Growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, I rarely visited a mall nor experienced the teen shopping frenzy that seemed to exist among many of my peers as a routine symptom of adolescence. With neither the economic state nor a socially fashionable consciousness, I was doomed it seemed to live life immune to the average teen existence within the mall.
As ridiculous as it might sound to my ears now, as an adult, it was anything but – shopping and mall hanging in my day was the social nexus of adolescence. And why not; the mall met all of your needs. You could socialize, update your look, feed your face and just chill—all under one roof. The best difference it provided from school was that there were no teachers and you didn’t have to pop open a book.
But, after all, how would I really know? My experience of the mall as a teen came from second hand accounts from my friends and the kids in school. As I admired their new kicks and expensive designer Guess jeans, I learned about who came to mall with who, who went to go see what movie with who and who bought that ugly sweater at what store. Yeah, it got confusing, but it always sounded so much more interesting than what I wound up doing with my after-school nights and weekends.
Well, I wish I could say that as the years passed and as my adolescence fell behind me, I became more mall-bound and built a relationship with department stores and other retail outlets. I wish I could say that from the little duckling with little mall experience, I blossomed into a savvy clotheshorse with labels to rock and infinite knowledge of where to shop.
But, sadly, that is not to case. Instead, as I grew financially independent and able to choose where I would shop, I was beckoned by the call of storefront windows that held yellow signs promising “$10 or less”. I grew mesmerized with thrift stores and the words “vintage” and nurtured a special love with Wal-mart.
All in all, I grew cheap, cheaper by the years. See, as I began to make my own money, it became a precious commodity that I wanted to stretch as far as possible. Instead of visiting the mall for a movie, wait till it comes out on video, or better yet, buy it on bootleg! If there was a designer label that was popular at the time, either live life without it, or buy its reasonable facsimile in a discount mart. The mall was no longer the social allure and it definitely had lost its luster for providing my needs. My money, instead, was invested more readily in travel, high tech items, dining out at exotic restaurants and a Master’s degree.
But, that all changed when, in January 2003, I learned that in approximately nine months, I would be identified as being someone’s mother.
That’s right, the Mommy bug bit hard and it sucked out of me any residual cheapness that may have been left once I found out I was pregnant. When I learned that my baby was on its way, shopping became my all day-consuming hobby.
On the way to work I would stop by the mall to check out what was new in baby wear. I would wake up on Saturday morning, spending the day at the mall to stock up on my baby essentials.
Of course I would have a baby shower that provided me with tons of things that were necessary for my baby’s arrival, but nothing compared with the joy that window-shopping and impulse buying gave as I realized that I now had the power to buy my little child anything and everything it could possibly desire. (Well, almost anything. I wasn’t rich!).
I avoided well-intentioned colleagues, relatives and friends who attempted to unload baby clothes that once belonged to their nephews, neighbors and twenty year-old grandkids. I wanted new, new, new for my little bundle of joy!
In my fifth month I learned that my baby was a little girl and my shopping missions began to have more focus. Before, when I would ogle the cute frilly dresses and pink sleepers and bonnets, I wouldn’t indulge because gender was a question. With the full knowledge of my baby’s gender, I could now tailor my missions to a specific look, feel or color.
Shopping became my life and the mall my second home! The food court was my salvation. My friends learned to tread with caution when you take a pregnant woman to a location where she can choose from over ten fast food joints that contain at least twenty of the latest things she is craving at the moment…things can become pretty ugly!
I never really had to go home either. One of my favorite pastimes is reading and the mall always has at least one big bookstore. In between shopping and gorging myself with pizza and whatever else I was craving, I would take breaks in the bookstore, resting my swollen ankles and reading the astrology almanac I refused to pay $30 bucks for.
When September 18, 2003 arrived, nothing in the world could replace the joy and significance I felt at that moment.
Giving birth to my daughter Khari sealed the commitment I had made to her and to God, promising to be the best parent possible. As she was born and embraced within the baby blankets that were once mine, and capped in a baby bonnet donated by the birth care center, I melted in the knowledge that regardless of what she is wearing or how much her clothes cost, she will be loved unconditionally from her head to her feet.
Driving home with her three hours after her birth, as Hurricane Isabel raged around us, I cried in understanding that I could never buy or receive anything more precious than this person.
So, as my shopping enthusiasm dwindled as Khari grew older, I began to settle into a pattern that connected my two shopping extremes into one happy medium. Though I still had a love for discount stores, I enjoyed the diversity shopping in a mall allows. As I push Khari through the mall in her Jeep Explorer stroller, I can use the mall as a teaching moment where Khari can practice her colors identifying the pretty blue sweater or red pair of pants.
Overall, the mall can provide me with the best story yet to tell Khari when she gets older. I will be able to share with her the story of how the mall provided the backdrop for when her momma lost her mind and tried to buy the world for her baby. She will learn how the mall was once her momma’s second home. I guarantee that the story will figure prominently in her mental Rolodex when she matches it with her personal sense of style and dress. Already a budding fashionista, the girl can’t stand leaving the house without her Dora the Explorer purple outfit.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem