Retail Therapy: the Language of Emotion and 'the Irrational Woman' in Fashion and Beauty

  • By Grrrl Power Liverpool
  • 26 Mar, 2017
Text by Lucy Holt

When fashion, and the field of cosmetic products referred to as ‘beauty’ are marketed, they speak a distinctive language. Across online magazines and social media, the language of emotion, particularly that of the romantic, is used. We are ‘in love’ with X cosmetic product, we ‘lust’ after Y cut of skirt. We, as women, are told repeatedly that emotional relationships with ourselves or with others, can be synthesized through the buying of products.

To put this in a cultural context, there are parallels to be drawn between the woman-personal to which beauty and fashion is marketed, and the historically defined ‘irrational woman’. Or her more contemporary counterpart, ‘the hormonal woman’. This version of the woman is then exploited and capitalised upon by an industry that rewards giving into impulse with an emotional payoff.

Tania Woods, in her paper published by the NYU, introduces a close analysis of women and mental disorders throughout literary history:

'From the mad heroines of classic Victorian literature to the portrayal of insanity in modern Western texts and Middle Eastern writing, women suffering from mental instability have been a captivating subject.

Using today’s understanding of mental illness and psychological abnormality, do we find these women to be suffering from psychological conditions, or are they suffering from a “female malady”? ... In particular the last two centuries has seen a greater interconnectedness between the concept of femininity and the cultural construction of madness.'

There is a historical notion that women are subject to almost any external influence and almost none of their own autonomy. The emotive woman is easy to exploit: from depression and anxiety, to eating disorders and hysteria. The language of fashion and beauty is intrinsically linked to the idea of the woman as an irrational and emotive being - perpetuating it as a societal paradigm. Then, the emotional woman paradigm is exploited, as products are constantly positioned as emotional capital or love substitutes.

1. ‘Treat yourself’ culture and fluctuating self-esteem

We see the concept of the irrational woman constantly recurs in the way fashion and beauty retailers compel women to 'treat themselves'. It’s shorthand for creating feelings of wellness, self-care and self-worth, and it occurs so frequently it’s become an absurd phenomena.

You might receive an email coaxing you to 'treat yourself' because it's a Monday, or a Friday, or your birthday, or the afternoon or Valentine's day. For women who do non-essential shopping online, the call to indulge and be frivolous is a near daily feature of the inbox. Instant 'fast-fashion' beauty products do well from being marketed as 'little-and-often' boosts. There is no wonder why an industry that profits so heavily from maintaining a constant fluctuation of women’s self-esteem maintains this approach.

And as a result of this type of marketing, women are often manoeuvred into the cycle of the secretive beauty purchase. This is the singular, spontaneous purchase that occurs outside of the realm of ‘normal’ shopping, or shopping for the things we consider essentials. We often make no fanfare about this because there’s a degree of shame associated with indulging in materialistic cravings. We are never 'just off to the shops to pick up a lipstick', even if we wear it as regularly and we use bread, milk and eggs.

The culture of pick-me-up purchases that occur in response to an emotional drive, as opposed to buying as regularly and overtly as we would our groceries, has a couple of profound effects. We never see a sum cost of what we’re spending, and we never fully acknowledge the hugely integral place the world of ‘beauty’ has within the world of most women.

The more we see a new lipstick as a little pick me up if we're feeling low, or a posh skin cream as an ‘oh-go-on' moment, the more we are made to feel we need to be worthy of conforming to certain beauty norms, and the more satisfying that need pays emotional dividends. Our off-the-cuff purchases not only slowly chip away at our bank balances, but they also chip away at our self-esteem, and beauty and emotional well-being become intrinsically linked. As a result, we might become participants in a cycle of guilt-ridden buying. This guilt exists from a shame or fear of caring too much about these frivolous things, so the habit remains secretive, impulsive and destructive.

Put more succinctly: 'treat yourself' shopping culture - as pervaded by beauty marketing and magazines - links self-esteem with worthiness. Women are being sold the idea that through the right purchases, they could become worthy of love. Whether that be romantic love or a love of oneself, beauty and fashion positions itself as a facilitator of this type of emotional well-being.

In an article that appeared in The Atlantic, the writer makes a convincing case for the 'treat yourself' phenomena to be non-gendered and inherently American (Bloom: 2015). It's true that consumers of all genders are told that they 'deserve' fast food or electronic goods, however, it is predominantly women who have the same assertion paradoxically tied up with notions of beauty, womanhood and worthiness. It is mostly fashion and cosmetic buys which are considered the proponents of self-care.

2. 'The tyranny of fashion itself'

Self-care is the 21st century reboot of ‘retail therapy’. ‘Retail therapy’ being a concept that has, for decades, intrinsically linked women's mental well-being with their desire to go out and buy stuff. It is a shorthand for the pervasive and reductive idea that women can make themselves feel better by going out and buying things.  

