Apr 29, 2012 - Physical Ed    13 Comments

For shame

I’m of two minds about shopping. I love seeing pretty, cool, interesting new things. Some of them, I even enjoy trying on or, if the stars are right, buying them. I also love seeing what Nightmares of Fashion Past are currently visiting themselves upon kids too young to have suffered them the first time.

On the other hand, we’re a lower-middle class, half-Aspergian family. We have young sons with voices that can shatter glass and the combined attention span of a brain-damaged goldfish. Big-box stores and malls not only stress the hell out of me, they often hurt me physically–cement floors are the bane of my existence.

And then there’s the fact that I’m fat. Clothes shopping is an exercise in frustration and self-loathing. Women’s sizes are frequently not available in stores, and when they are, those stores seem to think that plus-sized women are both color- and pattern-blind, and happy to spend another $10-15 for the same design in one size larger than the range they’ve decided is “normal.” My particular body shape further complicates things by being both tall and hourglass-shaped. Consequently, I’m forced to buy shirts a size bigger than I actually need them if I want them to button, and I’ve never once owned a pair of jeans that fit well at waist, hip, and length.

My boys at the Mall of America LEGO store last summer. The mech and helicopter behind them? Made of LEGO.

In any case, the underwire on my next-to-last bra broke suddenly this week, leaving me with one, count ’em, one bra to wear. This is not an Acceptable Situation. Since we’d already promised Connor he could pick out a new LEGO set as a reward for a week of good, steady progress in his program, and they didn’t have the Marvel Super Heroes LEGO at the local stores, we committed to making the pilgrimage to the Mall of America’s LEGO store. It’s pretty epic, and with a budget firmly established in advance, it’s a bunch of fun for all of us. I figured I’d make my own quick trip to Nordstrom, which is widely regarded as the best place to get fitted properly for a bra, and actually find one in irregular sizes like mine.

While the thought of a new bra or two appeals greatly, for practicality and pleasure, the thought of submitting to the handling and scrutiny of my gigantic bosom and scarred, lumpy midsection by a stranger with a measuring device appeals not at all. But I’d worked my heart and mind up to a place where I could tolerate the humiliation and inevitable revulsion I would face in that dressing room. I’d taken some Xanax to dull the psychic trauma of being in a place with so much ambient noise and stress. And I’d settled the boys comfortably, post-LEGO acquisition, so I wouldn’t have to take them into the highbrow hush of Nordstrom.

I went up to the the Lingerie section and spent a few minutes admiring both the lovely underthings and the signs that said “Sizes up to 44H.” A saleslady approached me and asked if she could help. I asked the general price range of their bras. She responded, “They go up to $200.” I nodded, more nonchalant than I felt, and asked again, “But the average price? Around $30 or 40?”

She laughed at me, a sniffy sound of disbelief. “Ah ha ha, um, no. They average around $60.” I thanked her for the information, and left with as much speed and dignity as I could muster.

Let me say that again: The Nordstrom saleswoman laughed at me.

I’d gone in there, ready to face shaming for my size and shape. I wasn’t ready to be shamed for my income before I’d even taken off a stitch of clothing. It was more than I could bear, and there were tears welling in the rim of my glasses before I even got back to the table where my boys were sitting. I didn’t trust myself to say out loud what had happened, so I typed it quickly on my phone so my Darling Husband would know: “Ever walk into a place and immediately feel like you’re not welcome, that you’re not good enough to be there and everyone knows it? She laughed at me when I asked if there were any bras in the $30 range.”

My sons saw the tears rolling silently down my face, and not knowing why, they still rose to press tiny, tight hugs around me. My Darling Husband, whom anyone who knows him is not quick to anger, got that tight set to his jaw, and walked silently into the store. When he came back, he told me he’d found the saleswoman and asked for her manager.Β  The woman’s response to the confrontation was that she certainly hadn’t intended it that way; he informed her that, when the effect was so horrendous, her intentions weren’t worth a damn. We both worked in retail for a long time, coming up, so he knew precisely the right words to invoke. He told them both that, in humiliating his wife, they had both failed utterly at customer service and managed to permanently lose at least two customers.

But I was wrecked, and the only passive-aggressive revenge I could manage at the time was to tweet my grief and horror. And as I told the friends on Twitter and Facebook who immediately rallied to me and suggested both solutions and unspeakable tortures upon the saleswoman, if I could find a bra as supportive as all those wonderful people, I’d be set for life. It wasn’t until today that I realized I have a teeny tiny platform of my own.

So let me say this. The difference between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been greater in this country. This divide isn’t just social or economic–it’s also geographic. There are places where people who don’t have much money are not only not welcomed, but where they will be humiliated for even daring to darken the doorstep. Don’t even breathe on the merchandise–your poorness might be catching, and we wouldn’t want that. I’ve already learned that, the fewer pieces of merchandise in a store, the less likely it is someone like me could afford anything in there. And if there are no price tags, don’t even bother asking–it’s out of your range.

