I fell down the stairs to the J train in New York City in February 2023 while visiting my girlfriend. I am okay but my right shin is bruised. When I try to go for a run, a sharp pain stops me, leading me to favour my left foot. My stride is altered just enough for some combination of plantar fasciitis and peroneal tendonitis to spark in my heel and ankle. I know running keeps my mood balanced and fairly high, so I keep it up, thinking my foot would eventually heal. When it becomes hard to walk, I resentfully give it a week off. I have never felt so trapped by my own body. I can’t make it do what I want. Just leaving my house has become arduous. Midway through this week of deprivation, I find myself crying in a chair in my living room. I open my laptop on the chair arm and pull up the Urban Outfitters website.
I normally overcome breakdowns – days when I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, or when nervousness over a mistake I’ve made eats up my insides – by reminding myself that I can start the next day with a long run. When I run, I feel a burst of serotonin that lasts for hours, even when I have no exterior reason to feel better. One of the happiest moments of my life is the summer of 2021, when I crested the final hill at the end of a nine-mile run just as ‘Angel of the Morning’ by Juice Newton reached its chorus.
The euphoria doesn’t exist for its own sake. It is my destination – a false sense that my productivity peaked despite lingering tasks, that I obliterated all sources of stress, and that the burdens of my mistakes left through my pores as sweat.
Not able to run, I turn back to online shopping, the vice running has replaced. I think somewhere in those clothes I will find whatever I have to buy to no longer feel so trapped. It’s something I can do. It’s something that once made me happy.
I started online shopping in high school. Most of my thoughts concerned how I could look more like the toned, flat-stomached girls I saw on YouTube going on road trips, doing photo shoots, and making in-jokes about video editing with their equally beautiful friends with equally large social media followings. I went to the websites where these YouTubers shopped and purchased the baggy jeans and crop tops I thought they would wear, thinking I could fashion myself into something that looked like them.
The models on the websites all appeared carefree, skinny, and unburdened – even more so than the people I’d seen on YouTube. They relaxed in a field of flowers or tossed their hair under string lights at a party. In one photo, a model knelt in bed, arms stretched above her head to reveal her tiny waist under the lounge set she wore. She looked happy and comfortable. I added the lounge set to my cart. If I had her clothes, in the exact size she wore, I too could escape my own restless discomfort.
These pictures set the standard of happiness. Happiness of meeting every expectation the world could throw at me without strife. It was a goal I could only achieve by dedication to these women and the websites in which they lived. And by deciding who to look like, I hoped to decide how happy I got to be.
Part of what would guarantee me that happiness was looking like the models did when I put on the clothes I bought. I had to shape my body into one that could fit influencer sizes. To be a great online shopper, I had to be thinner. I had to eat less. I had to push myself onto the treadmill every day instead of just twice a week. Running ranked right below shopping as a means of control. In turn, I used clothing to control my body. Of the five pairs of jeans purchased my first semester of college, I only wore the ones that were tight to my waist and instantly alerted me if it expanded by a centimetre.
But my body never looked quite how I wanted. I felt like an inadequate sculptor. I was angry at it for daring to feel miserable in the face of starvation, which was supposed to make me happy. Hunger enhanced that anger. The emotion overwhelmed me and I tried to reign it back, not let it override the plans I had for my body.
The closer I came to being as thin as I wanted to be, the further I was from that carefree happiness. But the longer I scrolled on these clothing websites, the more I believed that this happiness existed. I sank into its fantasy. I just hadn’t tried hard enough. I hadn’t eaten little enough. I still wasn’t beautiful enough to deserve it. One day, after enough skipped meals and compliments from friends on the size of my waist and outfits bought that showed it off, I would be as perfectly happy as those models, and then I could rest.
Scrolling to the end of a website made things manageable. I felt like I could grasp the whole scope of possibilities of what I could look like and what that website could do for me. I had a careful system: open websites, scour them one at a time, click through each category of clothing, from jeans to dresses to accessories, scroll through every page so I knew I wouldn’t miss anything, and add anything that provoked the nicest fantasies to my virtual bag before I went back to weed through my options. I imagined myself wearing each garment and then sorted them into mental piles: what to buy, what to consider, and what to ignore. It took days, but I refused to buy anything without going through the entire process.
