Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Guest Post: Stories from the Fitting Room

Today's guest post comes from Sheri McCord, an adjunct professor at SLU and a Women's Studies scholar. She kindly shares this story of her summer spent working in the fitting room of an upper-end athletic wear store, which serves as an interesting intersection of her professional and scholarly perspectives. 

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For three months the fitting room was my job, my workplace. I hid in the tiny cubby that was deemed “my office”. Working retail for the first time in my thirty-eight years was eye opening. While I lacked confidence on the sales floor, I could process clothes faster than most. I excelled at tucking tags and tying the bows of halter tops. My fingers worked fast at their tasks just like they do when I’m writing, just like they did when I used to play the clarinet.

An adjunct college instructor, I am not paid in the summers, so I must find employment from June through August. In order to keep my one bedroom apartment and feed my fat cat, I’ve worked lots of summer jobs, and most, thankfully, were teaching gigs. Last summer, however, I worked at an upscale women’s clothing store specializing in athletic wear. I was also a yoga teacher, so the gig kind of fit in that I could purchase their clothes for a discount and wear them during my yoga classes. Wearing yoga clothes to work was fantastic and anxiety producing as well. While I felt comfortable being in the yoga room in my yoga clothes, I felt out of place and self-conscious at work.

Like I did in the fifth grade, the year that I remember first being self-conscious of my body, I wore a jacket all the time. On the rare day that I let my arms and shoulders show, I felt anxious and exposed. When I was ten, I donned this blue jacket with lots of snaps even during the summer time. I would not take it off. Like Linus, I had my security blanket.

At work, I wore a black hoodie. Most of the time covering the hours of artwork on my back and arms. Despite my desire to be seen, I often hide in plain sight. I tried to make myself seem smaller in all ways. While I love being seen on stage or in the classroom, in a retail space, I just felt out of place, an unnecessary addition. The awkwardness I felt was hard to conceal, but I needed the job, and I tried my best at folding, customer service, and more folding. 



So here I was working in an industry that is all about appearance. Even if you don’t find hundred dollar yoga pants or a sixty-five dollar exercise top egregious, you would agree that it is all about how you look in the clothes. Sure, some of it is function, but today’s activewear is meant as much for style as it is for functionality. In my yoga classes, women wore the top brands and most had good reviews. Some didn’t find their size or had trouble with sizing, and it’s no wonder when the materials are made to suck in your internal organs.

Back in my office, the fitting room cubby, I witnessed so many women go through what I always went through in the dressing rooms: anxiety, frustration, and self-loathing. But I don’t want to imply that all women hated the fitting rooms. Many women loved ours specifically for the customer service provided by my colleagues. They were supportive and kind while also being realistic. This was a talent.

Our fitting room area was spacious compared to some. The lighting, however, still seemed to reveal every nuance of imperfection on my body, but maybe that was just me.

One woman tried on at least five kinds of black yoga pants, which, yes, all went for about a hundred bucks a pop. And, yes, we sold multiple kinds of black yoga pants. I was in the fitting room area alone at the time; we were closing up. She tried on these yoga pants multiple times, and I could tell she was getting frustrated. “My thighs just look so huge in all of these,” she said about her long, slender legs. They looked so long and lovely to me that I didn’t know what to say. I told her that she looked amazing in the pants, whichever pants, because she really did. She tried them on again. She thanked me for my helped and said, “I just can’t do it tonight.”

Another woman was concerned about the “back fat” that bubbled out of the exercise top that is designed to compress the body. The fabric is actually designed to suck everything in. I did not want to refer to this woman’s normal looking back muscles as “back fat” and told her so. “You don’t have back fat! You have muscle!” She was training for her second marathon.

I’m one to talk. I could tell these women that they looked great and mean it, but I could never convince myself. But from these stories, I knew it wasn’t just me, and the skewed perception I had of myself became more lucid by the time I quit that summer. I still need a job for this upcoming summer, and I know I can fold piles of clothes with the best of them. It’s just one more skill to add to the c.v.

Picture: stevendepolo

4 comments:

  1. This is a really interesting perspective, but I feel like it falls into the trap of "body image problems are bad, as long as you're actually thin." Some of us yogis *do* have back fat or big thighs, and those aren't flaws or not "normal looking."


    I have back fat! It's ok! My back is just as "normal" as the one of the muscular customer. And I'm sick of reading about how terrible it is when thin women think they're fat, because being fat is not a bad thing.


    Not to mention that fat women like me could never find our size in upscale yoga clothing stores anyway. I'm not happy with the overall lack of plus size athletic-wear options, but I don't mind being excluded from access to $100 yoga pants that are no better quality than the ones I get from Target.

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  2. I think I must have conveyed something that I didn't mean, and I apologize. What I was trying to say was what you said above in your comment. I'm not thin. I am a yoga teacher who feels self-conscious about having fat on my body in this culture where it is deemed unacceptable. I am so sick of fat shaming. Again, I apologize if I conveyed the opposite and would gladly take the article down if you feel that it is saying that "body image problems are bad, as long as you're actually thin."

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  3. Thanks for clarifying! I'm glad that's not what you meant.

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  4. I agree with the perspective I think you're both sharing here.


    I'm an athlete. I'm an athlete with big thighs and back fat. I didn't call myself an athlete for a long time even though I was running multiple races a year and lifting weights regularly. It wasn't until I joined a roller derby league and saw the variety of bodies capable of doing so many powerful things that I started claiming the word "athlete" for myself, and--if I'm being honest--it still feels like a ruse.


    I felt like Sheri's point about seeing these thin women pointing out their "flaws" that weren't even actually there speaks to the lessons in looking through other's eyes. If a woman whose body *I* see as "ideal" by our disturbing cultural standards still sees the same flaws on herself that I see on my own body, then I start to recognize that they aren't really flaws at all. It isn't because the woman had muscles instead of back fat; it's that even a woman who was following the messed up rules for appearance was still "failing" to be acceptable (at least to herself).


    I can really relate to seeing someone else be unfair to her own body as a wake up call that I needed to start being fair to mine.


    So I'm an athlete. With big thighs and back fat. And I hope when I have to go buy new yoga pants, I can remember the athleticism I aim to use them for.

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Comments are welcome and encouraged. I appreciate debate and have no problem hearing from people who disagree. This is a space where people can question and discuss. That said, I will delete comments that contain name-calling or bigotry. If it would get you kicked out of a dinner party, don't say it here. Use your manners.