The people who staff these places make snap judgments on the fitness of a patron in a split second, on purely superficial impressions, the very least reliable kind. That scene from Pretty Woman? It doesn’t only happen on Rodeo Drive. Apparently it happens in a Minnesota department store, too.

Want to know the saddest thing? Nordstrom has a discount sister store, Nordstrom Rack. I’ve bought clothes with retail prices in the hundreds of dollars for $20 or less at Nordstrom Rack. There is even, in fact, a Nordstrom Rack in the Mall of America (something I didn’t know yesterday). If that saleswoman was serious about the customer service reputation and/or the bottom line of Nordstrom, Inc., she could have easily directed me to that location for bras in my price range, and I would’ve left a happy customer likely to spend my hard-earned money on their merchandise. I might even have tweeted how pleased I was by the service I’d received.

But she didn’t. So I left her workplace feeling like dirt for daring to step outside Walmart with my grubby, contagious, working-class, overweight self.

So here’s what I have to say. Even if you’ve got the money to spend at Nordstrom–maybe even especially if you do–don’t. Unless you like that atmosphere that judges people, that says there’s a different America for those who don’t look right or make their money the right way. Give your money to the places that wait to see that your money’s as green as anyone else’s, or better yet, the ones that see a person first, instead of a class.


  • In fairness to the employee – who should not have laughed, let’s get that out of the way up front – there is no way in hell’s snow covered mountain that she knew what your income range is. Some rich people are fat and shabby. My father was pulling down a $100K/year income in Missoula, Montana for a couple of years, and he’s grossly obese, and no, he didn’t dress in a 3 piece suit (even then – and certainly not now). For all you or I know, *she* can’t afford the bras at Nordstrom, either. Maybe that’s why she laughed. Maybe SHE thinks the prices are ridiculous, too. $200 for a bra? Give me a break. I bought my last bra at the thrift store for a couple of bucks, used, and then went on eBay and bought a couple more of the same brand and style for $11 each, new.

    Maybe she really laughed at you. But maybe she was laughing at the absurdity of having to sell $200 bras, or at the idea that Nordstrom, which rents HUGE buildings in high-rent districts and therefore probably has to clear a million dollars a month just to make rent, would even sell anything low-budget.

    I don’t know. I would have turned and walked away too – my income doesn’t cover that kind of thing either, and we’re “comfortably well off” these days. I’m just concerned that you’re ascribing thoughts to her that it’s possible she may not have had. All you have is a laugh. When I heard that bras cost $200 at Nordstrom, I laughed too. I promise, it wasn’t at you.

    I’m sorry you felt hurt. I think Cam did the right thing. And anyway, Nordstrom can’t lose me as a customer because I’ve never shopped there in my life. Can’t afford it. Never could. Probably never will.

    • I take your points, Angela. You’re absolutely right that there was NO way she could’ve assumed my income according to my experience. For a salesperson who gets commission, that’s the main reason you treat everyone like royalty, because you never know who’s going to make a big sale. I learned that selling china in an outlet mall in college, and it bled over into my everyday attitudes. (Not the looking to make money side, the treating everyone like they’re royalty part. πŸ™‚ )

      As for what she was laughing at, I’d be more inclined to agree with you if she’d laughed after saying that the prices ran up to $200, and not when I said the price range I was shooting for. Timing was everything, and I’m not the kind of person who’s just waiting to find fault, especially not in laughter.

  • We are having one of our weird psychic connections again, Jessica, except that mine was with regard to LinkedIn while yours pertained to undergarments. http://faithinambiguity.blogspot.com/2012/04/fences-you-cant-pass.html (Sorry. I don’t usually link to my own material in comments. I just wanted you to know that we continue to be oddly connected.)

    I LOATHE Nordstrom. I wear a 38AA. I have a wide rib cage and teeny tiny little breasts. As much as I want bras that fit me, though, I am not willing to be subjected to being weighed and measured like a calf for slaughter and then looked down upon by somebody whose job is to sling underwear. So I order bras from eBay–from far away places where other women also have flat chests and broad, asthmatic chests, the land of Amazons. You should do the same.

    And thank you for dissing them publicly, You have used your pulpit, yet again, for good.

    By the way, how do I sign up for follow-up comments on your blog? I am apparently too stupid to figure this out.

    • I don’t know how to do the comments thing, sadly. Let me ask my tech sherpas, and get back to you on that.

      And wow, weird how we sync up sometimes. I think part of what was especially humiliating–why it utterly clotheslined me emotionally–was that I’d already steeled myself for the physical debasement, so when the blow came from an entirely unexpected direction, I didn’t have any shields on that flank to absorb the impact.

      One of my grandmas bought me a gorgeous linen suit there for my very first academic conference, and I’d always heard Nordstrom was The Place to go to get properly fitted for a bra. With all the ups and downs of my size over the last few years, I honestly am not sure what size or brand will work best for me anymore, so I don’t feel like I can go the strictly-online route yet. But hopefully one of several recommendations from friends will pan out, at least in the customer service area, so I can get the info I need and go from there.