It is not just the act of shopping that contains these connotations, but the world of fashion itself. Despite fashion being a patriarchal institution at the very top level - with the vast majority of designers and tastemakers being male -  but it is women who have been historically painted to have an interest in clothes.

In a book by Ilya Parkins entitled  Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli: Fashion, Femininity and Modernity,  the author illustrates the fraught and patriarchal relationship between women and fashion (an institution which has been historically male, despite the overwhelming amount of stitches in history having been sewn by female hands).

She quotes a long passage from early 20th century fashion designer Poiret which illuminates a problematic view of the irrational woman, as fickle and image-conscious as fashion itself. He says:

‘If you don't love lace, you don't love women. It is the very expression of their personality. Its charm springs from all that useless labour of making holes in a fabric, for no reason, for beauty, for pleasure’.

He goes on to detail - that he would like to bring back the bustle because it 'made women charming because it was a defiance of sense, an assertion of their independence and their disdain for logic, an affectation'. His patronising description unveils an influential opinion for inside the industry that women do not know their own minds, that they can be tempted by pretty things.

Parkins believes that in Poiret's commentary, ‘women emerge as endangered by their lack of reason, a lack which renders them vulnerable to the tyranny of fashion itself’.

Through her unpicking of his lavish, provocative and ‘oh-so-Fashion' rhetoric, Parkins unpicks a notion, at the very heart of a European culture of fashion, which is still felt today; the woman who indulges in all sorts of unnecessary, frivolous activities in the name of beauty. Or rather, he describes a woman who defers autonomy to some unknown force which tells her what she ‘will love' and what she 'must have'.

3. The love substitute

To perform 'fashion', to do it and to follow it, is by its very nature an act of irrationality - a blind following of some higher (usually patriarchal) authority. The historical notion of the fashion follower is that it is in opposition to one’s own taste, style and personality, and instead, an act of following the crowd. In the contemporary era, however, women are more empowered than ever to define their own fashions in the plural, and the culture is arguably more democratised than ever. Thanks to the power of the internet and online media, fashion and beauty contains more choice than ever before. Instagram, Pinterest, Internet shopping, Etsy, Ebay and Man Repeller have opened up the possibilities for creativity and choice in what we see and buy.

However, echo chambers exist, and once we register interest in a certain sphere of the web, we become browsing targets. Ironically, our ability to express our individuality on the Internet means the targeted marketing we see is ever more in line with our personal preference. The constantly-developing algorithms can conjure up a near-infinite number of hyper-personalised micro-trends to appear in our sidebar. Our emotional relationship with those targeted items is heightened - thus the feeling of love is synthesised between woman and highly desirable product.

Logic tells us that it's maths and science and data analysis that puts eye-catching products in our eyeline, but it's an uncomfortable truth and one that's easy to forget. The spookily accurate targeted piece of marketing isn't a phenomena reserved for women, but it can act as a well-placed, curated 'solution' to the emotional deficit constructed by the language of women's shopping. Put differently - if we are constantly told that we 'need' certain products to act as and emotional cushion in our life, we might be more likely to get a feel-good rush from engaging with marketing that seems to understand our tastes.

The premise of 'The Lust List' or 'Beauty Buys You'll Love' or endless variations on this theme is that the promise of emotional gratification - the payoff from satisfying the fabricated emotional desire - is enough to make a woman 'indulge'. The positive effects are removed from the qualities of the product itself. Women are invited into a relationship with a product, whether it be a short-term fling, long-term love affair or an 'oh-so-naughty' dalliance that you shouldn't be getting involved with. Buying is positioned as the solution to an unrealised romantic desire.

Through unpicking the ways in which the world of fashion and beauty speaks to women, we see that there is a perpetual fluctuation of deficit/reward in the positioning of women and the things they might buy. Whether it's a crap day countered by a 'pick-me-up' new lipstick, or a sense of loneliness seemingly eradicated by a 'dress that will make you feel amazing', the industry wins when it convinces women that these products provide an emotional service, and when they have an emotional need that needs servicing in the first place. The augmentation of 'self-care' as a marketing tool is further evidence that emotionality is ripe for exploitation.

It's not news that shopping and feelings of self-worth are close, but when examined in tandem with the misogynistic, but historically recurrent, concept of the irrational woman at the mercy of her impulse, we discover an uncomfortable culture of language.

When beauty and fashion are so consciously and inextricably bound up in feeling of self-worth, the idea of ‘retail therapy’ becomes a dangerous one. The language of lust and desire creates a world in which self-esteem is in flux and women must earn - through buying - a worthiness to experience love. It’s a structure which is reinforced by problematic popular faux-philosophies like self-care and treat-yourself culture.

Through this language, women are not just sold a lifestyle, but the opportunity to experience a sense of emotional well-being - a synthesised version of love - created to fill voids of self-doubt created by the very same industry.


Bloom, Ester -  How ‘Treat Yourself’ became a Capitalist command  - The Atlantic: 2015


Share by: