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.