Ever had one of those dreary old days when a new dress is the only thing that might cheer you up? Trust me, I’ve had plenty. And it was on just such a day — dank, autumnal, a palpable lack of anything to look forward to, with a deep craving to shop nibbling at me — that I had an unexpected conversation that was to change my life for ever.
I met my friend Lauren, and while she sipped her coffee, she dropped a bombshell.
‘I’ve been thinking. I’m so sick of having a bad day at work, wandering around Oxford Street to cheer myself up and coming home with bags of stuff I don’t really want and feeling worse. I keep reading more about how clothes are made, how most of the process is terrible for the environment — and worse for the people who make them. So I’m going to go a whole year without buying new clothes.’
‘A not-New Year!’ I said. ‘That sounds like a good idea. But I could never do it. What about underwear? What about special occasions?’
Daisy Buchanan, who lives in Kent, could spend up to £400 a month on clothes at the height of her shopping addiction. Pictured: Daisy with some of her clothes
I thought of my knicker drawer — not to mention my overspill knicker drawer — and the fact I probably had enough pants to go for about four months without doing laundry.
Then panic prickled at the back of my throat as another thought arose. The suitcases and carrier bags under my bed.
The squashed, sequinned dresses within them, secreted away. Untold amounts of money spent. Clothes I had binge-bought, purchased for a woman with a different body and a different life. I had already shopped for hundreds of hypothetical special occasions that were yet to take place.
‘You’re a braver woman than I,’ I said, shaking my head.
That was almost exactly three years ago, a time when I could spend as much as £400 a month on clothes.
My money went on piles of elaborate dresses from cheap websites, such as Boohoo, and endless occasionwear. It was a real problem, not least because I rarely wore anything I bought.
Working from home, I lived in jeans and jumpers — I didn’t even go to an office where I was required to look smart.
Take, for example, the dark green backless satin cocktail dress that, yes, was far too small, but was also discounted by 70 per cent. Surely by the time I’d lost weight, I thought, the right party would present itself?
Whenever a special occasion arose, I’d use it as an excuse to buy yet more outfits, even though I already had enough to clothe every guest going.
Daisy (pictured) said her endless spending was an attempt to ‘fix’ the things she didn’t like about herself
I was asked to speak at a white-tie dinner, and bought five full-length, glittering ballgowns. I promised myself I’d send back the ones I didn’t wear, but instead hoarded them all, even the ones that didn’t fit properly.
‘One day, I’ll be able to wear these,’ I told myself, hiding them under my bed.
Today, though, I no longer buy new clothes and have faced up to the fact I was a shopping addict. My endless spending was an attempt to ‘fix’ the things I didn’t like about myself, to bury my feelings under a pile of sparkly frocks, of must-have dresses that failed to heal the void I had inside.
Now, instead of Asos’s fast fashion or seductive items from Selfridges, on those occasions when I do have to buy something, I buy second-hand or ‘pre-loved’. It’s saved me money, and contributed to saving the planet — but I firmly believe it’s saved me, too.
Because in the months and weeks after my chat with Lauren, I reached something of a critical point with my shopping and myself.
Clothes failed to heal the void I had inside
It came to a head as I was opening a dress I’d bought just because I’d seen someone wearing it on Made In Chelsea — full length, imitation silk, strappy and rose-coloured, it cost about £20 from Boohoo.
I tore through the packaging, pushing away thoughts about what all this plastic was doing to the environment, swallowed hard and slipped the dress over my head. I went to admire myself in the mirror in the hall.
It looked awful on me.
But it was very cheap, I thought defensively. About as much as a bottle of wine in the pub.
Shopping is just a hobby. I wasn’t in debt. I wasn’t spending thousands of pounds on couture. This is what I do to relax. Like skiing or golf.
Yet it didn’t feel relaxing. I was in a constant state of agitation, waiting for my next outfit to come. Then the clothes arrived and let me down. I was always hoping to find the dress that fixed everything. I’d keep spending money until I liked my reflection in the mirror.
Daisy (pictured), who has stopped buying brand new clothes, said paying attention to her moods helped to break her habit
But that moment never came.
Looking back, my habit — because that’s what it was — was causing me, and the world around me, untold damage.
My very last dress was a red sequinned number from Asos, £70 in the post-Christmas sale. And in the two-and-a-half years since that day, I have stopped buying brand new clothes.
When I first quit, I believed it would just be a good test of my willpower. I hoped to find new ways to style the piles of clothes I already owned.
I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in the throes of an emotional crisis.
For the first month, the novelty of the challenge kept me going. But soon the cravings struck.
One afternoon, I was scrolling through Instagram, looking at other people’s lives and feeling bad about my own. I found myself on autopilot — and on Asos. With four dresses in my basket, I came to, and realised I needed new strategies to manage my old habits.
I was driven to shop like others are to use drugs
Deleting shopping apps was the first step, but what really helped was paying attention to my moods. If I started to feel low, I’d put my phone away and go for a long walk, or pick up a book instead.
For a long time, I couldn’t understand why I felt so low, so often. I was happily married and I’d moved beside the sea on the Kent coast. I’d just turned 33, and was at a point when I was starting to experience some success in my writing career. Yet I often felt anxious and depressed.
