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Why Empathy is The Most Important Trait in a Lingerie Boutique Employee

Beautiful lady shopping in lingerie store.

Along with running a loungewear line, writing for The Lingerie Addict, and doing freelance textile design work, I normally have a steady part-time job so I don't lose my mind over finances when work is slow. When I was looking for a new side job this Autumn, working in lingerie sales sounded like a no-brainer. The longer I'm a part of the lingerie industry, the more I love the people and products in it, so I started working as a part time sales associate at a lingerie boutique here in NYC about a month ago.

Since I'm kind of working backwards in the world of lingerie--launching a line first, writing for a blog second, working in a boutique third--there was a lot that I already knew going in. I sat on my hands during training, trying not to be "that girl" who has already learned how bras should fit, what a gore is, the difference between a contour cup and a bralette... these lessons become inherent after you've been steeping in the lingerie teapot for a few years.

Plus, I've worked in retail my whole life. I understand the pace of each day, what's generally expected of a sales associate, and the type of experience that customers want from a boutique apparel store. But after helping women find lingerie at a high-end boutique for only a month, I discovered it requires a lot of something I didn't expect.

Empathy. Buckets of it. I'm pretty empathetic and I love people, so that's a part of any work I do, but selling lingerie in a boutique setting involves way more emotional work than I expected.

Most customers I work with aren't reading lingerie fit reviews online or posting photos on Instagram of their cute new panties. They don't go to indie lingerie popup shops, or show off their new bra to their friends at dinner. Even though Victoria's Secret brought lingerie into mainstream American culture, and even though Oprah spoke on TV about how many women are wearing "the wrong bra size," lingerie is still a sensitive topic. Most customers who come into the shop want cute bras that fit well, with help from a sensitive person who knows what they're doing.

But as a sales associate, it's more than simply knowing what you're doing. Going into autopilot is next to impossible in a lingerie boutique. When someone is half-naked in front of a stranger, the mental & social barriers that are typically in place when shopping often disappear. Many people, even very open people, instinctively feel vulnerable. If a sales associate can't sense that, understand that, and react appropriately to that, they're not doing their job.

Related to that feeling of vulnerability, almost every single woman I fit says something bad about her body. It's not typically spoken for a rebuttal or dismissal, but just in general, like a universal apology that someone else has to see the body she exists in. I expected it, as it happens in apparel stores as well, but it's such a constant occurrence in lingerie retail. It's difficult to handle because it's a little heartbreaking every time, but it's not something that should be completely ignored, simply scoffed at, or replied to apathetically.

When I wrote about my cup size changing, I learned that many TLA readers also put their identity on their cup size, but I didn't know how many people it truly affects until I started this job. Measuring a woman and letting her know I'm going to grab her a 30E instead of a 34B isn't something that can be done flippantly. It's not just "a different size" or "a longer skirt," as it might be at an apparel boutique; for a lot of women, it's a new identity. And struggling to make sense of that new identity while standing half-naked with the stranger who just told you to try on an E cup for the first time? That's a lot to deal with.

I feel incredibly lucky that I've been through that, too, so I can explain to them that they are as much their cup size as they are the size of their shoes. That it's just a letter. Or that the letter means nothing without the band size, or that many women change cup sizes frequently based on hormones and weight, or that a 30E is a very common size to wear.

Sometimes they just don't want that number. They'd rather wear a smaller cup because it feels better to "be" a B cup than an E cup. Even after explaining how bra sizes work, they're uncomfortable with wearing an E cup, because American society says an E cup is "big," and they feel like their breasts aren't "big." And that's a feeling that should be respected.

Or, I explain to them that they will likely be different sizes in different brands. Some women don't accept that, and get frustrated when not every 30E in every style fits. They want a number and letter. They want that identity.

And it's all so understandable. So many women put their self worth on that number, and so many women were initially fit by stores who were simply trying to sell bras in the limited sizes they had. As a sales associate, I often act as an ambassador for a customer's new size and the new brands they are able to wear, so I have to constantly put myself in their shoes and make sure they're comfortable with the transition.

I'm learning that every single customer reacts differently to lingerie shopping, and it's up to the sales associates to navigate that. It's up to me to make sure they don't hate themselves for this number-and-letter combination they happen to fit into on that day. Because, sure, it's my job to sell lingerie and make them happy, but more importantly, because no person should ever feel bad about the size of their lingerie or the shape of their body.

Quinne Myers

Quinne Myers is a lingerie expert living in Brooklyn, NY, where she creates quippy written content, crafts dreamy illustrations, and runs the ethically-made loungewear line, she and reverie.

11 Comments on this post

  1. Vanessa V says:

    Truly loved this post. It’s spot on and scary. It’s terrible that woman feel bad about their bodies. The line – “like a universal apology that someone else has to see the body she exists in.” really got me. I hope that lingerie brands and sales associates try to better a customers overall experience so that they are there more like a friend vs trying to sell you something.

