Everytime I step out of a shopping mall, fully exhausted and miserable, I vow never to return there again... but this time I actually (mostly) mean it. Admittedly, I never have good shopping experiences in tightly-closed areas with mass crowds of overstimulated teenagers and adolescents (who does?), but my experience yesterday at a downtown mall feels like the straw that broke the camel's back. Me being the exasperated camel, of course. As I moved from store to store, it seemed like things were getting progressively worse.
But before I get to that, let me backtrack a bit. For two years, I worked at the mall in my neighborhood, and that time marked a point in my life when I really began to think critically of what these spaces mean, and what they are geared towards doing. It is a building where individuals are presented with a certain exaggerated lifestyle ideal (whether in terms of fashion, physical appearance, home decor, etc) and then expected to live up this unachievable standard by purchasing things that will apparently help them project that sense of image and self-worth. That may be oversimplifying the matter, but this is what shopping malls seem geared towards encouraging. Walk into one on a Saturday afternoon, and you'll know exactly what I mean. In my case, over the years I was an employee at American Eagle, I watched so many preteen girls come into the store, try on clothes completely inappropriate for their age, and then either leave on a high (with bagfuls of new threads) or utterly defeated ("I'm hideous.") I've witnessed people's self-regard plummet, and to fill that gaping hole, more products are amassed to help heal the wounds. I've talked to overworked, unhappy mothers who confessed to visiting the place daily because the excursions distracted them from the loneliness they experienced at home. Work just became depressing for me, having to then push sales and promotions that I thought were ridiculous in the first place. I loved working with my fellow employees and managers, but the company's policies were growing increasingly ridiculous. Not long after, my investment in perpetuating these problematic ideas diminished; I simply could not continue "buying" into this any longer.
This may all seem very obvious to most of you, and surely many people who spend their weekends shopping or hanging out at malls are aware of these issues. And I'm not immune from this; I clearly buy objects, and I do engage in it regularly. Almost always, I find myself stuck in that same cycle of feeling terrible, because I cannot approximate an ideal (in whatever way.) Even so, I find myself growing more and more frustrated with how this culture becomes so obsessed with consummerism. My day yesterday just drove home my dislikes about the whole shopping experience:
On Friday, I commute into the city to drop off my film festival order to participate in the advance draw. As orders are ready on Monday morning, I decide to kill time around the city before heading back to my place. Because the Eaton Centre (a sprawling indoor concourse) is in the area, I decide to look at some clothes for the new school year. The first store I go to is Old Navy, which unsurprisingly offers nothing appealing. While I am looking at some jeans, this twenty-something guy makes eye contact and proceeds to ask me where he can find more woven shirts. It takes me a second to understand why he has approached me, and I hurriedly answer "Sorry, I don't work here." Embarrassed, he apologizes and ventures off, but not before adding "You look like you do." It is not meant as a putdown, because he is genuinely confused, but I still leave in a foul mood because, 1) I don't at all like the idea of being mistaken as an Old Navy employee; and 2) even if I do look like one, he still shouldn't have said anything, the stupid ass. And I'm not even wearing anything from that store!
Things didn't get much better at Mexx, which is empty when I walk in except for two overeager store employees. As soon as the man offers a greeting, I know it will be one of those situations were I will be followed relentlessly. "Hello, how are you?", he asks, and I say "Fine thanks, yourself..." The usual banter. Then, "If there's anything you need, please let me know." Okay, fine. Not three seconds later, "Are you looking for anything in particular?" I manage a polite smile and decline, "Just browsing." Another five seconds later, I'm looking at a sweater on a hanger; he interrupts, "If you like sweaters, then you'll like these." Intrigued to see how bad this will get, I follow him half-heartedly to a table with thin-knitted sweaters that look nothing like the one I was checking out. He explains the fabric on two of them, and then actually starts to give me cleaning instructions (!) as if I had decided to buy them already (!!). He matches them with striped button-up shirts and says how great I would look with all four articles. "Do you want to take them all?"... I hold my breath for about five seconds, then: "I think I'll look around some more, thanks." As soon as his back is turned, I fly out of there.
Okay, have already been mistaken for Old Navy employee and then harassed by very pushy Mexx sales associate. Can things get wose? Apparently, they can. Stupidly, I have the strange morbid desire to check out the newly-opened Abercrombie and Fitch, which is something of a novelty for Canadian consumers (this is the first one that has opened in the country, apparently.) Immediately, I am greeted with a eight-foot black-and-white poster of a toned, shirtless lad posing for the camera. The great paradox of their marketing to me is why all their models simply pose nude despite the fact that their company sells clothes. But moving on... trying to navigate my way through the narrow walkways is difficult, because the light is so dim. I bump into about three people before stopping to check out the price tags on some rugby shirts. $89. If I were going to spend that kind of money, I think I'd rather invest it in a dress jacket or formal wear, not on something that will look five years old after I wash it once. Aha! Now I've discovered their secret: I am convinced that the Abercrombie and Hollister stores are so poorly-lit because they don't want you to see how laughable their prices are. I am brilliant, I am. But my high does not last for long, as the store begins to hold full capacity; customers are dartling left and right. The lineup at the cash register sprawls around the store, and it grows longer by the minute. I am surrounded by robotic-like young adults, their bodies twisted and mutated into the very models shown on the walls. They're everywhere! I grow panicky. Something here isn't quite like the other ones, someone here doesn't quite belong... I push and shove my way out of the abode, vowing never to do that again.
So after that disturbing encounter with the cast of "Laguna Beach", I decided to cut my shopping day short. I speedwalk to the bus terminal and anxiously await my ride home; there, I'll throw on a ratty, old t-shirt, pull on pajama pants, and do some reading. At the end of it all, I only walked out with a pair of stone-grey corduroy pants from H&M, and even then, I'm not 100% sure about them. I'd return them, but I'm afraid of venturing into that place again. I guess what I've learned from this all is that putting myself in a situation where I always leave feeling worse about myself is not a healthy one. I know I have enough control not to plan another one of these outings, but I'm afraid what will happen once the holiday season comes around the corner. Will I be able to avoid the stores then? On-line purchasing, here I come!
Share your embarrassing shopping stories, folks.