I started turning to authors who wrote eloquently about addiction, sobriety and vulnerability, such as Anne Lamott and Glennon Doyle, whose words on substance abuse struck an unexpected chord. Yet I still didn’t think I could be addicted to shopping. Surely addiction meant abusing a chemical substance to the point where you could no longer function in the world?
But slowly I realised I was driven to shop in the way that Lamott and Doyle had been driven to use drugs and alcohol.
They wrote about being brought up in families that had very high expectations. Just like me, they were supposed to do well in school. They never had room to share their feelings — specifically, space to express unhappiness.
Daisy (pictured) said she had been seeking freedom from her constant, self-critical thoughts, when she bought the dresses under her bed
They did not have a chance to develop resilience, the faculty to fail. Their emotions were a problem that they had been left alone to solve.
Like them, I had grown up with a certain amount of privilege, but that came with the pressure to be perfect, all the time.
These books made me realise I had been paralysed by shame. My teenage insecurities had lingered, and I still applied them to my body and my career.
I felt like an eternal B-student in a world where everyone else had earned an A+. When I shopped, it was to distract myself from the fact that I never felt ‘good enough’. I cried when reading these women’s stories.
I’d become so good at finding ways to feel numb that I’d been keeping my sadness secret from myself. A particular phrase kept coming up, as maddeningly catchy as the chorus to a pop song: ‘Build a life you don’t want to escape from.’ Those words winded me.
I hadn’t been shopping; I’d been trying to escape.
When I bought the dresses under the bed, I’d been seeking freedom from my constant, self-critical thoughts. I had a Cinderella complex; if only I could find the right dress, I’d have a right to be at the ball.
But the dresses didn’t free me: they were a symbol of how trapped I had been. I felt so guilty about the money, the waste, the mindless, thoughtless purchasing. Nearly all the dresses I had bought were ‘bargains’. I could have saved up and bought a single beautiful piece, something I really wanted.
Plagued by guilt over the money and the waste
Instead, I’d treated myself like a dustbin. I thought of all the times when I’d been full and kept eating because I hated the idea of the food ‘going to waste’.
It was the same here: I was going to waste, filling myself with rubbish and forgetting how to nourish myself.
The only way out was to stop my frenzied shopping — and manage my feelings. If I had the urge to shop, instead of resisting it, I acknowledged it, sitting with it instead of rushing to relieve it.
My rules did allow for some leeway. Charity shops and re-sale sites were permitted. Anything pre-worn and pre-loved had already done its environmental damage, and if it made its way into my wardrobe, I was just saving it from landfill. But my binge-shopping days were over.
They didn’t return even when, after cutting down on sugar and alcohol, I lost weight. I’ve been on plenty of diets and I’ve usually celebrated by gaining a new wardrobe — even when the point of the diet was to get back into the old clothes that no longer fit me. Not now. I turned to eBay’s second-hand clothes section for essential purchases only.
Without a quick fix to take the edge off anxiety and unhappiness, I had to feel my feelings. It gave me clarity.
Daisy (pictured) said every dress she sold forced her to face a memory she had tried to bury and at least 100 dresses were donated to charity
And buying clothes second-hand made me realise how seducible I was as an online shopper. When I saw a picture of a model, artfully lit and styled, I didn’t necessarily want to own the clothes she was wearing — I wanted her life, or, rather, the life that the photograph suggested she had. But no dress in the world would make me feel like a model.
Not only did I not buy, but I also got rid of unwanted items. At least 100 dresses were donated to charity and I started to sell others online. It was a shock to see how much effort it required. The organisation, administration and time spent in the Post Office startled me. It made me realise just how thoughtless I’d been when I bought them in the first place. It felt like an important step on my challenge.
Now, when I think about buying anything, I ask myself whether I want it badly enough to be prepared to steam it, wrap it in tissue paper and print out address labels for it in a few years’ time.
Every dress I sold forced me to face a memory I’d tried to bury. I couldn’t hide my shame under the bed, I had to sit with it and take a picture of it.
Now without my quick fix I have clarity
So did I wobble in my quest to stop shopping? I admit, the pandemic presented difficulties.
I craved occasionwear, because I felt so sad about the cancellation of special events. I bought sequinned bits and bobs on eBay and wore them at home on Friday nights. And, yes, occasionally I found myself browsing Asos and The Outnet. Even more occasionally, I’d press the buy button.
But I’m proud to say that, most of the time, I was patient with myself. I’d ask myself how I was feeling and what I hoped would change if I bought new clothes.
I promised myself I was allowed to shop if I genuinely wanted to, but not because I felt sad, scared, anxious or depressed.
I’m so glad I’ve done this. If I hadn’t stopped shopping, I hate to think what it would look like under the bed — but the inside of my head would be even messier.
For a long time, I’d been too frightened to address why I was shopping so much. I felt guilty and ashamed of myself.
Now, I know that shame leaves us trapped. We can’t change for the better when we feel ashamed of who we are.
I will always love clothes. I will always love sequins. But now, I’m not spending to prevent pain.
I’ve started to build a life I don’t want to escape from.
Daisy’s book, Insatiable: A Love Story For Greedy Girls, is out now.