On being … below average

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m not a clothes horse. Never have been, never will be. Maybe that’s why a statistic that I heard earlier this fall left me gobsmacked. According to the co-founder of Rent the Runway, the average woman (I’m assuming she’s referring to women in the U.S., but never mind) buys 64 pieces of clothing a year.

CBS Morning News was profiling the company (RTR, as their five million members refer to them) and, because I thought I misheard, I hit rewind on the PVR and re-played it. (I love that my PVR lets me do that with live t.v.!) Sure enough, I heard right: 64 pieces a year. Well, even if you count each sock in a pair of socks separately – I don’t come anywhere close to the average. In fact, I don’t think purchases of clothing by me and my two sisters combined total 64 in a year. (Though our combined total may be close because one sister has a sock fetish. But even so…)

I had forgotten that story until the other day when I was chatting with the wife of a friend at a social function. Somehow the conversation turned to clothes shopping and she enthusiastically mentioned she loves this one outlet mall. Apparently she always finds great bargains there. As an example, she mentioned she recently found a pair of Ralph Lauren winter pants and they were only $22.  

She went on to say that she bought six pairs and now she’s “set for the season”. Though I did my best to expressed approval and admiration for her bargain hunting acumen, the voice inside my head shouted: “Why on earth do you need six pair? You’re retired. It’s not like they’re your work uniform. Besides, what are a washer and dryer for?” Of course, I didn’t say that – I just smiled and nodded as that RTR average came to mind. Afterward I was thinking about it and I realized that clearly, though folks like me and my sisters might be bringing down the average, there are plenty of others bringing it up!

Anyway, this column isn’t about the number of pairs of pants my friend’s wife bought (or needs), it’s about the use of averages. Though I realize deriving averages is a pretty standard exercise in many fields, whenever I hear an average for this or that, my knee jerk reaction is to compare myself to it. I imagine this goes back to my youth, when school performance was graded by comparison to some mythical average that was represented by a C.

Part and parcel of my early conditioning around the notion of “average” was the idea that the goal is to always be above average. Please don’t misunderstand – my striving for above average grades is not something my parents are to be blamed for. Far from it. My mother always assured us that all she ever expected of us was to bring home average grades. Proving mothers can’t win, I used to get so mad when she didn’t understand my frustration at a B. Her telling me that a mere C was enough seemed genuinely insulting.

Obviously I’ve been out of school a long time, but I still find that whenever a news story mentions an average, before I realize I’ve really processed the topic, I feel a twinge if I’m below that average. So, when I heard the Rent the Runway figure, even though shopping and new clothes really don’t matter much to me, my first thought was that there must be something really wrong with me, as I am woefully below that average.

Fortunately, most of the times when this happens, after taking a breath, I manage to regain some objectivity. Usually I find that when I’m nowhere even close to the average, it’s because it’s something that’s irrelevant to me. In those cases, whether I’m above or below doesn’t matter as I don’t really care about the spectrum the average is measuring. Mind you, some days it takes me awhile to come around to that realization.

Gosh, do you suppose this means I have more low self-esteem days than average?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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