In January of 1998, I worked as a receptionist at a tax-season H&R Block location that was two doors down from a Lane Bryant. I needed more "professional" clothes, so I'd usually shop, one 15-minute break at a time, browsing the clearance racks with the dedicated fervor of someone who makes $6 an hour but needs to dress in office gear.
As the months passed, I got to know the folks who worked there. And the store manager gave me a job application. I was super nervous to fill it out -- at 20, I was still stuck in the sort of banal body loathing that a lot of young fat women experience, the kind that comes from a lifetime of negative messaging even when, in hindsight, you weren't fat at all. I honestly believed I hated myself too much to sell clothes. It seemed like the kind of job you'd need to have your body image shit together for and I did not have my body image shit together at all.
But the manager -- a very thin, very petite woman who was the kind of blonde and pretty that always made me feel especially monstrous -- strong armed me into applying and then coming in for an interview. I wore winter white dress pants and a red silk vest (the most interview fancy things I could find in my closet at the time). She laughed at me and hired me and gave me the schedule she'd already worked out.
I'd never worked retail like Lane Bryant before. My first job was at K-Mart, where I worked whatever department needed working, stocked shelves, ran a cash register, and did the closing store announcement. Lane Bryant was a far more focused environment, where the number one goal was to sell clothes to the fat women who came in the door.
The best way to do this, my manager explained, was to make them feel good about themselves whether they bought anything or not.
This started the instant someone walked in the store. We were to greet everyone with a smile on our face no matter what kind of day we were having. We walked a fine line (that I think LB sales associates are trampling all over these days) between being helpful and being pushy. We suggested and encouraged and were relentlessly positive.
I'm aggressively optimistic most of the time, so I fit right into this ethos. I turned my meager paycheck right back around into LB clothing (which, even at a discount, was a hell of a lot of money for me) and scoured the racks at my local discount stores to find off-season Lane Bryant clothing for less. You had to wear the brand if you were going to sell the brand.
The store music tapes were upbeat and fairly current -- a change from the Lane Bryant shopping experiences I remembered from my teens. For about six months, we had a tape with Tom Jones singing "Sex Bomb" -- which had been used at a Lane Bryant fashion show we also played on constant loop on a small tV by the front of the store. The concentrated messaging the instant you walked through the door was that fat women could also be stylish and sexy, dammit, and if you didn't believe in the possibility of that, you were in the wrong store.
At first, I thought it was just a standard retail job. But I was reading Susan Bordo's "Unbearable Weight" and thinking really critically about bodies and social control -- and I was doing it in this environment full of diverse women, positive messaging about fat bodies, and a surplus of clothes in a variety of styles.
These were the Sophie's Closet days -- the corporate offices made up a character named Sophie and we were, in essence, selling items from her very on-trend closet. The "real women have curves" marketing was in full effect, but we rolled our eyes at it even then -- the thin women in management were real, too.
I saw a lot of different customers, and those customers felt a lot of different ways about their bodies. But it was obvious really quickly that my manager had been right -- people spent more money when they had a shopping experience that made them feel good about themselves.
I don't mean we lied to anyone about whether or not clothes looked good -- I mean we complimented the stuff that looked good and suggested other things instead of the stuff that didn't. We presented people with options -- often with more options than they'd ever had before when it came to clothing. We encouraged their confidence. And we treated the customers with cheerful respect -- which was also a new experience for a lot of the people who shopped with us.
That, more than the clothes (though the clothes were a factor, I'm not going to lie), was the thing that stuck with me -- so many fat people lacked any experience of being treated with dignity and respect in a retail setting. It wasn't just me. And if it wasn't just me, then maybe I didn't deserve to be mocked and harassed and made fun off. Maybe I didn't deserve to be treated badly just because of my body.
And neither did anyone else.
There's a certain despair that comes with not being able to buy clothes -- access to plus size clothing is a huge issue (and one that reaches beyond fashion) because you can't leave the house naked. You can't go to work without work-appropriate clothing. You can't feel confident about yourself and your abilities if you cannot accomplish the fundamental task of getting dressed in the morning. I don't even mean getting dressed in new and trendy things -- I mean that being able to even acquire clothes of any kind is a big deal.
Working in plus size retail highlighted the reality of this in a very clear and distinct fashion. No pun intended. Our customers came to us for every occasion -- because there weren't any other options. We folded an infinite number of T-shirts and kept the panty tables organized but we also helped people discover that, in this one place, no one had to buy something just because it fit. There were lots of dresses to try on and if you didn't like dresses, there were other options, too.
It seems ridiculous that one store -- one location of one store -- had such high ambitions. We still had customers who couldn't find what they were looking for; the late 90s were not a fat clothing utopia by any means. But that there was one place a fat person could go in the mainstream space of the mall and find a selection of things intended just for them was absolutely life changing.
With that in mind, we were encouraged to wear the new styles -- which is part of how I started wearing sleeveless things. A owner of a Tony&Guy salon traded us haircuts for client recommendations -- his theory was that if our hair looked amazing, our customers would ask us about it and then go see him. It worked.
My manager got the importance of respect for EVERY customer. We advised people who wanted or needed a little more privacy to come in on Sundays (slow days) and we set them up in the fitting rooms at the back of the store. On a certain level, it was pure economics -- you treat everyone like a big ticket customer because you never know who is going to be spending money at your store. But was also further reinforcement that everyone deserves to be treated well. Everyone deserves access to clothing that helps them express themselves and their identity.
I worked for Lane Bryant for three years while I was in college. I made very little money and the work was more physically demanding than I ever expected. And I left with a more-than-theoretical understanding of just how radical it was for fat people to dress in what they loved, to love the way they looked. That was the moment, the long drawn out moment because it takes a while to unlearn the self-hate habits you learn over a lifetime, when my outlook started to change.
Now, my politics are pretty radical. I rebel against the idea that "pretty" or "sexy" should even be everyone's goal. The bodies I support and accept and love are even more diverse. And the economics of plus-size fashion are a constant hot button. But I don't know that I'd have gotten to where I am now without those strange and wonderful years that -- looking back -- feel like nascent activist work, helping people realize that there is an alternative to self loathing.
In convincing others, I somehow convinced myself.