Stories from the changing room – What I learned about self-love by working in retail

In #thatmillenniallife, vinegar & wine-blogger Nat reflects on the challenges and advantages of living in today’s world as a millennial woman. 

Each month, she’ll talk about topics that millennial women – and this millennial woman especially – think, agonize and feel insecure about.

Today’s topic: How working in retail influenced my view on self-love and self-acceptance. 

Look, working in retail gets a bad rep, we all know that.

Long hours, standing around all day, bad pay and rude customers really don’t make for a pleasant work experience. But since I’m both an optimist and a complete masochist, I ventured into retail anyway – and experienced the good, the bad and the truly ugly. More than anything, it taught me a few lessons on self-love and struggling with body positivity that I desperately needed to hear.

Shopping while female

Being a woman and shopping is inextricably connected.
According to girlpowermarketing, women account for 85% of all consumer purchases worldwide. This statistic surprised me: Women and men are equal in overall numbers, but unequal in a lot of other respects such as chances of falling into poverty, employment rate and salary (even in first world countries).

Bridget Brennan writes about women and consumerism for Forbes. The stereotype that “women be shopping” is strongly supported by the numbers I already named above, but the reasons why are more complicated than women liking shiny objects. The main factor she names is that women all over the world take on the primary caretaker roles in their families. This means that more often than not, women do not shop for themselves, but on behalf of somebody they take care of, such as children, the elderly and pretty much everyone in between. That’s how women become primary consumers, influencers and then consumer gateway to entire families. This also suggests that often, the money they spent isn’t theirs or theirs entirely.

Women as consumers

But, of course, women don’t just consume for others, they also consume for themselves. I think buying clothes, shoes and accessories is probably what we think of when we think “women be shopping”.
Women are superficial. Women are obsessed with their image. Women go crazy for shoes. Women follow any and all trends. Cue all the repetitive sexist jokes we hear all day every day concerning our choice of packaging for the meat suit that carries us through our lives. On the other hand, I’ve seen my fair share of women naming “shopping” as their favorite pastime. That’s the thing about stereotypes, do they happen because they are true or are they true because they happen? It’s the whole “chicken or the egg” thing all over again.

The fitting room

Personally, I’ve never found shopping particularly entertaining. Don’t worry, it’s not because I’m “not like other girls”. It’s just no fun if you don’t have the right body type. If you’ve ever seen me in real life, you’re probably screaming right now. This isn’t a self-pity party, I promise. Even though I’m pretty average in both height and weight, I’m the wrong size and shape anyway: my legs are too short, my chest and hips too large, my waist too small, my shoulders too broad. Long story short: I don’t look like a mannequin. And that’s why I can’t find clothes. Sadface

I’ve, fortunately, grown beyond being hurt by being “too fat” or at least “not skinny enough”. At this point, going shopping is an annoyance, but it doesn’t impact my self-worth anymore. But it definitely did in the past, and I definitely know many girls that are still hurt when they don’t “fit”.
Women get reduced to numbers much too often. Whether it’s your A-level results, the number of partners you’ve had or your clothing size, it’s always associated with calculating how much you are worth as a person.
I remember the times I would cry in the dressing room because I wouldn’t fit into a size 36 anymore. Crazy, right? No matter how confident I try to be, it makes me feel bad to be a “medium”. Because my brain associates everything above a “small” with being unattractive. And being unattractive, in turn, means I am worth less as a human being.

But let’s take a look at actual statistics: The average German woman wears between size 42 and 44. That fact, however, isn’t reflected by how clothing stores mark their clothes. 42-44 is already a size “large” and, unless you shop at a plus size store, one of the biggest options you can get. That trend isn’t unusual or even particularly scandalous in the clothing industry. Clothes aren’t made for the average, not really.

Stories from the changing room

Working in retail, I found myself on the other side of the curtain. I wasn’t the one crying in the dressing room anymore. Suddenly, I was part of the industry that was to blame for these tears.
A couple weeks back, I attended a woman of about 60. She was looking for nice tops and blouses in her size. She tried on one piece after the other, her face falling after each one. “None of these fit me”, she said, her already thin voice shaking. I peeked at the sizes. They ranged from M to XL. I shook my head, angry. How could it be that none of these sizes fit? This woman wasn’t an “extra large” in any way, and still, the sleeves squeezed her arms uncomfortably as she ripped the fabric from her body. I looked at this nice woman and the sadness that clouded her face. I got to thinking: aren’t pretty clothes supposed to make us feel better about ourselves? Why does something that’s supposed to make us more beautiful make us feel ugly?

I took her aside and tried to encourage her. I told her of my own problems finding clothes that fit me. I told her that clothing sizes vary from brand to brand, from country to country and from clothing item to clothing item. It was completely arbitrary and had nothing to do with her being “fat”. Clothes are made for mannequins, not humans.
She seemed to believe me at least somewhat. We walked around the store together and eventually picked out a blouse that fit her perfectly. She left the store with a smile, thanking me for my encouragement. And I was left behind with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Righting the wrongs

In recent years, a long-developed practice called vanity sizing has become more common among retailers. In order to make (especially female) customers feel more comfortable about buying their brand, they mark the clothing with lower sizes than they actually are. That way, a 40 becomes a 38, which is supposed to give the consumer confidence and encourage consumption.
I have very mixed feelings on the practice: first of all, the name gives me all kinds of red flags. Women don’t feel bad about buying larger clothes because they’re “vain”, but because their value as human beings is inextricably tied to their size and shape. The clothing and marketing industry creates this connection by their hugely harmful photoshop practices as well as their insistence that 38 is already a “plus size”. Therefore, putting the “fault” on the average female consumer for being “vain” feels like gaslighting instead of being a helpful gesture.
On the other hand, I know that we as a society and these industries in particular have a long way to go until there is actual change in hearts and minds about the connection between self-worth and size. Therefore, lowering clothing sizes may help women currently struggling with self-worth. Clothing sizes are tragically arbitrary and vary hugely. So why not make consumers feel better about themselves?

Does size matter?

The frustrating part of all of this is how many women I know assign their
self-worth according to these arbitrary sizes. We are more than numbers. We are more than the width of our hips or the size of our thighs. I refuse to measure myself by something that is both random and temporary. Because that’s what our bodies are. We won’t take them with us wherever we’re going once this life is through. People used to ask me why I liked getting tattoos so much. Didn’t it scare me that they would be on my body forever? No, because my body isn’t forever. And I want to be happy with it while I have it.
Can’t we just be happy with what we have? Body positivity is all about being comfortable with and happy in the body we have, no matter what society may expect of us. Body positivity isn’t about serving somebody’s specific aesthetic or preference for what a body should or shouldn’t look like. It’s about accepting who we are and tuning out that little voice in our heads that says we’re not good enough. That’s what I want for all of us. To tune that voice out until it disappears. Then we might be happy being who we are and wearing what we want.

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