  2. Rings90 says:

    I wish there was a place near where I am that fitted outside of the standard sizes. For me it would be a relief to have a correct size bra. It’s frustrating…

    There’s a new boutique that opened in September and they have some beautiful pieces and high quality, but seem to only order the “common” sizes. I was told they will begin doing True Bra sizing & I asked if that meant getting out of the standard sizes being used & was told that they weren’t sure. I’m going wait & see but I haven’t much hope I will be getting the sizing help I am looking for.

    Can anyone recommend a good boutique that sizes well near the twin cities or Milwaukee area?

  3. Blue says:

    This is so true. I also work in a specialty lingerie boutique and we get so many women who have been “fit” by the “experts” at other stores, but because they dont fall within that stores size range they are basically just put into something the store carries so they can make a sale. I’ve had women cry in my arms as they come to terms with the fact that they aren’t a “normal” size. Trying to explain that their bra size defines them as much as their, as you said, shoe size does is often difficult. I often end up using myself as an example that size is just a number. I will often ask them what size they think I am, the usual answer is a 38 C/D. When I let them know that I am in fact a 32 GG, there is often a look of understanding as they realize how much looks can be deceiving. Helping a woman feel good about herself and how she looks/feels in her lingerie is the best part of this job for me. :)

  4. DrBraLove says:

    Thank you for writing this, Quinne – especially the part where you talked about the reasons someone might have for preferring a 34B to a 30E. Not everyone is emotionally ready to make that jump. I’ve noticed a growing number of people online who have been fitted into a more accurate size, but don’t wear it – they continue to wear 34B, or 36DD, or some other similar size. There’s so many reasons to make this choice, whether it’s out of practicality (many of my undergraduate student friends simply cannot afford to buy bras from boutiques, so they shop at cheaper department stores that only carry ‘matrix’ sizes) or not being comfortable with being a non-matrix size, and none of these should be dismissed out of hand. It troubles me to see how pushy and evangelical some people on sites like Bratabase can be with ‘helping’ someone on the Internet (who may or may not have asked for fit help) find their ‘true’ size. I know I would feel quite put off and even upset if I were in the position of the person being ‘helped’ in a lot of these cases. I’m planning on writing a post about this myself soon.

  5. Thank you Quinne, what a wonderful article!
    I admit feeling taken aback by some of the comments women make in regards to their own bodies as a new lingerie boutique owner. Plus, yes, lingerie including bras are much like other garments and your size will likely vary from brand or even style. Especially with the battling sizing methods!
    I am learning so much and thankfully I am also a naturally empathetic person, really listening to your clients and ensuring they are not only in a well fitting bra or garment but one that they truly love is so important! Helping someone feel confident, happy and/or glamorous is truly just the best reward!

  6. Amanda Sage says:

    Thank you for not just saying women who tie their cup size to their identity are irrational or wrong to do so. I’ve seen people take this position and it frustrates me, because like you said, empathy is so important and that means recognizing the way a lot of people feel and accepting it to some extent — obviously without endorsing it, but also not dismissing them as silly for identifying so much with a particular size.

  7. Lauriana says:

    What a great post!
    The bra size confusion is by no means unique to the US market. I used to work at a bridal store in the Netherlands where I also had to help ladies find lingerie for under those dresses.
    I have met a lot of women who turned out to have body issues and were completely used to one number/letter combination when it came to bra size. Dealing with this often took an odd mixture of empathy and determination

  8. Thursday says:

    I completely identify with frequently dealing with women being negative about their bodies. In my side job as a stylist and assistant on photo shoots, often including boudoir or burlesque, I constantly hear women making comments that denigrate, dismiss or try to excuse their bodies. It’s our job to make our clients look and feel amazing, and that’s easy when you genuinely believe every person is gorgeous, but it sure does get tiring to be empathetic and supportive against such a strong undercurrent of constant negativity. You have to remember to engage in a little self-care at the end of a long day of empathising!

  9. BroadLingerie says:

    This is a beautiful post! As a fitter, it’s so important to be able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and try to experience what she is feeling.

    As a long-time fitter, there are moments where I get so wrapped up in my world and forget how loaded lingerie is to many people. While I may be inwardly frustrated when a woman who fits a 34FF bra wants spaghetti straps for everyday wear, I have to remember having that feeling myself. In many people’s mind thick straps = big = matronly = dowdy. Lingerie is loaded with meaning and symbolism that’s ever-changing, depending on the person. I’ve had the same bra described as “super sexy” and “grandmotherly” by different people!

    As I move forward in opening my own store I will be keeping this post in mind!

  10. Taylor Satterthwaite says:

    I have been thinking about these exact same things in regards to being a costume designer! When you’re interacting with lots of different people’s bodies all the time, you have to be so sensitive to their perceptions of their body and what sizes/measurements mean. It’s something nobody really talks about, but it is so easy to forget the body you are dressing belongs to someone who may not be 100% confident about it.

  11. Midnight Magic Lingerie says:

    This is 100% absolutely true. I just started working for a lingerie boutique, , and I’m learning the ropes from the more experienced ladies. It’s such a personal and sometimes intense experience for so many women. It’s ridiculous how common it is for women to be so down on their figure or how mentally tied to a number and letter combination people can be. In the end I’m happy to be able to help women feel better.

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