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Photo Credit: Paris Perfect via Pinterest

Photo Credit: Paris Perfect via Pinterest

Last Sunday, my boyfriend said he needed to go shopping. “A ha!” I thought to myself, “I need jeans!” At JCrew, Justin immediately picked out the 5 all-blue items that he was going to purchase. When it was my turn to walk around the store, Justin continuously whispered, “That’s not jeans. Those aren’t jeans. You’re here for jeans.” What a buzzkill, right?

When we finally got home, I had only purchased what I needed--the one pair of jeans. But I had still dragged him to three additional stores, and fully enjoyed browsing all the other options! Now, this is not a new story. If you had surveyed the other couples at the mall, I’m sure many of them would have been mirroring my own experience. So what’s the deal? Why does the stereotype that women like to shop more than men ring so true? I decided to do a little digging, and discovered that like most things, there are a few opinions on this subject. Some scientific research suggests that female shopping is influenced by gender behavior instilled in us in caveman days, while some psychologists argue that this theory is reductionist and sexist, and that female shopping behavior is in fact, manipulatively created by patriarchy.

At the dawn of civilization, men were hunters while women were foragers, which scientists now believe explains modern shopping behavior. Like their hunter forefathers wanted to hunt and bring meat back to their families as quickly as possible, men go into a store, make their selection and are ready to leave. Women, however, take a more thoughtful approach. As if they were looking for the plumpest berries or the most luscious walnuts, women sift through racks of clothing, touching and examining each for quality. Scientists believe that the forager behavior that women learned early on in human development led to a finer attention to colors, shapes, sizes, textures and smells--heightened senses which still come into play in modern shopping behavior, and make shopping more enjoyable for women.

Some modern psychologists and historians call the hunter-gatherer argument simplistic, and falsely supportive of established gender mores. These critics argue that female consumerism began as a cultural ploy to try to trick women into feeling more in control of their choices. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, department stores encouraged women to engage in shopping as a way to “make choices for themselves.” Shopping attendants would present products to clients, and ask them what they wanted. The shopper was encouraged to pursue her own desires rather than serve as the object of someone else’s desire. As Polly Young-Eisendrath puts it, “well before upper and middle class women had won the right to vote, they were allowed to practice individual freedom in department stores.” Polly, and her peers, argue that this promise of freedom through “getting what you want” still pervades today--and is still attractive, and even intoxicating to women.  But why is it more intoxicating to women than men? Because men are always told that they can get what they desire, while women are still taught to be the objects rather than the pursuers of such desire.

Reading about both sides of the argument proved incredibly interesting to me--mostly because I don't find them mutually exclusive. Each has its truths, and each speaks to me and my experience as a woman. At the end of my research, I came across a recent poll, which made me think even further about the issue. In a survey of 2000 women, two thirds agreed that they select clothing based on what they think their girlfriends will like instead of what they think men will like. Now, I know what you’re thinking--here we go with the argument that women are always trying to one-up each other. But, I don’t see it this way.  If you follow the caveman theory, this shows that women learn from each other. By caring about whether her friend thought her basket of berries was choice, our caveman ancestor learned what separates a good berry from a bad one. And if you follow the cultural theory, the study shows that by shopping for female approval we assign value to female opinion rather than to male desire. In either sense, the act of making shopping decisions based on our girlfriend’s opinion creates a distinctly autonomous female community.

For more reading, check out these articles:

Discovery Shopping Evolution

Psychology Today: Ladies love to Shop     

The Daily Mail: Women Only Get Dressed Up to Impress Each Other

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