Please respect the fake conversation I’m having with my cell phone. Please do not greet me. Please don’t tell me your name. If I need help (and what exactly will I need help with? Tying my shoes? Making a sandwich? Emotional support?), I’ll ask for it. Otherwise, please let me beeline to the sale rack on my own, unhindered by your well wishes, for my satisfactory consumer experience at Banana fucking Republic.
I’m here at the J.Crew factory outlet for a rushed half hour before I have to relieve my babysitter, before I have to return to my life where two small humans hassle me all day. “Why can’t I have a million cookies?” “Mum? Mum? Mum?” “Mum, I don’t want to pee. Why do I have to pee?” “Mum? Mum?” “More milk please!” “Mum! I’m done pooping! Wipe!” “Mum?” “Can you do this puzzle, Mum? I need help!” “More water!” “Why does Dad have to work every single day?!”
I’m here at the J.Crew factory outlet to take a break from all that, to let my frayed vocal cords rest, to let my harried brain focus on something smooth and ironed, something un-smeared, something shiny, something soft, something untouched by grubby toddler paws. I’m here to look for something to take home with me that is neatly folded by someone else’s hands, that has never been marred by sweat or life, that showcases someone else’s labor, that has never been in my washing machine.
I’m here to buy some socks festooned with quirky little hens wearing berets.
But the store reminds me that I fail to find aspirational inspiration in brick-and-mortar stores, stacks of denim and rows of blazers. They’re just piles of cotton and wool cobbled together under dubious (at best) working conditions.
O n my computer screen, however, I don't have to think about the sheer volume of materials, resources, physical space, and human lives needed to manufacture clothing. All that remains is a virginal, vintage-inspired sundress.
I can convince myself that the website’s fresh graphics and tasteful design seem too aesthetically at odds with child labor, unlivable wages, or unsustainable energy expenditure; I am granted a reprieve from nagging concerns of morality by the tactful anonymity of e-commerce, free to see what I want to see, which is a sundress that whispers of midnight garden trysts and fountain plashes, of crumbly cheeses and another bottle of red. The dress is what I want it to be, according to my day’s particular shade of emptiness. I am the sole audience, the sole interpreter, the sole protagonist.
But in brick-and-mortar stores, the same sundress swings mutely alongside thirteen vintage-inspired clones. It reminds me of all the other bodies which will sweat into the floral silk. And when I peek under the collar for washing instructions, I will see that yes, this vintage-inspired sundress was made in Bangladesh.
I’m here at T.J. Maxx to find a white cotton button-down. Something classic. After yesterday’s tricep workout, led by a pony-tailed brunette named Krista (“Come on, y’all! Rip through these last reps y’all! My triceps are really burning now ya’ll!”) on my TV screen , undertaken to increase my confidence, my arm gets tired swish-swishing the hangers away from each other, separating the matronly collared shirts from the somehow less matronly collared shirts.
I am not here at T.J. Maxx to shoot the shit with the stage mother from my son’s preschool who forced her four-year-old to identify the word “cooperate” on a classroom bulletin board, this bullying mother who bumps her Coach purse into me, apologizing absentmindedly before expressing delight that it’s me : “Charlie’s mom!”
No, I want to say, it’s really not. It’s not me. It’s someone else.
I’m here at Aerie (American Eagle’s offshoot brand, which markets towards thirteen-year-old girls) to find a cheap T-shirt, something sheer and relaxed, something that will make me forget about my soft stomach, which protrudes past my almost inverted boobs. My boobs, which have shrunk two sizes since childrearing, which, after providing milk for two babies, look and feel as if they’ve been sucked dry.
Other people are part of the problem.
Bargain-hunting dads looking for boxers on sale at the Gap, their faces dumb with concentration as they squint at price tags and calculate the additional 40 percent off. Real-estate agents with preserved faces, mauve lipstick, foundation lines that end at their jawbones, and hair fried by straightening irons . They seek fulfillment from aggressively name-brand sunglasses, the oversized tortoiseshell frames plastered with huge Cs and Gs.
Perhaps the most awful of all the awful people are the smiling, bright-eyed young(ish) women who toasted each other to a fun-filled girls day over glasses of sauvignon blanc at brunch (“Drinking before noon—just look at us!”) and giggled about how naughty they were to include fries with their orders of seared salmon instead of mixed greens. These women, these grownup field hockey darlings, so content in their small suburban worlds, so much happier than I am. These women, I come to think, are the worst part of shopping outside of my cozy, safe, controlled internet world of one. They are nothing like me. They are exactly like me.
It’s all of these dreadful people participating in the capitalistic merry-go-round that forces me to press my nose up against the plexiglass of unnecessary money expenditure.
Me? I’m just a harmless person trying to build a capsule wardrobe, trying to find a simple silk camisole that will do away with the strife and shame of consumerism.
In fact, I’m here at Anthropologie because I want to become a better person—I have nothing to do with other people's mindless spree of buying and accumulating.
I am here at a beautifully curated, independently owned store called Bliss to find just that, bliss, in the form of some stylishly ripped-up boyfriend shorts.
I am not here at Bliss to break into a cold sweat stemming from existential dread as I throw the new shorts into my backseat, and scream my Subaru station away, vowing to pull a Thoreau and quit modernity before it’s too late.
At home, still stung by the thought that the hipster girls at Bliss may have been laughing into their kombuchas about the mom trying to be cool by purchasing boyfriend shorts, I open my computer. My kids are at a farm or a library or somewhere suitably educational with their babysitter, and I’m considering a dewy-faced Madewell model rocking a slouchy sweater with downtown gamine grace on my computer screen. I write a pretty little story in my head, a story of the model’s dewiness being my own dewiness—Marled Canvas or Dried Petal? As I contemplate color options, I feel my spine straighten. I feel the little wrinkles around my eyes soften, and I am positively rosy with possibility.
Ownership of this slouchy sweater will inspire me to go for a run in the cool, bracing air tomorrow morning, to use those mushy, fruit-fly-attracting bananas on my counter to bake some whole-wheat banana bread on Wednesday, and to exfoliate on Friday. Maybe I’ll really go crazy and put on some chapstick. I’ll probably like my kids more. If I wear this slouchy sweater the way the Madewell model wears it (and of course, I will; that’s what the website promises me, isn’t it?), my husband might be inspired to fuck me the way he used to before we had to schedule sex nights in our shared Google calendars. Yes. Yes.
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