The Fitting Room Trenches: Fighting the War with the Mirror
Erica Windle co-owns the specialty bra shop A Sophisticated Pair, which focuses on proper bra fitting techniques and body positivity. She is the designer of the store’s bra size calculator as well as the primary author for the Sophisticated Pair blog.
I hate the fitting rooms in our shop. While the minimalistic, budget-conscious design could sport homier accents, my main displeasure with the space so pivotal to our business is how much negativity it evokes from our customers. Passing through the silver curtains, customers emerge in front of the shiny, reflective glass of doom, aka the mirror. What is it about a fitting room that reduces such smart, talented, wonderful women to a puddle of self-doubt and body shame? Why do all of our accomplishments and successes suddenly seem so trivial in front of the mirror?
What saddens me most is how many clients become apologetic for the state of their bodies when confronted with the mirror: I didn't do my hair today. I need to lose weight. I have a sun burn. I have stretch marks. My bra is horrible. I'm disgusting. A physical object should not have so much control over a person's self-esteem and emotional state.
In the two and half years we have been open, no one has ever entered the fitting room, looked into the mirror, and exclaimed "Wow, I look great today!" Not a single person. In fact, most customers are at a total loss for finding a single positive attribute, and I often have to encourage them to see their bodies as something more than the sum of perceived flaws.
To be human is to have stretch marks, pimples, skin discolorations, cellulite, wiggly bits, extra weight, freckles, birthmarks, and scars. There's not a damn thing wrong with them or with you. I think so much of the way we are conditioned to view our bodies revolves around the negative. The language itself is geared toward making us feel like we are constantly failing to live up to an arbitrary set of standards. Consider how often magazine articles advertise "7 Ways of Trimming Belly Fat" versus how often they discuss "7 Ways of Feeling Good about Your Body." Have stretch marks? Try this new miracle cream. Born with pale skin? Self-tanners and tinted moisturizers are a must. Recently gave birth and carrying the extra baby weight? Try this new juice cleanse and exercise routine.
It feels like we're always being told to fix ourselves, to seek out the flaws and improve them until we come as close as possible to the homogenized view of beauty presented by our culture. As much as I would like to claim immunity from these wayward thoughts, I can be as guilty as any of my customers. I recently went jeans shopping, and the process of entering fitting room after fitting room to try on pair after pair of jeans left me grappling with body image demons I thought I'd vanquished. Please, fitting room attendant, try not to look at me and judge me for all of my flaws! My skin is too pale. My tummy needs to be more toned. My stretch marks won't fade.
My goal with our fitting room is to create a judgment-free, even empowering space. Contrary to popular belief, I am not there to evaluate your skin, your hair, or your body. All I want is to find the size and style bra that fits the best and hopefully make you feel comfortable with the fitting process. As a side note, if you ever visit a place that does anything other than that, you need to leave immediately. No one should ever make you feel like your body is being judged.
The emotional onslaught created by the mirror has become so upsetting to me that I am going to decorate our fitting rooms with body positive sayings and pictures. I just can't take seeing the look on a woman's face when she starts sizing herself up and feels like she falls short. Ladies, you're beautiful. We all have so-called "problem areas," and the only way we will accept and embrace them is if we give ourselves a break. When you walk into a fitting room, instead of zeroing in on whatever bugs you about your body, focus on something you love. Be kind to yourself. If you wouldn't say it to another person, do not say it to yourself. Don't focus on things you can't change, and don't become so caught up with your "flaws" that you lose sight of the bigger picture. How we look represents a small, superficial part of who we are as people.
Be aware of your surroundings too and think about how your negative language, even if it is only about yourself, can influence others. When other customers are shopping in the store, the deprecating comments you voice about your flaws could hurt the feelings of someone else. For example, a woman visited the shop who wore a UK 32F — a common size for us — and was convinced she had humongous, freakish boobs. While her frustrations came from a place of personal turmoil, the moment she voiced them publicly, they had the potential to impact others. In this case, a seventeen year old was in the adjacent fitting room coming to grips with her UK 34K bra size only to hear a woman complain about being nine cup sizes smaller than her. Her face melted. If she is freakish, then what am I?
Women instinctively compare themselves to others, and negative language allows the comparison to turn poisonous and destroy already fragile self-esteem. We need to be more careful with the words we use about ourselves and about others if we hope to break the cycle. So you don't have [insert ideal physical component]? Big deal. You are still wonderful as you are.
And a personal pet peeve: If you are one of the women who comes to a specialty shop and laughs about the bigger sizes, think of the women who have to wear them and how they would feel if they heard you. One woman went so far as to put a bra on her head to make fun of how large the cup was. Denigrating others bodies is a cheap, petty way of making yourself feel superior, and it needs to stop. You don't know what kind of lasting damage you can have on someone's confidence with that kind of callousness.
When I was sixty pounds heavier, classmates called me fat and all of the associated derogatory titles, and even after I lost weight, I struggled to come to grips with my body and the lasting scars of those emotional encounters. This experience drives my desire for fitting rooms to be places free from body judgments. We are all so much more than what we see in the mirror. We are lovely, funny, smart, caring, and diverse, and we do not deserve to be broken by a piece of glass.