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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  • JulesJS

    love this, so positive!! generosity is a beautiful thing and Dolly sounds like a great friend

  • Yes. Absolutely. 🙂 What a nice read!

    (I derive much pleasure from combining menswear (because this stuff actually has the right proportions, sleeve length etc.) and showing off my adult boobs – simultaneously 🙂 and it took me quite a few years to simply dare combine what I think looks good on me, instead of craving/unsuccessfully copying other ladies’ good looks.)

  • Sarah

    Preach sister. I love this.

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    this was such an uplifting read! i feel like so much of my interaction with fashion is rooted in narcissism and selfishness. when I shop for myself, I only think of myself. when i shop for others, a part of me is always thinking about how the gift will influence the recipient’s perception of me (hopefully, for the better). And maybe to feel all this is normal, because shopping is, at its core, an individualistic experience… but as demonstrated by your piece, there are ways to inject even the tiniest bit of altruism into an otherwise self-indulgent act.

  • Alice

    Oh em gee, one of my all time fave writers on my all time fave website! Such a treat!

    I have a friend who is SO gorgeous yet SO unconfident with how she looks (she’s vvv tall too). But EVERY time she opens the door to her student house she will say to her girlfriends on the other side of the door something like ‘You look so pretty today! I love your hair and those jeans are so flattering on you!’ It is quite literally the nicest thing and makes all of us feel a million Pounds! (N.B. the currency not the weight measurement.) So it seemed really timely to read this because whilst I am all about raising other women up I realise that because I can be a bit of a jealous sod sometimes I haven’t been very generous distributing aesthetic compliments as of late -something that I really need to change.

    MR: More from Dolly plz and ty!

  • B

    This is so, so beautifully written. Thank you!

  • Molly D

    You are so cool. Instant role model!

  • Kacie Medeiros

    Girl, YES!

  • ashley

    this is such heaven. Love the stock bit, and it doesn’t fluctuate based on negative self talk either. cheers to older, wiser, & hotter

  • Pandora Sykes

    My podcast wife nailing it, as ever.

  • I LOVE THIS. So So well written and on-point.

  • Natasha

    Wow, this was SUCH a joy to read. So much wit and honesty and a beautiful message for all of us to take home.

    • Suzan

      Seconded! Absolutely a joy to read for me as well!

  • kjrobot

    Giving another woman compliments will make them and you feel amazing. I highly recommend it.
    I love your article. I love the spirit of it. But there are not enough jobs to go around. I’ve been looking for a full-time job for 2 years. I freelance. I survive. But I certainly differ with you there.
    But let’s definitely compliment each other more. If you see someone who looks great. Say it! Ask them where they got those shoes! It makes everyone’s day.

  • Umm

    Am the only thinking if your friend is 2 sizes smaller and is tiny you can’t be that big?

    I guess that’s irrelevant and maybe I’m an asshole for pointing it out. . especially when vintage clothes really only run so big?

    • Gretel Stroh

      agreed…..vintage clothes are teensy to begin with. A size 12 today would have a difficult time fitting into most 40s clothes, or 50s, or 60s! LOL

    • Jade

      No, you are not the only one; that was my thought exactly.

  • I loved this so much! It’s taken me awhile to realize there’s enough room for everyone. I still do the whole hiding the clothes in the shop thing, though… oops…

  • Hannah Cole

    Yes Dolly! I’m so glad to see you here!

    Totally felt these pains as the oldest sister as well – the first to hit puberty, so of course I did everything to make my young, skinny sister look so much worse.

  • Christel Michelle

    I really needed this. It is so easy to be a cynical and ruthless competitor for no other reason than a need to be “the best”. Especially when you’re young and find yourself trying to catch up to your friends, as I am. The last bit really got to me, “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.” Thanks for sharing! Great read.

  • Jessica

    glad you dropped part of that unnecessary self-loathing.