It began with the two £20 notes I’d grasp in grubby, coffee-stained hands after eight hours of my Saturday job. The cafe I worked in was at the top of the high street, the bus stop was at the bottom. I’d have to walk past Topshop on my way. And, more often than not, at least one of those crisp £20 notes was gone by the time I got on the bus.
This is, I think, how a splurge on the high street became the marker of an emotional reward in my brain. It was a thrill and a buzz to walk into these temples of girl culture – the music, the pictures of models, the endless, endless clothes – and buy something. They were treasure troves to explore; somewhere I could find something that made me feel better about being me; that could help build a better version of me – a bolder, brighter, cooler-looking version, thanks to a fake-silk bomber or polka-dot dress or a brown suede skirt. And from the moment I started earning money and throughout my professional life – whether after a difficult job interview, if I’d heard I’d landed the job or after interviewing a famous or really tricky person – I’ve translated the reward for hard work into this heady, confidence-boosting fast-fashion fix.
This is, of course, the capitalist dream – my consumerism is emotionally wired to a thrilling buzz that makes me feel great about myself, and I can’t get enough of it. But when this behaviour began, aged 14, I didn’t care, let alone understand that. I just knew that hard-earned cash felt best when spent on a outfit that made me feel cooler in the Topshop changing room than I currently did. "Hard work equals new dress" is a deeply, deeply ingrained equation in my mind.
Over time, some of the shops have changed. Miss Selfridge is the equivalent of Ariana Grande to me now: I love it, but it makes me feel ginormous, old and very, very sensible. Now, treats come out of & Other Stories or Warehouse bags. And, while I’ll pay more for important stuff, like a coat or a pair of black trousers, I still seek out the buzz. If I’ve had a great meeting or pulled off a really successful piece of work, I find myself walking into a shop, ready to spend, ready to reward.
Buying better, less often, has be my new thrill
And yet, despite this habit being so deeply ingrained and delightful, it has to change. Because not only should my internal-reward system not really be based on keeping the cogs of capitalism going, no longer can we ignore the damage our fast-fashion fixes are having on the planet. Irreversible damage has already been done and I don’t want to contribute any further. I certainly don’t want my inner sense of achievement to be one that manifests in landfill.
So, now, I have to break away from this. I’m a big charity-shop shopper, so that doesn’t have to change. But I need to rewire the instinct that says success is the buzz of buying a midi dress with pockets for under £50. And how do I do that? I’m thinking of keeping a high-street jar. Every time I splurge on sequins, I’ll put £50 in there. After a while, I can then spend the money on an item of clothing that will last for a lot longer. Buying better, less often, has to be my new thrill. Or, at least, I’ll try to train myself to become that way. I’m not saying that will come overnight or I won’t have to battle the cravings. We all know old habits die hard, but, apparently, items of clothing that don’t fade or become misshapen after one wash are actually cool, too.
I’m pretty sure there will always be a 14-year-old in me, clutching her 40 quid, searching for cool, hoping to find it covered in sequins, looking for the rush, wanting to recognise her hard work, wanting to display her independence via an impractically small bag. But I need to remember that the 33-year-old me can find reward elsewhere. Like saving up a ticket to Toronto to see old friends or buying the second-cheapest bottle on the menu for a change.
I learned young that reward was instant and fabulous and of the moment. But the older I get, the more I realise that reward is a long game – the coat that keeps giving every winter; the dress that feels like a second skin and never fails you; the boots that hold a million memories of walks in the forest. Learning to seek thrill in the slow feels pretty radical, right now, and that gives me a bit of a buzz.