Eat, Shop and Be Merry? (Part II)

My first conscious awareness of the relationship between eating disorders and compulsive shopping came in the early 90’s at a national conference on eating disorders. Catherine Steiner-Adair, in her keynote address, asked the audience what we thought were the two major ways women had for dealing with the ups and downs of life.

The silence was palpable and ominous. “Dieting and shopping,” she answered.  Her statement was instantly acknowledged throughout the room, first by a saddened hush, and then with murmurs of agreement all around.

Over the next several years, as I was developing an interest in compulsive buying and gathering material for my edited book, I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self, I noticed that some of the very same people that had written self-help books about compulsive buying had also written self-help books about eating disorders. Almost every therapist who works with people with eating disorders can provide anecdotal reports of binge eaters who go on shopping binges, anorexics who shoplift, and bulimics who compulsively buy items they never use or “ingest” and then, just as compulsively, return to “void” themselves.

Was this a coincidence or a reflection of a demonstrated association of the two behaviors?

What do dieting and shopping have in common?

Food and money, nourishment and worth, are inextricably woven into the fabric of love and lack of love. Most problems with food and money are not really about either, but instead expressions of unconscious beliefs, family messages, outdated convictions, current distress and painful memories that we don’t want to look at.

We use both to repair negative moods which are often the result of feeling undesirable and badly about ourselves. Like binge eating, the process of buying temporarily improves a compulsive buyer’s mood, sometimes even to momentary euphoria, only to be followed by shame, guilt, and/or depression, which get dispelled temporarily by starting the cycle all over again.

Put another way, we diet and shop to close the gap between who we are and who we want to be; researchers call this the self-discrepancy gap.  We use both of these mechanisms to move closer to an ideal self-image, in the eyes of others and ourselves.

Physical appearance is of great importance to people with eating disorders and to compulsive buyers, many of whom perceive themselves as fat, fear becoming overweight and are dissatisfied with their body proportions.

Does this describe you?

If you’re like the majority of female compulsive buyers, and many men too, you frequently purchase appearance-related items such as clothing, shoes, jewelry, and cosmetics in the hope that this will enhance your impression of yourself and other peoples’ impressions of you.

So to the extent that we believe that a particular body size and shape and a particular dress or pair of shoes, or model and make of car are important routes to success, identity and happiness, we attempt to fashion our bodies into the perfect manikins on which to display our perfect clothing–and our environments to portray an image of wealth and power.  We attempt to become walking advertisements for ourselves – to cultivate desire, as all good advertisements do.

Shopping as we traditionally understand it—shopping for goods, shopping to buy—has been one of the few areas of validation available to women; the handling of food, of course, has been another.

Shopping is an extension of women’s gatherer role in primitive societies. While men went out to hunt, women concentrated on tasks and responsibilities based close to the hearth. Earlier in our history, we bought provisions to satisfy our physical needs and the needs of our families, whether this was in the buying of food or consumer goods.  Consumer behavior was once based on objective need.  Now we buy food and consumer goods to acquire and express a sense of self-identity, regulate emotion or gain social status.

In and of itself, none of this is pathological.  Shopping, preparing food and eating it can each be important sources of self-definition, self-expression, creativity, even healing, but done to excess each activity can spin out of control and erode rather than enhance quality of life.

In preparation for a webinar I gave in January about compulsive buying and eating disorders, I read Geneen Roth’s book, “Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money.” After losing all of her savings in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, Roth began to explore the direct parallels between her relationship with food and money.  She’d once seesawed between episodes of binge eating followed by periods of dietary restriction. It dawned on her, not even so gradually, that she was vacillating between binge shopping and periods of budgetary self-deprivation and was using money, as she once did food, as a substitute for love.

“I felt the same shame about being myself, the same tendency to lie, to stockpile, the same feelings of not having enough while refusing to see how much I actually had on my plate or in my closet.”


Messages she’d inculcated about money and the conclusions she drew were the same as the ones she’d once had about food, i.e. that she wasn’t supposed to have it, wasn’t allowed to take up space, have needs, say what she wanted. Her spoken conviction was that being thin or having money evoked hatred, envy, and backstabbing, so to be accepted and loved, she could lose weight and lose friends or stay fat and be loved, have money and be hated or be poor and be accepted. So she found a third option, losing weight but hiding her body, making money but pretending she didn’t, getting rid of it quickly by overspending or abdicating responsibility for it, first to her husband, then to Madoff.

