The connection between low body image and shopping behavior

I have some seriously beautiful friends. Friends with long legs. Friends with translucently pale skin. Friends with interesting faces and luxuriously thick heads of hair. They know how to dress, these friends, and have that mystically quality of looking put-together without as if they tried to look put together. They walk with an elegant, confident stride. They can go without make-up, have enviable tiny waists and project an air of confidence that's hard to ignore.

There is no question that when I'm with these women, I'm the odd one out. I am not statuesque nor tall like most of them are. My hair refuses to be coaxed into submission, and becomes rebelliously disheveled the longer the day drags on. And it's red - aggressively red. Without mascara, I look half-asleep. And I have a few very prominent tattoos that make me appear both quirky and slightly dangerous.

But I like spending time with these women. We meet over drinks and laugh and share appetizers and gossip about blogging stuff. But we've rarely gone shopping together. I was thinking about this when I wrote last week's post regarding shopping as a female bonding activity. Then I came upon an article in the Huffington Post that's somewhat related. According to a study conducted by Science Daily, as reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, new research shows that when you feel unhappy about your body while trying on an outfit in a store and you see an attractive customer or salesperson wearing that same outfit, you are less likely to buy it.

The authors of the paper write:
"If [the low self-esteem customer] sees a dress on an attractive consumer in the store and is trying on the same dress herself, as she looks in the mirror she now thinks to herself, 'That dress is really cute and stylish on me, but compared to her, I look terrible!'"
For this phenomenon to occur, both parties needed to be wearing the same item. In the study, the negative evaluations did not occur if the other shopper was merely carrying the item or if consumers didn't try on the item but saw someone else wearing it. It should also be noted that the sample population the study relied on had low body image to begin with, and as a result, the findings only apply when shoppers have low self-esteem before entering a store. But I found it compelling that we, as consumers, are so influenced by the shoppers (and salespeople) around us that they might prevent us from making a purchase. That's because consumers take in social cues when shopping, meaning even if a shopper thinks a shirt looks stylish on the rack or on another person wearing the item in a store, when the shopper tries on the item, he or she has a tendency to think, "I look terrible compared to the good-looking person who had this on!"

The study concludes that retailers should design their stores so shoppers can try on clothes without having to leave private dressing rooms and be distracted by other people. It also questions whether employees should be required to wear a brand's clothing. States like California already have laws in place to prevent brands such as Abercrombie, Gap and Polo Ralph Lauren from requiring their employees to buy and wear their clothes, but there are no laws requiring stores to have private dressing rooms

It is nearly an impossible task to avoid comparing yourself to other women when we're wearing the same clothes as they are. In addition, when we're already struggling with low self-esteem, concurrent body image issues aren't that far behind. When I'm feeling especially low about how look (which is approximately 75% of the time) the last thing I want to do is examine how I stack up to my gorgeous friends or customers wearing the same clothes. Women with low opinions of their physical appearance are at a greater risk for negative effects from any sort of media or environmental influence, whether it's advertisements with skinny models or commercials related to dieting or weight loss.

I'm wondering what you think of the results of this study. Do you think attractive customers and salespeople influence the buying habits of consumers? Would you be less inclined to make a purchase if you saw someone attractive trying on the same clothes you're considering? How much of a influence do you believe low self-esteem and body image plays into buying habits? Are you less likely to buy when you're having negative thoughts about your appearance?

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  1. More than 4 years ago Mr. C took me shopping for my birthday to my favourite store which also happens to be the elitist venue for clothing in Slovenia.
    Bubble skirts were all the rage then and I picked a bronze taffeta skirt. The sizing ran small and my usual size was just on the uncomfortable side meaning it fit and looked perfect but I was conscious of the constraint around my waist. As I walked out of the dressing room to show it to Mr. C a woman emerged from the other compartment wearing the exact skirt. She was older than me, sophisticated and obviously well off. She was taller, slimmer and had gorgeous olive complexion and raven black hair. She oozed ease and comfort in that same skirt. Compared to her I looked young, clumsy and stumpy. I bought the skirt anyway, I just loved it. Wore it often for formal occasions and always with confidence.

  2. I think I might be more likely to buy if I see someone attractive wearing it -- I'm aspirational that way!

  3. When I was younger I really struggled with this same issue. I hated shopping in stores where I would be deluged with others looking 'better' than me. Inadvertently this issue gave me some tools ways to cope that as I've gotten older I see. I started to go to thrift stores and learned to wear similar pieces different ways. I also learned that for me it's just a confidence game. It's about being the best ME I can be. I can't be anyone else and I've realized I don't want to be anyone else.

  4. I wonder how this study fits into the psychology of why clothing and cosmetic companies unofficially prefer hire attractive people?

  5. Those are some pretty interesting findings. Perhaps this makes the case for ugly models, then? LOL.

  6. This is why I LOATHE looking at the clothes on the mannequins. Something about those absurd hanger-esque body shapes makes me crazy when I'm in the fitting room. So I try to keep my eyes at room-level and not look up too much:) And it also explains why I like to have an overstocked fitting room. I do better when I don't have to leave! Maybe I'm on to something. Banish those crazy-looking mannequin forms, have giant fitting rooms we can stuff full with our choices, and the stores might sell more...

  7. I've had the opposite problem. Saw someone in a garment I was considering, thought they looked so awful there was no way in h*ll I wanted to look like that and put the outfit up.:) The odds of this happening are so slim it seems ridiculous to do something as extreme as have private dressing rooms so NO ONE can see you. Maybe we should work at the root of the problem on why women have low self esteem and not try to clean up an oil spill with a paper towel.

  8. From a petite woman's perspective, clothes often look absolutely ridiculous on me - even the smallest size is too big thanks to vanity sizing. The dress may be size 0, but it fits like a 6! And then there's the length issue (one reason why much of my wardrobe comes from brands that make petite sizes for women 5'4" or shorter). Shoes are worse. I dread shopping for shoes because I don't like asking for a size 5 (or 4 1/2). I feel like the salespeople laugh at my face when they realize I'm that small.

  9. Wow this is very interesting. If I saw someone look good in something, I would probably feel more inclined to buy something not the opposite. However, I hardly compare myself to others when shopping.

    That's so funny you hate your red hair because I think red heads are so beautiful!

  10. This study doesn't surprise me at all. I remember VERY clearly a time when rompers were juuuust coming in (I think I read before that you hate rompers, haha! I'm sorry but let me finish the story...) and the saleswoman working was wearing one--and did I mention completely gorgeous, stick thin and long blonde hair... totally incomparable to my own body type. Plus, she was probably a size 2. And I'm more or less a 6 or 8 in that store. Maybe a 9. Anyway, I tried it on. And hated it. It's sad really. I agree--I don't think they should make their employees wear their clothes if they want people to purchase it. However... I also think it's really sad that we do this to ourselves. Maybe this is why online shopping works? Ha!

  11. I definitely agree with this. Seeing someone who is more attractive than me wearing the same item puts a damper on my self-esteem. That said, as shallow as it is, if I see someone who is wearing the same item in an unflattering way, I may feel a little better about myself but I still don't want the item. I hate having the same things as other people, whether they look better or worse in it.

    Also had to comment, the "Friends with translucently pale skin" described as beautiful is outside of something I'm used to. I'm the translucent pale you speak of, but I'm only ever used to being told I'm too pale or I look sickly. Sometimes I laugh it off, sometimes I wish I had a slighter darker skin-tone. When I go on vacation down south in the winter, I'll be the joke of the bunch of us, as I'll be the palest going and leaving. Going to have to build up my tolerance to jokes, I wonder how one might do that?


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