Female shopaholics are everywhere in pop culture. There's Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, who bought so many pairs of $400 shoes over the course of her life that she can't afford a down payment on her apartment. There's Rebecca Bloomwood, the compulsive-buyer-turned-personal finance guru heroine of Confessions of a Shopaholic.
Mainstream news outlets tend to pepper their articles about compulsive shopping with anecdotes about women. A 2009 CNN story focused on the purse-obsessed Elizabeth Deiter and her disapproving husband (who "has threatened to end the marriage if her spending puts them behind in the bills again"). A 2000 article in the New York Times led with the story of "Barbara G," who tried unsuccessfully to curb her shopping habit by freezing her 19 credit cards in a block of ice.
But it's extremely rare to see a prominent example of a male shopaholic, even though men are about as likely as women to be compulsive buyers. Then came an article by Buzz Bissinger—author of Friday Night Lights and a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter—in the latest GQ, "My Gucci Addiction." It's a remarkable piece of writing that describes how he managed to spend $638,412.97 (not a typo) in three years on an array of designer clothing:
The most expensive leather jacket I own, a Gucci ostrich skin, cost $13,900. The most expensive evening jacket I own, also from Gucci, black napa leather with gold threading, cost $9,800. The most expensive leather pants, $5,600. The most expensive jeans, $2,500. The most expensive pair of boots, $2,600. The most expensive pair of gloves, $1,015. Gucci by far makes up the highest percentage of my collection. The Gucci brand has always held special power for me, ever since the 1960s, when the Gucci loafer with the horsebit hardware was the rage, and my father, who fancied himself as being anti-status when he secretly loved it, broke down and bought a pair. Followed by my mother's purchase of the famous Jackie O. shoulder bag. As a 13-year-old, I circled the old store on Fifth Avenue several times before getting up the courage to go in and buy a Gucci wallet covered with the insignia.
I own forty-three pieces of Gucci—twelve leather jackets, six evening jackets, five pairs of pants, six pairs of boots, four shirts, seven pairs of gloves, and three scarves. I own items from Acne, Affliction, Alexander McQueen, Alexander Wang, Balmain, Band of Outsiders, Belstaff, Bottega Veneta, Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Chanel, Charles David, Diane von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang, Ines, Jan Hilmer, J.Crew, Jimmy Choo, Jitrois, Jos. A. Bank, Joseph, Junker Designs, Loewe, Lucchese, Marc Jacobs, Mr. S Leather, Nike, Northbound Leather, Prada, Rag & Bone, Ralph Lauren, Roberto Cavalli, Saint Laurent, 7 For All Mankind, Thomas Wylde, Valentino, Versace, and Wesco. I also have had several pieces custom-made for me by an amazing designer named Carla Dawn Behrle, who specializes in leather; they're worth every penny and more, given her fastidiousness and attention to detail. I apologize to those letters of the alphabet I have not gotten to yet. Zara, don't give up hope.
Bissinger's story sounds outrageous because of the amount of money at his disposal and his talents as a writer. But his condition isn't all that unusual for men. And it's probably not any less unusual for men than it is for women, who get far more attention when they overspend. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 found that six percent of women and 5.8 percent of men display compulsive-buying behavior, a difference that isn't statistically significant, according to Ronald J. Faber, one of the study's authors.
"One would conclude that there is no gender difference according to the study," said Faber, a communications professor at University of Minnesota, in an email. "In my opinion the issue of any gender difference in prevalence is still an open question."
Faber also says that the two genders experience shopping addictions in similar ways, even if men and women tend to buy different types of stuff. He wrote:
I believe the motivations and effects of compulsive buying are the same for men and women, but there isn't a lot of data on men, so it is hard to say for sure. What differs is the types of things they buy (more clothes, shoes and jewelry for women and more electronics and car related items for men). But again, these are tendencies, not absolutes. There are a number of male compulsive buyers who buy a lot of clothes for instance.
Comparing Bissinger's article to stories about female shopaholics seems to support Faber's understanding that men and women have similar experiences with compulsive shopping. Bissinger traces his fondness for luxury goods back to his teenage years, when he mustered the gumption to buy a wallet from the Gucci store in Manhattan. As he grew up, Bissinger's clothes obsession became closely tied with his perception of his sexuality. He wonders if his shopping habit means he's gay ("Was I homosexual because so much of what I wore is associated with gays?") but ultimately seems to determine that it makes him more appealing as a straight man. The two people he compares himself to in the article are paragons of modern heterosexual masculinity: Mr. Big (interestingly, Carrie's on-again, off-again lover in Sex and the City) and Bon Jovi. When a fellow attendee at Gucci's fashion week shows tells Bissinger he looks like the rocker, he confesses that the "compliment...at this point in my life means more to me than any piece of writing."
Similar themes run through pop culture's depictions of female shopaholics. Confessions of a Shopaholic's Rebecca also points to her childhood as the genesis of her love of spending: An early scene shows her seven-year-old self in a dress shop, marveling at the women who can buy beautiful things with their "magic" (i.e. credit) cards. Her shopping obsession also becomes almost oddly sexual. "You know that thing when you see someone cute and he smiles, and your heart kind of goes like warm butter sliding down hot toast?" she breathes. "Well, that's what it's like when I see a store." Consumer goods have a similar affect on Carrie. Her famous "Hello, lover" line is not directed at Mr. Big or any of her boyfriends, but at a pair of pink heels.
What's missing from Bissinger's piece that's present in nearly every narrative about women and overspending, though, is the sense that compulsive shopping has tangible negative consequences, either personally or materially. Carrie's enthusiasm for shoes nearly makes her homeless; Rebecca's fondness for shopping jeopardizes her fledgling relationship with a co-worker; Elizabeth Deiter from the CNN article could end up divorced if she doesn't get her finances in shape. As Bissinger tells it, however, his addiction hasn't had these same ill effects. Money's not a problem, he writes: "because I make a good living and received a generous inheritance from my parents, there was no threat of going broke." And while his wife certainly sounds concerned, there's no mention of her issuing anything close to an ultimatum.
That detail aside, Bissinger's article is a reminder of a fact that gets lost in the noise about frivolous women who love to buy: Compulsive shopping is a powerful addiction, and it doesn't discriminate based on gender.