by Simcha Fisher
Simcha writes at Aleteia and is the author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. She also wrote the foreword to Jennifer’s collection of humor essays, Like Living Among Scorpions.
Some women speak of “retail therapy” — shopping to lift one’s mood, or to reward or compensate oneself for some trauma.
For me, shopping is the trauma.
Here’s how the day goes: Before leaving the house, I prepare myself to shop. I take a shower and do that special fluffing thing to my hair. I wear my most helpful undergarments, and when I walk into the store, I use a deliberately confident stride.
I start out at my favorite store, which has nice clothes, good sales, and dressing room attendants who don’t look likely to wilt under the weight of a pair of size 16 pants.
Like a ranch hand guiding a nervous filly through a pen of rattle snakes, I murmur gently to myself as I browse the shelves. What a lot of nice stuff! I breathe encouragingly. You should wear more colors! You’re really pretty young, and you have every right to be shopping in any part of the store. You have money in your pocket, don’t you? So let’s do this.
I take a deep breath and step away from the maternity section (after noting bitterly that now, now, of course, they’re selling pretty maternity clothes. As soon as I get pregnant, though, they’ll take them all away and start showing clown outfits again).
The mistakes began right away.
First, I try to repair thirty-three years of dressing timidly…with a single purchase. I begin to hunt for something completely opposite from my usual taste, because, after all, this one needs to count! If I’m going to take the radical step of actually picking something out, instead of just mysteriously finding it in my closet, it might as well be interesting, right?
Bristling with confidence and imagination, I rapidly choose four shirts, two skirts, and even a dress, even though I’m still nursing the baby all the time. Everything I pick is clingy, ruffly, and has straps in unusual places. There are unexpected diagonals, and even patterns.
I beam at the attendant and proudly announce that I have seven items! She seems puzzled at my pride, but hands me a plastic “7” tag. I step into the fitting room, with all the mirrors and lights, and I take off my clothes.
I was prepared…and yet I was not prepared.
Congress is still debating whether it actually constitutes torture to confront one’s fully illuminated bottom in a public space. I can tell you one thing: the process does not encourage the victim (that’s me, not my bottom) to give up good information.
My mental state slams into disaster mode. My eyes cross, my vision blurs. I feel unworthy, angry, and giddy all at once, at the same time as trying to get a grip. This is only the first store, and I can’t go home yet! I think of how annoyed at myself I will be if the day of the special occasion comes, and I have to assemble an outfit out of the stained, pilled rags and bags I already have at home. So I begin to try things on.
I draw the following conclusions:
- “XL” does not mean what it used to mean;
- Peasant blouses do not flatter the forms of people who are actually descended from actual peasants;
- And yes, there is a reason I have never before tried on a cherry-red blouse made out of two layers of sheer seersucker.
It’s still so early in the game, though. I’m fine, I’m fine. I take the circus costumes off, put my real clothes on again, and look myself sternly in the eye. I fish my emergency lipstick out of a secret pocket in my purse (my regular lipstick is in the medicine chest. It is a decoy, so the kids have something to bite). With lipstick on, at least one part of me is in well-defined. No more nonsense, now.
I march myself back out to the suitably named racks. This time, I firmly choose four items in various shades of black. I pick out sizes so enormous that I could comfortably wear them to the delivery room. Let’s see me look silly now!
The dressing room lady gives me another plastic tag and a sympathetic smile. The heck with the mirrors this time; I’m just going to do this by feel. I skin off my clothes, skin the new ones on. Cautiously, I check myself out.
Well, except for the clean carpet, I might as well be at home. I have managed to find four outfits which are exactly like what I already own, only bigger. And anyway, I can’t wear black to a baptism! People will think I don’t like babies, and why would they think that? I giggle to myself, and my belly jiggles. Okay.
Once more, I head out. I check out the junior section. I check out the plus-size section. I check out the shoe section. I wander, I dilly-dally, I deny. I think about whether we need more ipecac syrup. I pick up a few things we need for the house, and then head back to the clothes. Determined to come away with something, I grab a coat off the clearance rack. It’s a really good deal, and I sort of need a coat, kind of, and it certainly fits me. It would fit anyone — it’s basically a slipcover with shoulders. But only $14! I buy it, and try the next store.
This time, when someone asks if I need help, I confess that I do. “I am looking,” I explain, “for a long skirt.”
The saleslady actually laughs.
She shows me what they do have, which is some kind of apparatus made of streamers and elastic, with tasteful iridescent sequins in the shape of sea horses. And there are also some tops, which were designed to be worn by — well, what did the designer have in mind, exactly? Prostitutes, certainly, but there is also some hint of the world of toddlers. And Elizabethan England, plus gymnastics class.
Still trying to pretend that I’m not wasting my time, I choose two skirts. They’re not long, but they’re not too short, and they are the best of the lot, because they don’t look like some unholy hybrid of two different pieces of clothing.
This time in the fitting room, I’m only interested in speed. I know I’m not going to buy anything, but I’m forging ahead, as Daffy Duck would say, out of sheer honesty. These are supposed to be clothes, eh? Okay, I’ll put ’em on. Joke’s on you!
Next store. This is a store I’ve never even been in before. I wasn’t even sure, by the name, if they sold clothes. It turns out they do…sort of. What they sell mostly is things in the “baby doll” style. Seeing as I’m shopping in a rare window of time when I am neither traveling with nor gestating a baby, I pass.
Whom I’m angry at, I can’t really say, but by this time, I am nearly shaking with righteous indignation. Oh, and hunger. I left the house right before lunch, and now it’s an hour after lunch, and I will not be suckered into spending money on a quarter pounder with cheese, which doesn’t go well with any skirt in any size. Next!
Next is really the last possible store I can manage to go into. There are other clothing stores in town, but I am already only minutes away from passing out from hunger and frustration, and I’d rather not die behind the wheel just because I’m not at peace with my hips.
One final door. I enter.
Oh yes: the reason I saved this store for last. Lights glare in a frantic shade of pink. The music howls. The aisles between the racks are so narrow, I have to push back a jungle of slithery garments with both hips as I walk, and I’m walking sideways. All the salesgirls are fourteen years old, and they each wear their dyed black hair in a theatrically extreme side part, revealing one burning eye smeared with kohl. There is a muffled babble of thrilled voices as the pseudo-prepubescent boychild girl customers exclaim into the blue glow of their cellphones.
I’ve been in and out of overheated stores and wintry parking lots so many times by now that my nose is running magnificently, my appendages are pulsing, and I feel that I am putting off steam. One raven-haired acolyte detaches herself from a shimmering wall display and asks, with some alarm, if I need help finding anything.
My child, you have no idea.
I say (and this is a direct quote): “I am at the end of my rope. I can’t think anymore. I need some help.”
Is it really just coincidence that the outfit that comes to her mind is off in a dark alcove at the back? Or am I really making her store look that bad? Either way, the garment she shows me is nonsense, just nonsense. I don’t even know what it is. I think it’s sideways, or maybe not.
I stumble back to the car. The car turns itself on and anxiously steers me, all by itself, back to one of the stores I had already tried and found wanting. Unseen hands gently shove me, shattered, back to a rack of skirts.
There is a blue and white one there, with a pattern only a bit laughable, of a length just barely insulting to my calves, in a size only a few numbers off, in a price only slightly offensive. I buy it. I go back to the car, and I go back home.
My husband says he thought I must have run over an old man, I looked so stricken. I buried my face on his chest and had to be soothed for several minutes before I was ready to reveal what had happened to me today:
I bought myself a skirt.