I Stopped Treating Shopping (and Life) Like a Competition


I recently experienced a profound moment of personal growth in a vintage shop when I fell madly in love with an embroidered 1940s zip-up beaded jacket. I knew it wouldn’t fit, but I tried it on anyway. Sure enough, it wouldn’t zip up.

As I left the changing room, I noticed a highly stressed woman who was trying on outfit number seven in her search for the perfect piece for an important work party, while a sales assistant stood by, haranguing her.

“I think you should try this,” I found myself saying, handing the jacket to her. “I think it would look really good on you.”  “Don’t you want it?” she asked with wide-eyed wonder, as if I were Scrooge bestowing a fatted, glistening turkey on Tiny Tim. “It doesn’t fit me,” I replied. “But it will fit you and I think it would look great for your party.”

She tried it on and it did look great. I cooed, the sales assistant on commission cooed (perhaps a little more than me) and she bought it. The woman thanked me and gave me a hug. Little did she know that I would never forget her or that moment, as it marked a life milestone: I had finally experienced Retail Altruism.

There was a time when, having tried on a beautiful one-off item of clothing that didn’t fit me, I would have hidden it somewhere in the shop so no one else could buy it. I would have found a forgotten rail and furtively shoved it out of sight. And when I say “no one else,” what I mean is any woman thinner than me.

As a teenager, I was more shelving unit than female form. I was 5-foot-10 by the time I was 14 and 6-foot by the age of 16. I had big boobs, big feet, wide shoulders and wide hips. I did not look how teenagers were supposed to look. Teenagers were supposed to be freckled, fresh-faced, petite and lean like the ones who jumped about on beds in acne-preventative facial care adverts. I decided to forgo the jeans and crop top uniform of my peers, and instead did as all tall, broad teenage girls with large breasts do: I adopted a sort of Grand Dame of Flea Markets aesthetic. I wore five dollar faux-mink stoles and floral, polyester A-line dresses and listened to other weary women like Billie Holiday with a sense of simpatico.

My unusual body type engendered a sense of “otherness,” which was not helped by all my best female friends passing the Happy Go Lucky Teen Test with flying colors; a mangle of long, thin limbs and flat chests and big grins and delicate feet that did not resemble rafts. My envy meant I got hard-wired with bad habits early on, such as persuading my best friend to swap a black strapless dress for a wildly unflattering high-waisted trousers-and-waistcoat ensemble for her fifteenth birthday. I lied about where I had bought early-noughties built-up flatform trainers when friends admired them. I did everything I could to throw hurdles in front of other girls so I, the lagger, could catch up with them in the beauty race.

I carried a sense of this competitiveness well into adulthood. I would almost test myself to see how long I could go without telling a woman who looked absolutely beautiful that she looked absolutely beautiful (normally three drinks). I would say transparently envious comments like: “sure, her look is great, if you like things that obvious. She’s, like, the Hershey’s of hair.”

Aged 28, I now realize that beauty is an infinite, abundant matter. Womankind as a whole doesn’t get an allotted amount to fight over. We all have our own stock and it doesn’t skyrocket when we deny or put down others.

The girl who I tricked into dressing like a young male extra in Oliver! for her fifteenth birthday is still my best friend. She’s two dress sizes smaller than me and she can wear all the things I will never be able to wear — backless dresses with no bra; high-necked, sleeveless tops; and voluminous, floaty 1960s trapeze dresses without looking like she is approaching her third trimester. She can pick out an item in a vintage shop and not even have to try it on to know it’ll zip up. And to my utter surprise, I now shop for her more than I shop for me. I take great pleasure in sending her photos of a dress so small I couldn’t even fashion it as a fascinator and asking if she wants me to buy it for her. Such is the joy of getting older: realizing that there is a perfect dress, haircut, career and lover for every woman.

Now I finally know that there are enough 1940s vintage jackets for all of us. And there are enough compliments to go round. Enough jobs, enough men. There is enough space on earth to house us all; enough space on the internet for us all to find our platform. We have to ignore the societal voices that pit us against each other; that tell us we have to grab our bit and make sure no one else gets theirs. There is enough of the good shit for all of us. I promise.

Dolly is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, GQ, Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan,Vice and more.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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