October 4th 2021
At many jobs, comments about a worker’s body type, body size, or individual physical attributes would be considered shocking and out of line. But for people who work in clothing retail, they’re a regular occurrence.
An Insider report from September detailed working conditions at women’s clothing store Brandy Melville (along with outright racism and fascism from the brand’s top executives). Previously, Brandy Melville was probably best known for carrying a single small size in the majority of its clothing, inherently limiting who could shop there. But the report revealed systematic discrimination and objectification of its employees in the form of store policy that requires young workers be photographed daily in order to be judged by higher-ups on their weight, race, and other physical attributes.
While Brandy Melville is an extreme case, workers say “keeping up appearances” is an implicit responsibility for anyone in clothing retail—as is becoming a shopping prop for customers when they ask for it.
“You are essentially being told to model the product, and sell the product, and invite people to look at you,” said Kristy Garvey, a 26-year-old woman who spent 10 months working as an assistant manager at New York & Company. “For me, it was mostly [a positive experience] of people seeing something on me and liking it. But it is sort of odd in hindsight to think about the fact that in clothing retail, you’re essentially inviting people to look at you all the time.”
Outside of basic consumerist entitlement, a big part of the issue is that inconsistent sizing makes buying clothes confusing. (Who among us hasn’t groaned and closed a tab in frustration after trying to parse out the Da Vinci code of an online size chart?) This means shoppers aren’t left with a lot of options for easily understanding what an article of clothing might look like on any given body. Sales associates might seem like a convenient proxy—but only if you disregard the toll that regular, probing questions and feedback about a person’s appearance can take on them.
Karen Maritza, a 32-year-old woman who spent two years working at the athletic clothing brand Lululemon, said that while working there, she developed body dysmorphia and other body image issues based on the pressure of being perceived by shoppers—and the commentary that came with it. “Women would come in and ask for [help with] sizes and make snide little comments, like, ‘Oh, no, you have a bigger butt than I do,’ or, ‘That wouldn’t work for me—your hips are bigger than mine,” she said.
“I started out working there thinking, This is a great place to work because it’s just gonna make me work out more and be motivated by other people that are in the same headspace as me,” due to the fitness-oriented nature of the brand. “But the more I worked there, the more I started realizing that body image problems were popping up for me. I was really obsessed with the scale and looking at my body in the mirror to see if anything was changing.”
There’s more than a decade of articles discussing the negative impact of “vanity sizing” on shoppers. Because sizes are determined by retailers rather than standardized, brands label clothing with numbers and other measurement markers that aren’t indicative of how they actually fit. This is intended to trick shoppers (usually women, though some men’s brands vanity size too) into feeling smaller, and thus, “flattering” them into buying more clothing that insists they’re a certain size.
But vanity sizing is an albatross for retail workers, too. Their employer’s size protocols are an issue they consistently have to field with customers—one that often leads to the question, “Well, what size do you wear?” with ensuing body commentary. Garvey’s worst sizing experience came from an interaction with one of these customers, a woman returning two jackets that didn’t fit her daughter. The woman asked Garvey her size—then balked at her response.
“She gives me the up-down and goes, ‘You take a small?’ [with] her voice full of disgust and disbelief,” Garvey later wrote on Reddit. “‘Yes,’ I repeat, calmly, grinning and bearing this verbal slap to the face. I don’t care what size she thinks I am, but I don’t appreciate that she’s implying I’m lying to her. I’m also not sure why she’s so upset. What, if a small jacket didn’t fit your daughter it isn’t allowed to fit anyone?” The woman proceeded to make Garvey try on and zip up the jacket in order to prove it fit, which Garvey found infuriating and embarrassing.
Zoya Davis, a 21-year-old college student who works at a popular youth clothing store that she asked VICE not to name for job security reasons, said that while most of her customer interactions are pleasant, questions about her body tended to come in two forms: as a means of asking for help, or as snooping cloaked in a customer service request. “You can definitely tell when it’s genuine, when people are like, ‘What size are you, because I usually wear that size, but I’m shaped differently…’ with lots of explanation, versus those who just look at you and you’re like, We’re obviously not the same size, so it’s not a question of, ‘How would I fit in these jeans compared to you?’ It’s a question of pure curiosity, and it’s like… why? That’s weird!”
Davis said she’s noticed a shift in tone in certain conversations after some recent weight loss. ““When I had more weight, more people would be like, ‘Oh, what size are you?’ constantly, constantly,” she said. “I didn’t always take it to heart, but it’s also like, OK… do you not believe me?”
Size and shape aren’t the only physical attributes that can attract customer attention. Davis said she’s been questioned about the way she dresses at work (in crop tops, like the one her retailer sells), about her nose piercing, and about her hair. “[Customers] are just going to ask you things, and you’re just expected to answer,” she said. “I take courses in women’s and gender studies, and my own personal feelings have been kind of against that idea that, as a Black woman, I’m on display—like, if you want to ask a question about my hair and my braids, I’m just supposed to give you the answers to that. I obviously understand that tons of this stuff comes from innocent intentions, but it’s also like, Wait… why am I telling you this?”
The women VICE spoke to also noted that older customers were often the ones engaging in the most body talk, especially when they were shopping for someone else—an absent daughter, granddaughter, or niece. “Women would come in and shop and say they’re looking for a gift for their daughter, and they would go around the store pointing at the girls, like, ‘What size is she?’ and comparing their bodies to the person they were shopping for,” Maritza said. “Like, ‘Oh, she’s lankier than you,’ or, ‘She’s more fit.’ It was almost like a lineup.”
Garvey said she believes that because her role at New York & Company was the first job she had after graduating college, she felt less empowered to set boundaries with nosy customers. The retail workforce skews young, non-white, and female, according to the most recent census data. As of 2018, the median pay for full-time retail salespeople was just over $35,00—about $13,000 less than the median salary for all full-time workers. So, not only are clothing store workers shouldering the expectation to be de facto fit models for the stores they work at—they’re often doing so for below-average rates.
None of the women VICE spoke to said the potential for frequent, invasive body talk was addressed in their formal training, either by managers or in the material from their employer’s corporate headquarters. “There was nothing about [body talk] in our training at all,” Maritza said. “No one told us, ‘By the way, this is probably going to happen a lot!’ Even with management, we didn’t really discuss it—we’d just brush it off and keep it moving.”
"We are committed to creating and maintaining an inclusive and positive work environment. If anyone at Lululemon has a negative experience, we have several ways for employees to share their concerns and feedback," a Lululemon spokesperson said, adding that "eligible employees" also receive health benefits, inclusivity training, and other support "to promote well-being."
While Garvey’s New York & Company location’s management never discussed the impact of rude customer comments, she found solace in her coworkers. “It was sort of the unspoken truth that we know this is going to happen,” she said. “Everyone who I worked with had been working in retail longer than me, and they would tell me similar stories to the one I have about the jacket.” New York & Company did not respond to a request for comment from VICE.
It doesn’t seem like standardized sizing is suddenly going to be a reality anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean clothing retail workers need to be subjected to rude questions in its absence. Consumers can make simple changes, like asking objective questions about garment sizing that keep the focus away from an employee’s body, that could make a huge difference for retail workers contending with rude scrutiny on the job.
Another potential source of positive change? Company policies and managers that encourage retail workers to set boundaries and shift away from the “customer is always right” mentality. “I wish that I had stood up for myself more and understood that’s something you can do,” Garvey said. “Even though you work for this company, you’re not an object for this company at the end of the day—you’re a person.”