An Open Letter to Topshop

Harvey Jeni
Nov 10, 2017 · 7 min read

Dear Topshop,

When I was a girl growing up in a sprawling new town designed to absorb the London overspill, a few times a year I would put together any money I had managed not to blow on sweets — pocket money, the odd birthday or Christmas tenner — and take it all “down town.” I’d go with friends, giggling on the bus, and we’d spend the day going about the clothes shops, loudly proclaiming everything to be, “Oh my god, gross.” Eventually we would concede that a couple of things were perhaps, “Alriiiight” and the ritual of trying on would begin. We’d emerge from behind flimsy cubicle curtains in new and ridiculous outfits and gush over each other, posing in the full length mirrors, helping with unreachable zips, sucking in our cheeks. Mostly we went to Tammy Girl and Miss Selfridge, but in the occasional pursuit of what we considered serious sophistication, we would head to Topshop. These shopping trips were important, although I didn’t know it at the time. They were an exercise in bonding, a rite of passage, a practice and pretence at being all grown up. My mother encouraged them, secretly relieved. She hated “bloody shopping.”

Now I have a daughter of my own, on the cusp of secondary school and desperate to be allowed to go shopping with her own friends, without her mother, to try on clothes she knows I’d hate and pretend to be all grown up. I want that for her, to be able to explore her growing independence in a fun and appropriate environment; to express herself in safety.

Whether Topshop is still at the cutting edge of sartorial trends, I’ve no idea. Fast fashion no longer interests me much; my tastes have changed since then. Rather it is Topshop’s unthinking leap onto the bandwagon of what is politically fashionable that motivates me to write.

This week a series of three tweets sent by non-binary, trans feminine identifying performance artist, Travis Alabanza, claiming you did not allow them to use the women’s changing room at your Manchester store, have prompted an angry response on social media. Accusations of transphobia have seen you rush to insist that your policy regarding changing rooms is that they all be open to anyone of “any gender.”

Alabanza’s complaint was that, “Not letting me use the changing room I decide is shit.” They demanded that you, “Sort it out. Gendered changing rooms effect and put queer and trans shoppers at risk from harassment from other shoppers. It’s dated and dangerous.” This is a view shared by many other non-binary, gender nonconforming individuals, including US based Alok Vaid-Menon, a friend of Alabanza’s who has also expressed in The Guardian newspaper their support for the abolition of sex segregated spaces. Although both describe themselves as victims of an anti trans agenda, neither Alabanza nor Vaid-Menon have taken steps towards any kind of transition, and neither claim to be women. The demand to use currently provided women’s spaces is on the basis of their identifying as neither male nor female, but presenting in what they deem to be a feminine manner.

However, in the sexed reality that everyone has, up until this point for centuries understood, both of these individuals would be viewed as unambiguously male. Their entirely male physiology, facial structure and stature would be instantly recognised as such by any woman or girl in their vicinity, and this has real world meaning and consequences. Still more worrying is the attitude towards female children evidenced in both their online histories. Vaid-Menon once wrote a Facebook post under the name Darkmatter, criticising the idea of little girls as “pure, innocent victims” in sex abuse cases, and arguing that in fact little girls could be “kinky and deviant.” Alok also claims to have once been a “cute little girl” despite identifying as neither male nor female. In their turn Alabanza very recently posted a highly sexualised photograph of themselves dressed in a see through crop top and red devil horns. The caption was: “Going as a 15 yt gal for Halloween.”

Now I am not suggesting for one second that anyone who identifies as non-binary or transfemme is likely to share these worrisome attitudes towards female children — that would be a terrible slander and is categorically untrue. But what I do want to ask is whether these specifically amplified voices are ones Topshop would wish to be seen as either influencing or driving policy?

