Psychology and Shopping: Ideal & Real Self

Figuring out who you are is a big question, and inherently relies on comparing yourself to other versions of yourself or to others. Your answers to that question may have some elements that are fixed while others change over the course of your lifetime. A common exercise in social psychology/sociology classes is to answer the question “Who am I?” 20 times over. How you choose to answer this is going to be a mix of what comes to mind first, what you value most, maybe some insecurities you have (“bad at math” was common amongst the social science students in class), and some demographic information when you start to run out of ideas.

Another thing to consider when thinking about who you are is how close you are to being who you want to be. There’s a lot to unpack from that as well, so I’ll keep it simple by working with “real” and “ideal” self. “Real” is, simply enough, who you are right now, for better or for worse. This is who you see yourself as, and can be a combination of your perception and what others give you as feedback of who you are. “Ideal” is who you are striving to be, whether within realistic reach or beyond what you could ever do. I don’t mean that in a defeatist way, there are limitations to what we can do – or what we care to do, just as much as we all have our strengths and passions. I like to learn through visuals, so we’ll compare how low and high overlap of “real” and “ideal” self can play out.

In our first Venn diagram, there’s not much overlap between “ideal” and “real.” We aren’t going to make any other assumptions about this sense of self – my blog posts are long enough on average, so we’re not going to try to unpack level of happiness, feelings of self-worth, sense of success, or anything else, we’re sticking to just what’s in the circles. So, there’s minimal overlap between “real” and “ideal,” which means that, to this person, there’s a lot of catching up to do for them to be their ideal self. What can influence this is the types of messages they’re exposed to and whether they choose to internalize these messages as faults/failures they need to change.

For example, you likely don’t internalize the types of messages we see in pop-up ads or spam mail (the “dermatologists hate her!” type), but you may be more inclined to consider listening to or heeding the advice of someone whose opinion you value – even if you weren’t aware of the “issue” in the first place. The more and more things or abilities that get added to the ideal pile that you don’t already possess, the further gap – or more minimal the overlap – will be between “ideal” and “real.”

The second Venn diagram has much more overlap. Who this person wants to be and who they are is mostly consistent. This could be someone who manages the number of messages they choose to internalize, someone who is able to fulfill their goals/enact their values, or someone who may see the value in their faults and how it makes them human which in turn is included in their “ideal” view of themselves.

You can reasonably expect that the gap and overlap will change throughout your life. There can be parts of yourself that you’ll (almost always) value, and other parts that used to be “ideal” but either no longer fit your lifestyle, or your goals and responsibilities have changed. How this can be a factor in shopping habits is whether the aspirations you have can be fulfilled through shopping/physical items. If you feel the need to follow specific trends or fads to feel like you belong with a specific crowd, there are likely items or fashion staples that you would need to purchase to “keep up” with everyone else. This can be related to hobbies as well (a topic I’m coming back to later this month), where to get into certain hobbies and the lifestyle that surrounds it can lead to a lot of money being spent for the sake of getting “in.” Granted, you would absolutely need to buy a kayak to get into kayaking, but for other hobbies like table top gaming or crafting, my experience has been that there’s an undercurrent of gatekeeping if you don’t own a bunch of stuff or specific brands related to the hobby.

For a personal example, when I got hired after university, I felt like I needed to overhaul my entire wardrobe for it to be work appropriate (despite having pieces that would have been fine to wear at work), which resulted in a shopping spree in preparation for entering “the real world.” I internalized that I needed to look a certain way for work, spend a chunk of money to emulate that look, and four years later, own only a handful of those pieces. On the other hand, I was in the later years of high school (16 years old) when Silly Bandz were a thing, and I saw no value in purchasing any despite most people I knew having at least some and otherwise being the type to like the idea of having a complete collection. The “need” for these items were not internalized at all, and I largely forgot about them short of watching a YouTube video about 2010s trends and fads.

It’s been a long while since I’ve last done my 20 “who am I” questions, though I’d wager that what my focuses are now are less geared toward fitting into specific groups – especially through status symbols – and more about liking who I am and what I bring to the table.

Shopping Habits Part 3: Forging an Identity

Here are parts 1 and 2 if you need a refresher before jumping back in.

If you take a look at your wardrobe as is, I’m sure there are a handful of things that you could infer about yourself: the colours you prefer (or prefer to dress in), the climate you live in, maybe how tall you are, how much money you’re willing to spend on clothing (or appear to be willing), maybe your job/the field you’re in, and what aesthetics you’re drawn to. I use “infer” since it’s not likely that you have a plain t-shirt that lists everything about you in neat bullet points, but instead we can make generalizations about who else wears similar (or the same) garments and has the same style as you.

