Why I will no longer be a passive bystander in a culture that hates body diversity.
As I’ve been reminded in various job interviews recently, I have tried out quite a few career paths since college. My most recent job is working in retail for an upscale department store where I spend my days trying to remain positive on a floor that reminds me of my days rushing a sorority, competing with the other saleswomen on my floor to steal customers and meet our goals (we work on 100% commission). Blah blah blah, sometimes people are catty, you get it, and that’s not the point, because there are parts of my job that I do really love. Let me start by telling you why I wanted this job in the first place.
As a recovered anorexic, I know all too well the anxiety that trying on ill-fitting clothes in a poorly lighted dressing room can bring. Albeit, my experiences may veer towards the side of extreme, but I’d be hard pressed to find any female friend/acquaintance who has never left a dressing room feeling badly about her body. This makes me angry. While fashion can be a fun way to express yourself and god knows I love putting together outfits and expressing my femininity with pretty, girly clothes, I have trouble accepting that so many of us have only negative connotations of fashion and clothing. Call me too optimistic, but I think that every person deserves the experience of having their clothes not only fit correctly, but be a positive, confidence-building part of their life.
But for a lot of the women who come into my department, this is not the case (I am only focusing on those who shop in my department because they are the ones I have experience with on a daily basis). At least once a day, a woman comes in looking for something in particular: a pair of boot cut jeans, a top to go with a skirt for an upcoming trip to Vegas, and though her credit card is ready and willing, she leaves empty handed. Here’s how it goes: said woman comes in, tells me what she is looking for, I tell her to look around while I use my salesperson-expertise to make her dreams come true. We meet in the dressing room. She starts trying things on. She loves the sweater, but does it come in an XL? The large is a little snug. The jeans are just the style she is looking for, but she can’t quite close the top button — any way I could grab them for her in a 34?
And here comes the really fun part of my job, where I get to tell her no. No, sorry, but it looks like you are bigger than what the cute little department I work in deems acceptable. Oh, but you love MY jeans? Thanks! If only your body were an appropriate size to wear them!
I tell her I’ll double, triple check to make sure there isn’t a bigger size hidden somewhere in our back stock, or see if I can order her size from another store, online even! But 9/10 times the answer remains: No.
The first time this happened, I figured my next logical move was to make the trek up to the separate corner in the store for women with not-normal-sized bodies (aka ‘plus’-sized) (don’t worry, you’ll miss this literal back-corner department if you aren’t specifically looking for it). I asked my colleagues what options similar to so-and-so denim they offered for my customer. I was first given a look (oh honey, you must be new!) and then informed that there is only one brand that carries bigger sizes. The brand’s pant is totally fine if you are looking for a stretchy, thin material that is more of a legging than a jean, but saying it even resembles any of the designer denim we carry in my department is a laughable stretch.
But I brought down the pair, figuring one option is better than none, and my customer, standing in the tiny dressing room with what I can only describe as fun-house mirrors staring back at her, does just that: laughs. “Not what I was looking for,” she says, attempting to mend my feelings.
She left empty handed that day, and every work day after, I’ve spent desperate hours attempting to find options for women who end up leaving with nothing because there is simply nothing for them.
The more times this happens, the more enraged I feel. I talk to my family and my close friends, my support system, and they confide in me their own stories of having trouble finding flattering clothes in their size or of being in a store and realizing that they are too big.
I spent so many years, wasted so much time, feeling like I was too big, that my body took up more space than it deserved. I am now 50 (plus!) pounds what I was back then, and work everyday to recognize that I deserve the space I take up in this world.
But this, of course, is easier to do when my sizes are carried at most/all mainstream retail stores (though I will give a special shout out to my coworkers who made a point that they might have a special size 28 for me to try on because god forbid that at 5'9" I’m not a triple zero like the rest of them). But for the most part, my problem accepting my size is self-inflicted, not like the thousands of women who face the external invalidation that their bodies are too big, too much, too something, to dress in the same clothes that “normal” sized girls wear.
So what is the root cause of this? Most people will be inclined to tell me that the problem is as easy as supply and demand: if the demand for designer clothes in extended sizes were more visible, surely stores would supply it! I know this is basic economic logic, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s based on logic at all, but is one of the many consequences of the fat-phobic society we live in, where voices and images on every forefront of media remind us to skip that cupcake, to get our asses to the gym, to withhold self-love until we reach a certain size or shape or number or something, all shoving down our throats that we need to give up the joys of life in pursuit of looking a certain way. Masquerading under a guise of ‘healthy living’ we are told to try juice cleanses, to eat atkins/paleo/vegan/gluten free even if it means skipping going out to dinner with your family, skipping the holiday party with the friends you see only once a year, skipping out on your life in pursuit of ‘health’ (read: the pursuit of an acceptably sized body). The dozens of medical ‘studies’ with misleading and sometimes blatantly made-up statistics that shame anyone for beingbigger than our mainstream society is comfortable with. The BMI chart, making sure that every doctor comes equip with an easy calculation to inform their patients when they are fat, never taking into account the individual’s muscle mass or general body composition and allows the fat-shaming to start at the earliest age (thanks, pediatricians, because a five year old really needs to know that they are slowly approaching fatness. Cue body hatred, now!). The TV shows that have only one purpose to humiliate anyone above a certain size (looking at you, Biggest Loser, my 600-lb life, I Used to be Fat, Extreme Makeover, and the list goes on and painstakingly on…).
I get it, Americans are fearful. We are fearful of anything different. But really, if we really think about it, are we okay with being part of a society that blatantly hates somebody because of their body? I guess I understand it, in a way. People fear anything that threatens their beliefs, their credence in life. So of course a society that places more value on being physically beautiful than being, I don’t know, smart or kind or funny or passionate, that stands behind skipping any and all food indulgence, a society that favors spending time alone in a gym until your body physically aches over spending time with loved ones, would hate anyone who threatens their way of life, who eats what they want to and who does not dictate every move they make out of fear of a growing body. Of course we shame these people until they realize that their bodies are unacceptable and they had better change so that the rest of us can remain comfortable in our super duper healthy, totally cross-fitted and kaled-up ways of life.
I could go on and on, and in my head, there is so much more I want to say but I can’t find a way to properly articulate. It seems that all I have, at this point, is a lot of anger, and the refusal to sit by and do nothing but hate myself every time I have to tell a customer that their body is unacceptable. I have wasted too much time hating my own body and feeling unacceptable, and I refuse to play a role in allowing other women to waste their lives doing just the same. But until I find a way to use my anger productively, I vow to myself and to anyone reading this that I will no longer be a passive bystander in a culture that harbors so much hatred for people’s bodies, and to both actively search for and create my own opportunities to be a change towards a society that loves and accepts all bodies.