (Return to the corrected sentence.)