I shopped like it was my job. It proved my organisational skills and my ability to distinguish tacky from trendy. I felt like a valuable member of society because I was capable of doing so. By the time I checked out, I felt like I had completed a task and completed it well. This relaxed me. The package of clothing that arrived at my house was confirmation of a job well done.
But at one of the top-ranked public universities in the country, I felt average. My identity, which had always related primarily to the ways I stacked up next to my peers, became porous. I found expectations for academic excellence and productivity higher than at the tiny high school that had named me valedictorian. I was supposed to decide my purpose in life and how I would serve society, but for anything I was good at there was someone else in my liberal arts course who was better. I needed a blip of dopamine. I ran back to online shopping. There, I was exceptional.
However, by the time I graduated high school in June 2020, I was already aware of fast fashion’s consequences. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, zero-waste YouTube vloggers and requests from my mom to buy peanut butter in glass jars had turned me into an environmentalist. I was conscious enough to become a vegan and buy deodorant that came in a compostable case. Keeping myself away from Urban Outfitters and its contemporaries felt like a necessary penance for the years of simultaneous cart curation on five websites and the piles of boxes hauled up my family’s winding gravel driveway. I told myself I would swear off fast fashion.
So I loathed myself for being a hypocrite. I publicly condemned fast fashion and overconsumption, but I had to feel a sense of accomplishment. I had to do something with my brain turned off. To avoid running on the treadmill with a mask on, I reluctantly started finding running loops outdoors, around the streets of Ann Arbor. When I ran, it was my body, not my mind, that was working itself to its limit. My brain recited the lyrics of the songs in my headphones. Anxious thoughts softened and broke apart. I pictured my pumping arms slicing through them like clouds, not allowing them to solidify. I ran as fast as I could. Once running stopped making me feel like my lungs were repelling oxygen and my legs were melting, I loved it. Soon, it was something else I was good at, and this time my skill wasn’t a mortifying secret.
When I felt crushed by responsibilities and deadlines, I craved long runs. When I felt terrible about myself for getting up after 8AM or found myself immobilised by a writing project, I could remind myself that at least I ran that morning. When I woke up to see that the guy I liked hadn’t texted me back, I ran eight miles. I no longer found myself thirty pages deep in Princess Polly crop tops at the end of a long day. Instead, I opened Google Maps and planned the next day’s running route.
Typing in the first letters of the Urban Outfitters web address, my laptop fills in the rest. The pathways from mental distress to online shopping are still as paved in my internet history as in my mind. I also open Free People, Princess Polly and Pacsun. I start scrolling. I don’t plan to buy anything anyway. That isn’t the point. I just want to dig through options, create the perfect selection of clothing, imagine buying it but decide against it and close all tabs feeling calmer. But Urban disappoints me. The clothes that once looked like a possibility now just look like fabric; they can’t make up for the fact that I can’t run the next morning and they can’t heal my foot. I can’t find a piece of clothing that would bring me enough joy to make up for the devastation of not running.
I realised that as happy as running makes me and as healthy as it can be, it is also the less harmful and more socially acceptable coping mechanism I use to patch my dependence on online shopping. It quiets the feeling that I am not working hard enough, or accomplishing enough. And now, my former escape isn’t working.
I limp downstairs and outside. I sit on my porch. It is already hot enough to be summer. Sweat emerges on my neck and forehead. Environmental devastation still looms. I had cut myself off from fast fashion to clean my hands of as much responsibility as I could. I no longer allow myself to seek fulfilment by shopping, but instead feel useful by wearing my own body down. Global destruction invites guilt; individual destruction doesn’t. As long as I’m running, I don’t worry that I’m not doing enough. My body is useful, like the models I once aspired to be. Destruction is evidence of productivity. It almost feels like success. I make a day-by-day plan to ice, stretch, brace and start running on my foot again.
Erin Evans is a writer, runner and amateur clothing designer from Michigan.