Eat, Shop and Be Merry (Part One)

By April Lane Benson 09/03/15

A clinical perspective on eating disorders and compulsive shopping. 


As can be clearly perceived in addiction treatment, compulsive behaviors can function as misguided efforts to regulate self-image and mood. Our connection to food, money and possessions is complicated, and our behavior in these realms can manifest itself in ways that are driven by issues similar to those that are found in addiction treatment. Psychologist and author Dr. April Benson draws connections between the intrapsychic and the behavioral in Part One of a two-part article on eating disorders and compulsive shoppingDr. Richard Juman

My first conscious awareness of the relationship between eating disorders and compulsive shopping came in the early '90s at the Renfrew Conference for eating disorders. Catherine Steiner-Adair, in her keynote address, asked the audience what we thought were the two major ways that 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.

Shopping is still 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. The traditional male-female role dichotomy extends partly into the present even though there is certainly greater flexibility in a woman’s role. It is still largely men who hunt investments on Wall Street, mostly women who gather produce on Main Street. 

Earlier in our history, we bought provisions to satisfy our objective physical needs and the needs of our families, whether this was in the buying of food or consumer goods. Now, beyond the basics, for many of us, we acquire goods to express a sense of self-identity, regulate emotion or gain social status. In and of itself, none of this is necessarily problematic. Shopping, cooking and eating can each be important sources of self-definition, self-expression, creativity, even healing. Each activity can, however, spin out of control and erode rather than enhance quality of life.

While my own shopping and eating behaviors had never really spun out of control, I certainly knew something about dieting and body image issues, having engaged in a small scale skirmish with eating and weight for decades myself by the time of that conference and having worked with people with eating disorders since co-founding the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia in 1979. But overshopping? Turns out I knew quite a bit about that, too. By the time I was 11 or 12, it was painfully obvious that not everyone shopped like my mother and I did. Sometimes, I’d come along when my friends’ mothers would take them to buy clothes. Usually these mother-daughter dyads negotiated this rite of passage respectfully, if not altogether joyfully. While there was rarely initial agreement on the one or two dresses that made it out of the store, assets and liabilities were weighed carefully and consensus emerged.

In our case, within minutes of our entering the store the climate between us became icy, as one garment after another was rejected. While my mother could clearly afford to consider several factors regarding a proposed purchase, one criterion surpassed all others in importance—the price. This became the axis around which our much more complicated battles were waged.

Growing up during the Depression, one of six children in a family where only the boys went to college, Mom rarely had any extra money to spend on the kind of clothes she coveted, those worn by her girlfriends from more financially comfortable homes. By making me feel the way she’d felt when she could just “look but not touch,” she never had to re-experience that particular early hurt. I felt it for her.

If my mother was the yin of shopping, the yang lived next door. “Sarah” had grown up wealthy on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the '30s. A shopping trip with her to her favorite store, Hirshleifers, felt as though she was visiting a close friend, the kind of accepting and embracing intimate in whose presence you feel thoroughly comfortable, completely at home. Here was a template I wanted to trace.

I first happened into Charivari, my favorite store, in 1973. Newly married, I was living on the Upper West Side just a stone’s throw away. In the beginning, the clothes seemed too expensive, too dressy, too old for me. But I kept going back searching for something. Little by little, I began to find it.  

The large three-way mirror that stood in the communal dressing room at Charivari began a meditative repast. While it had always seemed like a fluke when I thought I looked good or was told that I did, in the gleam of that reflecting pool I began to see what I really looked like, who I really was. Left, right and center, the three perspectives concurred: I began to feel stylish and wrestled with a fear of being envied, of being judged as spoiled or superficial. I reminded myself that it didn’t have to be conceit that liked what it saw; it didn’t have to be selfishness that bought beautiful, sometimes expensive clothes. 

While I can’t say that my shopping eyes never got bigger than my shopping stomach, the sustained and sustaining relationship I had with the store and the people who worked there had helped to heal wounds that came from having a mother who encouraged me to be more than she was and have more than she had, yet envied me for it at the same time.

In 1993, a huge rent increase coupled with the national economic downturn at that time forced Charivari to close its doors. I felt compelled to make sense of my time there—to write an account of my relationship with it—some of which you’ve just read. Thinking about this catapulted me into an academic study of shopping and the shopping process, shopping gone good, which had become my experience and shopping gone bad, as in compulsive buying, which I’d now mostly moved beyond. As I did the research 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 who 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, bulimics who compulsively buy items they never use or “ingest” items, and then, just as compulsively, return to “void” themselves. Was this a coincidence or a reflection of a demonstrated association of the two behaviors? Food and money, nourishment and worth, are inextricably woven into the fabric of love and lack of love. They trigger feelings of deprivation, abundance, sufficiency, giving, receiving, entitlement, needs, wants, pleasure, suffering, and survival itself. 

Most problems with food and money are not about either one. Our relationships to both are expressions of unconscious beliefs, family messages, outdated convictions, and painful memories that we want to avoid. Both are used to regulate and process overwhelming feelings that often can’t be put into words. As Geneen Roth puts it in her book, Lost and Found: One Woman’s Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life, "The relationship with money, like the relationship with food, is a way we act out beliefs that we don't know we have."

After losing all her savings in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, Roth found direct parallels between her behaviors with food and money. She binge shopped the way she’d once binged on food. Her food binges were both preceded by and followed by periods of restricting, her binge shopping was preceded by and also followed by periods of underspending. Her self-punitive responses to excesses of either kind were also factors that set her up for the next binge, whether on food or stuff, a binge that became a misguided attempt to garner love and attention. She felt the same shame about being herself, the same tendency to lie, to stockpile, the same feelings of not having enough while refusing to see how much she actually had on her plate or in her closet, 

Roth’s beliefs about money were the same as she had once about food, namely that she wasn't supposed to have it, wasn't allowed to take up space, have needs, or say what she wanted. In her mind, 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. 

Physical appearance is of great importance both to people with eating disorders and to compulsive buyers, many of whom fear becoming overweight, already perceive themselves as fat, and are dissatisfied with their body proportions. Several studies have shown that compulsive buyers most frequently purchase appearance-related items such as clothing, shoes, jewelry, and cosmetics that can be used to enhance their impressions of themselves and/or other people’s impressions of them. For some compulsive buyers who also have a history of eating disorders, handbags and scarves, which are always the perfect fit, obviates any necessity for a “tête à tête” with the mirror, that enemy incarnate. 

So to the extent that we believe that a particular body size and shape and a particular dress or shoes, or model and make of car are important routes to success, identity and happiness, we attempt to fashion our bodies into perfect mannequins on which to display the 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. Our culture sees fit to smile upon both of these addictive problems. “You can never be too rich or too thin,” the saying goes.

Shopping and eating exist on a continuum between perfunctory or compulsive. Bowing to the pressure to underconsume or binge and purge food so as to look thin, and overconsume clothing so as to look stylish, ceaselessly applied by marketing professionals and the media, it is often the latter. We diet and shop to close what we believe to be a disappointing and shameful gap between who we are and who we want to be, a gap that is significantly bigger in people with eating and buying disorders than in people who don’t have eating disorders and who buy normally. We take either or both of these pathways to moving closer to an ideal self-image, in the eyes of others and ourselves. Negative mood states regularly precede compulsive buying, restriction of food intake, bingeing and purging, and binge eating. The process of buying, restricting, bingeing and purging or overeating temporarily enhances mood, sometimes even to momentary euphoria, only to be followed by shame, guilt, and/or depression.

Please watch this space for Part Two of Dr. Benson’s article in which she will describe case examples that highlight the issues addressed and the path forward to a healthier lifestyle.

April Lane Benson, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorder. Dr. Benson has been in private practice in New York City for over 35 years. She is also the co-founder of the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia in New York. Dr. Benson is the author of  To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop and editor of  I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Her website is

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April Lane Benson, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorder. Dr. Benson has been in private practice in New York City for over 35 years. She is also the co-founder of the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia in New York. Dr. Benson is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop and editor of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Her website is She can also be found on Twitter and Linkedin.