With this in mind, I’m going to talk about how much I relied and still rely on clothing for my self-expression. By around age 12, I moved from only shopping with my mum to mostly shopping with friends as a group outing. Friends who lived closer to the suburban mall a metro ride away introduced me to new boutiques that were heavily marketed and engineered to draw in young teen crowds. Too afraid to split away from friends – both for safety and social repercussions – I spent many afternoon hours circling displays of graphic tees and neon skinny jeans that I absolutely didn’t need but still purchased. We were all self-proclaimed bargain hunters, but that point was negated by how frequently we shopped. As I’ve mentioned before, I had a uniform from grade 7-11, so much of what I wore was weekend cozies or Bat Mitzvah/Sweet 16 garb, with a few select outfits that fell in between. Though I never was outright copying my friends (unless ironically for Twin Day), there was still a lot of overlap between how I dressed and what they wore.

CEGEP was a bit all over the place for specific looks – I think one week I wore a burgundy duster with a tight black v-neck and galaxy print leggings, and the next day I was in a purple and black bodycon dress with a blazer and heels (and I wasn’t even giving a presentation in class). The pieces were inexpensive and easy to swap out with a basic/neutral tone top, so I had fun with intentionally looking like Cher Horowitz’s closet directory had a mind of its own. There was definitely no one here who dressed like me (or at least to this extent of zany), and I had no problem with that – especially after 5 years of a uniform. I was my own interpretation of what was on trend, I had a body that was easy to clothe, and friends that didn’t balk at my gauzy, neon, pink button-ups.

Skip ahead to university, and everything was purple. School events (especially athletics) would follow the “head to toe purple” dress code, and the more the better. My first year was the most extra for this, with me buying official and student-designed school merch, spending more on clothing and accessories than I did on textbooks. The campus as a whole would regularly wear purple on a daily basis, which we only really noticed when we left campus or the student village and encountered locals who dressed in more than just one colour. Things mellowed out by my fourth year, but I still own some 10 or so school shirts and sweaters.

For work, I knew what a Young Professional in Montreal looked like, so I stocked up on office-friendly attire before moving out of the province for work. I felt overdressed in my setting with most of my colleagues dressing more casually than I would, so I shopped some more to fit in (rather than wearing my perfectly fine and still professional clothing!!), because I already stood out enough with being youngest on staff, being bilingual, and being an out-of-towner in a relatively small community. Even after attending a fairly small university and seeing mostly the same people every day, this was the same experience, but zoomed in, which meant that feeling like I stood out was all the more visible (according to me, in my brain – no one said as much, but that’s anxiety for ya).

Where am I now with all of this? I dress as “fancy” as I want for work, regardless of how others are dressing. I’ll show up in a suit or a monochromatic look (my go-to looks for weekday work), but I’m picking my outfits according to what I feel that day (or what I have to do) rather than doing mental gymnastics of what could be counted as overdressed for the people I work with. Did I wear turtlenecks every day last week? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Also, yes – and that’s where I’m at now, not wasting time worrying about others’ response to what I wear, but seeing if it makes me happy.

You could argue that none of this matters, I just need to be clothed and respect the rough dress code at work and in other social settings. However, a key part of how I express myself – and how I feel! – has to do with how I’m dressed. If I’m in cozier clothing (pj-adjacent, if you will), I’m 100% less likely to work on Important Stuff TM and it will take me longer to go from task to task. If I’m struggling to put together a weekly summary email for a tutee’s parents, I throw a blazer on and can get back to work. The second example probably has more to do with taking a break and getting up from my seat than actually wearing the blazer – and having a few minutes to mull things over without the cursèd blinking cursor mocking me – but it works, so I keep doing it.

Overall, clothing is a key component of how I express myself. I like getting dressed up, I love themed events, and I have fun with putting together outfits and accessories. What others see about me first is how I’m dressed, which matters to me more along the lines of “this is precisely who I am,” and not at all a “what if they don’t like the way I’m dressed?” thing. How I dress will change throughout life – I don’t know that clothing from age 27 will last to age 72 – which is fine, so long as what I’m using, how I care for it, and what I do with it when I’m seemingly “done” with a piece is handled in a thought-out manner. There’s nothing inherently wrong with associating identity with clothing – who *hasn’t* heard “oh, this is so you!” while shopping with friends – I just need to be more mindful how much I’m bringing in.