In my clinical practice, about one-third of the shopaholics I’ve worked with either had a history of an eating disorder or still had one. As Donna was gaining control over her compulsive buying behavior, for two weeks in a row, she came into the office and proudly reported that she had been able to resist going into one of her “high risk” stores and had been able to tell a salesperson that called her about something new that had come into the store, that she didn’t need it.  I noticed, however that her face looked appreciably rounder.  What happened was that she was now eating impulsively instead of buying impulsively.

Norma reported that although she had resisted going on even one shopping excursion that week she found herself bingeing and vomiting, a behavior that she hadn’t engaged in for many months before she came into treatment for her compulsive buying.

It can also work in the other direction.  Manny used some of the skills and tools that he was learning in the group treatment program to keep himself on track when he had the impulse to overeat.  His success in one area of impulsive behavior generalized to success in the other.

Mari, who had just confessed to taking $150,000 from her husband’s family’s business, where she also worked, had been buying clothes compulsively for two years, but the anxiety and depression, which was controlled fairly well by the overshopping, was threatening to break through. Mari began to gain weight, stopped buying clothes, and started buying bigger ticket items. By that time she’d been buying compulsively for four years and gained 30 pounds. During the course of our work, she came to understand that the very premature caregiving role she’d had to take growing up as the oldest of five children–her mother who was addicted to pain medication and her father was alcoholic– figured significantly in both problems. Once she got the help she’d so desperately needed, no longer had to live with an increasingly complex web of lies, and gave herself permission to take care of herself instead of so many others, her compulsive buying totally stopped and she began exercising, eating healthy, and losing weight.

Quite often, as people with eating disorders, alcoholism, or drug addiction develop sobriety, compulsive buying problems surface. In fact, in the 12-step world, Debtors Anonymous, the program that focuses on money problems, is considered the graduate program, the one to work when sobriety has been achieved in other programs.

Kelly, a 20 year old college student, came to me initially because of severe bulimia and alcoholism.  Within a month, it became clear that these addictions were so severe as to require a residential treatment dual diagnosis program, which she attended for three months.  We resumed outpatient treatment and the work of the first post-rehab year was to reinforce the important work that she’d done in rehab and make sure that she was using the skills and strategies she’d learned there to remain clear, sober and binge free.  It was not until she felt totally in control of her impulses to binge, vomit and drink in order to regulate her affect, that cigarette smoking and compulsive buying took center stage as other addictions that needed our attention.

If shopping problems and eating problems are going hand in hand in your life, take heart. Doing the difficult, but extremely rewarding work to build and strengthen the muscles that help you tolerate distress, regulate your emotions, and cultivate the capacity for joy and gratitude, will pay off in spades and have a positive impact self-defeating eating and shopping behaviors simultaneously.

Eat, Shop and Be Merry (Part I)

Early on in my study of consumer behavior, I attended a national conference on eating disorders. Catherine Steiner-Adair, one of the keynote speakers, asked the audience what we thought were the two major activities traditionally pursued by women to deal with life’s ups and downs. The silence was palpable. She then answered her own question: “Dieting and shopping.” Her statement was instantly acknowledged throughout the room, first by a saddened hush, then with murmurs of agreement all around. That was 1991.  In the intervening twenty years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the intricate and complex relationship between shopping and eating, weight and wealth, being rich and being thin.

Kathleen Kingsbury, in a manuscript not yet in print, is examining that relationship. She looks at the history of women’s complicated connections with food, body image, and finance, and she highlights the nature of their linkages. And Diane Barth explored the some of the same territory in “When Eating and Shopping Are Companion Disorders” (Benson, I Shop, 268-87). There she observes that although “every therapist who works with eating disorders can provide anecdotal reports of binge eaters who binge-shop, anorexics who shoplift, bulimics who compulsively buy items they never use,” less expected combinations are also abundant. One anorexic “may also severely limit herself in regard to all purchases . . . while another shoplifts regularly and . . . a third goes on frequent shopping sprees.” Barth sees shopping and eating as two entirely normal ways to regulate and manage moods and feelings; they can soothe us when we feel “hurt, lonely, angry, or disappointed,” relax us when we feel “tense, overwhelmed, or over-stimulated,” or energize us when we feel sad or tired. They are connected, in other words, by their similar function in coping with affects. When people can’t regulate or tolerate their feelings, however, shopping and/or eating can become “repetitive, compulsive, and undifferentiated responses to a wide variety of emotions and experiences.”

Barth notes that people with shopping and eating disorders often have little sense of their own inner processes, little ability “to conceptualize emotional cause and effect.” They lack, she finds, “the ability to use words symbolically to help metabolize emotions.” So even when they can articulate what are apparently clear symbolic connections between their eating and shopping behaviors and, say, their childhood experiences, their symptoms don’t change.

