Mirror, Mirror: Musings on Body Image Straight from the Dressing Room
A woman stands before a mirror in an Athleta dressing room. She’s slim and attractive with raven black hair and piercing blue eyes. Yet it’s clear that she feels just as much anxiety about her looks as I do, even though she’s probably 50 pounds lighter.
Since February, I’ve been working as a sales clerk at Athleta (you can read more about that experience here and here). I applied for the job in hopes that selling spectacular designer workout clothes to beautiful women would rub off on me and motivate me to stick to my diet. I was attracted to Athleta because its models exude a healthy sense of beauty. A contrast to the pallid women featured in clothing ads of decades past, Athleta’s models have radiant skin and toned muscles fit for holding one-armed yoga handstands, lifting heavy surfboards, and training for triathlons.
In the fitting room, I hand Ms. Raven Tresses the stack of black and white clothes she has requested—black and white are her colors, she’s told me. On impulse, I add in a teal sundress. “Thought it would match your eyes,” I say over my shoulder as I whisk out of the dressing room before she can object. Fifteen minutes later I check in on her. She’s standing in the teal sundress, gazing at herself in the mirror, the knuckles of one hand pressing against her mouth. “Wow!” I say. The dress does match her eyes, and it lights up her face. She looks fantastic.
“I haven’t worn color in 20 years,” she confesses.
“Well, maybe now’s the time to get back to that,” I suggest. I bring a teal necklace to complete the outfit, and she squeals with delight.
I live for these moments. I love seeing women’s faces light up as they feel just a little bit prettier, stronger, and healthier than they did five minutes earlier. This is especially true when the customer has been through a tough time. I loved finding four sensational outfits for a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. I loved helping a breast cancer victim find a bathing suit that not only looked great but also concealed her double mastectomy. She loved the “Power to the She” slogan that tops every Athleta mirror so much that we gave her one of the signs to take home.
Several times I’ve helped women who’ve lost 30 to 50 pounds. The experts at my weight loss clinic explain that body image is the last thing to change when a person loses weight, and it’s true. One day a woman came into the store wearing hugely baggy clothes and quickly confided that she’d just lost 30 pounds. She was uncertain which clothes would work with her new figure. She even seemed nervous about stepping out from behind the protective folds of her baggy clothes and revealing herself. An hour later, she had tried on what seemed like half of the store’s inventory. Stacks of rejected clothes towered unsteadily in her dressing room, but she also walked away with three new exercise outfits and a huge smile on her face.
Days like that, I leave work walking on air.
But I also feel like I’m living vicariously through my customers. I am delighted in helping women achieve a beauty that I’ve always longed to attain myself, a beauty that my large size has denied me. But my hope that working amid beautiful clothes and athletic salespeople would somehow rub off on me is just…wishful thinking!
The reality is my part-time Athleta hours have come out of time I used to spend exercising. Even though I’m on my feet, walking rapidly through most of my shifts, it’s not the same as the hours I used to devote to cycling, strength training, and boot camp classes at the gym.
Yet I hate to give it up. Helping women feel prettier, stronger, happier—if only for a few minutes—is so much fun. Can something that makes me feel so good actually be bad?
Seeking a healthy balance, I’ve decided to limit my Athleta hours to Friday evenings and Saturdays. I’ve loved learning new ways to wear scarves and fold clothes, but now it’s time to get my feet back on the elliptical machine. Back to the basics: exercise and food diaries.
I just called my friend Diana: “Wanna go for a power walk?”
—Anne Bailey blogs for Fitbie and is on a journey to lose 100 pounds
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