Shopping as a Coping Mechanism

By Katie, 5:20 am

As the story below shows, shopping and food/weight issues often go hand-in-hand.

I had just come off of a few months of undereating and overexericisng, and my body was actually underweight. It was rebelling by driving me to eat everything in sight, which was causing a major panic inside of me. I had to get out of the house as a way of trying to run away from my own appetite.

So I went to the mall. And bought a bikini.


The connection here is not coincidental. During the times I’ve struggled most with food, I’ve often spent a lot of time shopping for clothes. In this instance, buying the bikini was an attempt to shield myself from the inevitable weight gain that I knew was coming, and that I needed. It was a desperate cling to an an article of clothing my body did not want to fit into.

At other times, clothes shopping has been a frenzied, frantic effort to boost my self-esteem. I feel horrible about myself, so I try to cover it up with a new wardrobe. Problem is, I usually end up with nothing more than an unnecessary surplus of clothes and an empty wallet.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that clothing can play a very effective, important role in our self-images. That’s why I preach so strongly about wearing clothes that fit and flatter the body you have right now, rather than the body you want to have or think you should have.

But I also think that many of us try to use shopping – and in my case, specifically clothes-shopping – as a way to cover stuff up. Buying something shiny and new often gives us the same illusionary satisfaction that comes from overdoing it on sweets; in the moment it’s all we want to do, it’s the only thing we think will make us feel better…and yet we end up feeling worse.

For many people, the urge to shop even emulates the urge to overeat (or diet, as the case may be). Some people say they feel driven to shop in a way that feels automatic or compulsive.

It is important to remember that just like overeating or losing weight can’t actually solve our problems, neither can a new wardrobe or a shopping spree. Eventually the food stops numbing us, or we can’t count another calorie, or the new outfits fade to old.

While I don’t see anything wrong with using a little shopping trip to boost my mood, I also know it’s just a short, temporary fix. What really matters will never be found inside a mall.

Do you think there’s a connection between food/weight issues and shopping?

20 Responses to “Shopping as a Coping Mechanism”

  1. I’m not sure if I ever used it specifically as a body image coping mechanism, but I do have a bit of a shopaholic thing going on when I have a bad day. Granted, I know how to live within my means, but I do find myself heading for a mall when I’m feeling down on myself. Interesting correlation!

  2. bubu says:

    I definitely see the correlation – shopping can often give me the same high, or numbing effect, as a binge…. and the same crash and guilt afterward. Luckily, you can return the clothes more readily than the food! But I do try to take the drive or compulsion to shop as a cue that there is something emotional I’m avoiding. Just like the food will always be there, so too will the clothes or shoes, and if I feel I have to have them RIGHT NOW, then I know something is off.

  3. Kelly says:

    I totally do that! Shopping is definitely a coping mechanism for me but I usually shop for things like jewlry or shoes…something not related to my clothing size.

  4. Ive totally used shopping as a coping mechanism.

    As soon as I lost weight and needed a smaller size, it validated the fact that I ‘made it’.

    Then when I didnt fit into it anymore, it made me feel worse for having gotten kicked out of the imaginary weight loss club.

    Sizes suck!

  5. Alexis says:

    Ever watch Clean House or Hoarders? These ppl have the same problem as the contestants on Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover-weight loss. They have to distract themselves from their unmanageable lives.
    Nothing for me replaces food. Only straightening out what I’m eating over will stop a binge. And even then I’ll sometimes eat to manage the stress I have over the process. Truthfully, I’ve come to accept that as a part of me. That’s what I do. If I eat over some ish in my life it isn’t nearly as destructive as what would happen if I tried to sit on myself. Even a few thousand calories eaten before I realize it is a lot better than fighting myself and setting up a worse binge that will last much longer, sometimes days longer. I can absorb those calories into my weekly food intake. I can’t stop a “restricting” binge once it gets going. It has to burn itself out.

    • Katie says:

      I’m very impressed with the level of self-acceptance you’re talking about here. You’ve obviously reached a point where you know that fighting against yourself is fruitless.

  6. Absolutely! I echo what bubu and everyone else has said so far. When I finally lost some significant weight shopping became the thing I would do when I was facing uncomfortable stuff and didn’t want to binge…but that said, shopping AND eating have always been problematic for me, no matter what weight I am.

  7. Belinda says:

    First of all, thank you for your messages. It’s amazing how you express so succinctly many things that I experience.
    Yes, to me the craving for food, for shopping, for whatever, is related. I have learned to “believe” in a lack or a deprivation and have automatically turned to a coping mechanism of trying to fill that lack with something.
    I’ve been looking into the practice of insight meditation, particularly on a website connected to the Orlando, Florida Insight Meditation Group. Their website is very informative.Buddhist philosophy has been guiding practitioners to know feelings and states and all phenomena as impermanent.
    I realize this may sound simplistic, but it’s a long-term and natural way to approach one’s challenges.
    But more importantly, I’m looking, watching, just noticing, how my discomfort with feelings are driving the cravings. I am learning to ask about the true nature of feelings. Are they temporary, and if so, can I learn to watch them, feel them, and let them pass like the clouds and weather that comes and goes?

    • Katie says:

      I love your emphasis on the importance of being introspective and aware of our emotions. I’ve found it immensely helpful to think of an uncomfortable emotion like a wave – it rises, comes to a height, and then recedes.

    • Bubu says:

      I’m with you Belinda – meditation has been a big part of my learning to unpack and uncover emotions that would otherwise lead to some sort of self-destructive behavior. Once I have calmed my mind and body with mediation, thoughts and feelings begin to bubble up in a way I can digest – usually through journaling. I have also found the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh very helpful.

  8. Sarah says:

    I go shopping A LOT as a distraction from a potential binge or beating myself up but I rarely buy anything. Sometimes just getting out my apartment is enough to boost me out of a bad mood. I’m fairly frugal with my money so I don’t part with it easily.

  9. MK says:

    I’m not much of a shopper, really, so when I’m in the mood, I try to go, and I’ve found that in a certain mood, it can validate my changing views of myself — mostly accepting that I’m an adult, and no, wearing khaki pants doesn’t have to be part of that if I don’t want it to be (they don’t flatter me). In another mood, it validates every feeling of unworthiness, and actually brings out a worse mood than I was in before I tried to “fix” it with shopping! Just yet another thing that makes me think about where I am and why I am there rather than sitting in distraction.

    • Katie says:

      Very interesting! I think I’m the same way – depending on my mood, shopping can be a positive or negative experience.

  10. PlumPetals says:

    I definitely see a relationship between shopping and eating habits. I can relate to pretty much all the previously mentioned comments … Once I realized that I was wasting money buying clothes that I wasn’t wearing/didn’t even like the way I looked in, I changed my shopping focus to SHOES. That was the one size that was consistent … and wearing an amazing pair of heels always did the trick for me. The addiction still continues, and it’s definitely got to the point where I would rather spend on shoes than on food. I guess it’s my little shoe diet plan :)

  11. Dana says:

    UGHHH I cant tell you how many times in my recovery i’ve “gone shopping” to get my mind off of eating more and gaining weight (I struggle with undereating). I kind of had to CUT it out because I really dont have the $ for it but funnily enough, it served as a good distraction.

  12. You need to read Geneen Roth’s “Lost & Found”. She talks about how our relationship with foods mirrors our relationship with money/shopping. Restricting/Permitting.

  13. I’ve never been a big shopper…but I can remember one time during my extreme restrictive phases and when I first started binging going on a huge shopping spree where I bought like 6 pairs of jeans and 5 bikinis. Funnily enough, those are the clothes I fit into comfortably now without restriction/binge cycles.

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