A case in point: now that Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss has brought her from a size 16 to a 6, the singer admits to being addicted to shopping. Since she began enjoying her new body, Hudson has bought a lot of new clothes. “It got to a point where I could barely get in my bedroom,” she told InStyle magazine. When did she realize she had a problem? “Well, my bed is a canopy. I had nowhere else to throw the clothes. So I threw them on top of the canopy!” Hudson continues to shop whenever she travels. “Each city we go to, my suitcase won’t hold my new clothes, so we have to box them up and ship them home. Then I get back and want to try on everything I bought, so clothes are just everywhere.” Hudson seems at ease with the problem. Her shopping may not stop, she says, but her weight loss will: “you’re never going to see me skinny.”

In a recent piece for American Express Open Forum (, Jean Chatzky cites research showing that “your health and your wealth are inextricably linked,” including a recent German study demonstrating that “serious debt makes you twice as likely to be overweight or obese.” For people with both shopping and eating problems, she offers this six-step plan:

Start with one thing first.
It’s not easy to tackle two daunting tasks at once. And dieting—whether with your stomach or your wallet—can be incredibly daunting. So pick either your weight or your money as your first focus.

Deal with feelings of deprivation.
When you start reining in your spending so you have money to pay down your debt, you might actually gain a few pounds at first. Be on the lookout for your impulses to transfer from shopping to eating. When you’re trimming your spending, if it feels like deprivation, you’re going to try to fill yourself up in another way. Eating is the commonest other way. To minimize the chances of this happening, give yourself small manageable goals. Save $10 to put toward your debt this week, or drink water instead of soda.  Next week, you can aim to save $15 or start taking a walk on your lunch break.  If even that seems like too much, alternate so you focus on your weight one week and your debt the next.

Once you’re feeling in control, layer.
You’ve dropped a few pounds or paid down a few hundred in debt and now you’re feeling pretty good, right?  In fact, what you’ve learned is impulse control.  You’ve given your willpower a workout.  Now it’s time to add on the second half of the equation.  You’ll see that the challenge you’ve already conquered will help you. When you get a grip on your finances and live in the black instead of in the red, you’ll be less stressed out, which helps reduce stress eating.  In the short term, losing weight increases your self-esteem, which could make you less prone to emotional eating and shopping. However, it could go the other way, like it did for Jennifer Hudson, so be on the lookout for rewarding yourself for losing weight by overshopping.

Pick a new distraction.
If you substitute eating for shopping, or shopping for eating, you’re right back to where you started.  Instead, try to figure out what will meet your needs and not erode your life in the way that turning to food and to stuff does.  Call up a friend and see if she can get together for coffee, take a long walk, go on a run, or organize a space in your home that has gotten out of control.  All of these things can help quell the feelings that might drive you to shop and eat.

Reward yourself.
We all need something to look forward to, and often, it’s easier to meet goals if we make them tangible.  Give yourself milestones, and when you reach them, have a mini-celebration: join a friend for a drink, get a manicure, have that cookie (just one) you’ve been wanting.  To keep yourself on track, think about what reaching your goals will mean.  If you pay off debt, you might have an extra $300 to put toward something you want, like the payment on a new car or a trip to the beach next summer. And if you shed the extra weight, you can wear a bikini on that trip with confidence, or play with your kids without getting winded.

Finally (and this is not so much a step as a long-term change), delve deeper.
Once you’ve seen some early progress, it’s time to figure out why you’re overspending and why you’re overeating.  Often, it’s about loneliness. When you’re at the mall, you’re surrounded by people, and the sales clerks all want to make you happy. Another common root is low self-esteem.  You already feel bad about how you look, so you figure one donut won’t make a difference.  You need a boost, so you head to your favorite store, where you can try on a new outfit and everyone will tell you how amazing it looks on you.  Or maybe it’s plain old boredom.  You have too much downtime, at work or at home, so you’re constantly snacking and shopping online.  Whether you’re shopping or staring into the fridge, ask yourself a few simple questions:  Why are you here?  How do you feel?  Do you need this?  Keep in mind this mantra for overshoppers and overeaters: “you can never get enough of what you don’t  really need.”  Eating and shopping often spiral out of control because we’re trying to fill a void, but going about it in the wrong way.  Once you’ve pinpointed what really drives you to the store and the fridge—and often, it’s the same thing—you can start dealing with it in a constructive, lasting way.

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Read More

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