What I would like, actually, is that for a moment everyone just suspend their current beliefs around gender politics, and consider carefully how they might respond to an ordinary adult man (or indeed woman) who had made such statements. If a male politician or judge said that he did not believe in this idea of female children as pure and innocent, and that in his experience they could be kinky and deviant, how might we feel about that? If a man who popped round to fix the boiler came dressed in an outfit that clearly showed his nipples through sheer material, struck a sexy pose, and claimed that he was dressed up as a fifteen year old girl, what might we think?

Which leads us to the question: what is so special about these new gender identities that they can seemingly flip such concerning ideas on their head and turn them into something deemed not only socially acceptable, but worthy of celebration? If we have a person that anyone can recognise instantly as physiologically male, and that person then speaks or acts in such a way as to sexualise female children in a manner we would not tolerate from any other adult, then why would we consider allowing them unfettered access to spaces in which female children and teenagers are often in a state of undress? What is so unique about these individuals that we can forget all our previously agreed upon social and moral codes? What is it that causes us to abandon what would usually be our natural instincts to keep them well away from female sex segregated spaces, and instead welcome them into those spaces with open arms?

What is unique is their denial of any sexed reality, their claim to exist outside of human sexual dimorphism, and the construction of this unquantifiable belief as an unquestionable truth, despite there being no common understanding as to what the terms ‘non-binary’ or ‘transfeminine’ might actually mean. No consistent, clear definition of either term exists and yet they are enough to secure anybody at all access to female only spaces, and even render their sexualisation of children somehow fashionably transgressive, rather than frankly appalling. There is no measure for non-binary or transfeminine identity. Neither can be proven or tested. Both reside purely in the owners own conception, or stated conception of themselves. Do Topshop really consider this a strong enough basis on which to override clear legislative exemptions already enshrined in the Equality Act, that protect women and grant them sex segregated spaces such as changing rooms on the basis of their material sexed reality. Why?

The TopShop policy opens wide the door for any male person who wishes to use the female changing room. There is no way at all to authenticate non-binary status and so literally any man can claim it and no one is in a position to challenge him. It renders any last pretence at sex based protection null and void. Anyone who states they wish to use the female changing rooms can. Which then begs the question: why do TopShop still have changing rooms clearly signed as either for men or women at all? Why not just lump everyone in together?

To which many might say great, genderless changing rooms were always the desired outcome. This is certainly the solution advocated by Alabanza and Vaid-Menon. Unfortunately we still live in a world in which sexed differences remain an oppressive reality. It is a stark truth that 98% of sexual crimes are committed by biologically male people, and that the large majority of their victims are biologically female. We segregate changing rooms, public toilets, and prisons based on this real world reality that men and women exist. We cannot wish this truth away, and pretending it isn’t the truth, or that the truth is not important compared to the wishes of a tiny minority of gender nonconforming, yet still physiologically male people, is the height of sexist dismissal. It is misogyny in action.

Dear Topshop, us girls and women are your bread and butter. We have always been your bread and butter. Our disposable income drives your profits. In light of this I put to you three simple questions:

Please can you explain to me why legislation enshrined in the Equality Act that protects women on the basis of their biological sex is being ignored in favour of a non legislated for, and subjectively experienced identity, that is neither clearly defined nor even understood and recognised by the vast majority of your customers or staff?

Please can you explain to me why physiological males who openly sexualise female children are being allowed to influence your policy on abolishing female only changing rooms, and why you think it is a good idea to allow them access to those spaces as they exist currently?

Biological females are a far larger demographic than anyone who identifies as something other than their biological sex. We are half the population. Please can you explain to me why you feel it is appropriate to put our safety and comfort at risk for the benefit of a tiny minority, and how you reconcile this with your claim to value your customers?

Until I have received a reasonable and coherent answer to all three questions, my daughter will not be taking her precious birthday money to your tills. She will not be having the fun and formative experiences she and her friends deserve anywhere near a Topshop changing room. And I will be speaking to every parent, guardian, and woman I know in order to inform them of your policy of throwing women and girls under the bus in the name of fashion.

I wait sincerely on your response.

J. H.

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