      • I’m appalled that Jess suffered such a devastating exchange and I know you are too. But this

        “looked down upon by somebody whose job is to sling underwear”

        is also unacceptably classist, IMHO. What the woman DID was wrong. How she makes her LIVING is no more worthy of scorn than anyone else’s job.

        • Very true, Jim, thanks for pointing that out. The whole idea here is that nobody deserves to be judged for what they look like. And let me clarify further–I don’t want her to lose her job for this. And at no point have I ever felt like I deserved financial compensation for my experience. I’m not that kind of person; I’d like to think that anyone who knows me, or even just reads this blog, could tell that. Hell, I won’t even send mis-cooked food back to a restaurant kitchen. Whether my reluctance to demand service or compensation comes from a lack of greed or a lack of self-esteem, it’s just not my style. Neither is insulting others to make my point.

  • We walked through Nordstroms yesterday to get the Lego Land. I dunno what it was, but the vibe in that store bugged me just walking through it. Although, it was amusing telling Ronan not to touch the manikins for fear one small touch would send them flying due to lack of physical substance. I remember looking at all the pretty stuff and then realizing that even if I was a size 4, I still couldn’t justify purchasing anything in there.

    I’m sorry you had that experience πŸ™ Wish we could’ve connected and I was there with you. I woulda gave that girl the what-for…

    BTW, I’m down to one bra too…

  • Jess, a friend posted your experience on facebook and it saddens me. A lot. I am a 38 FF to G. I cannot go to Victoria secrets. Heck I can’t even go to Penny’s or Macys and get a bra. It was really problematic for me to find something for a long time, and yes to get up the courage and go. We larger women should not have to wear something that’s not even intended for our Grandma’s to wear but for our Gt Grandma’s and this woman laughing at you is horrific.

    What I can say is my experience in many stores has been similar but I kept trying. I eventually found a lingerie store that sold products from Europe, but their bras were $80-140 in the low end. Still, I needed them badly, so I paid. Eventually I heard that Nordstroms was stocking and ventured in there. To be honest our Nordstrom bra ladies are fantastic and always bring out things and say ‘isn’t this pretty?’ and it is. I can’t fault them. They’ve never laughed, never sniggered, never implied anything, in fact I’m often remembered when I venture in for more bras and it’s been a fun thing that me and some other large breasted friends now do together. That, for the longest time, was very awkward and bizarre but has now become a fun thing. They aren’t cheap. They are cheaper than the lingerie store, but yes $60-80, so about half price. Still, I’ll admit I’ve become someone of a bra addict lately.

    What I have learnt since then is to venture online and yes, to Nordstrom rack, and even online Nordstrom at the end of seasons when they are changing stock over. Find your size, then go be adventurous. Many stock online at much cheaper prices.

    Please do not let one stupid stupid person stop you from having something nice. You deserve it!

    • Thanks for your words of support! I’m so glad you’ve found a place that’s fun and helpful in what can only be described as a “burden of womanhood.” πŸ™‚ I’m certainly not saying every salesperson at every Nordstrom is like this one–I don’t think they’d have the success or reputation if they were. And if I hadn’t been caught so flat-footed, felt so utterly shut-down and humiliated, I would’ve been happy to look for a different salesperson when I didn’t get the service I deserved the first time.

      The problem for me was that this woman acted as an effective gatekeeper. She didn’t ask if I’d be willing to spend more for a really good one (I would’ve), or help me look on the clearance racks, or offer to do a fitting so I could at least know what I should be looking for, or even say, “You know, there’s a Nordstrom Rack just on the other side of the mall; they’d have lots of good things in your price range.” She did a dumb thing, based on an ignorant assumption, without taking a second to think of how else she could’ve been of help. I hope they make her watch “Miracle on 34th Street” a couple dozen times.

      • Sorry to read of your bad experience there. πŸ™ Some people suck.

        There are sites on the web that tell you how to measure yourself properly, so you get the measurements, enter them into the fields on the web site and it tells you your size. πŸ™‚ That’s what I did. 48C now. The best part is you don’t really need someone else to measure you.

        Check out http://www.figleaves.co.uk (or http://www.figleaves.com). It’s where I get my bras from – they have all different bras in different sizes. I spend more there than I would at my local department stores, but it’s near-impossible to find a bra that fits me well locally unless it’s a sports bra.

        I hope that helps. πŸ™‚

        • Thanks for the recommendation! I also had someone recently suggest a helpful book that deals with all sorts of underwear issues. I can’t look up the link right now, but I’ll definitely post the title and an Amazon link in the follow-up post about this whole debacle. I’m waiting for one more conversation before I release that follow-up, but I hope to have good news to report soon.

  • I feel very sad about you feeling sad. But no one, nobody, can make you feel bad without your permission. The problem is our image of ourselves as not perfect because we don’t fit the mold of what we think is ‘perfect.’ Therefore the very idea of going shopping puts us in full alert mode. We are ready to attack and defend. The additional stress of being a Mom is something I can’t even begin to understand and I survived and loved teaching hormonal teenagers for 40 years. So my dear beautiful Jess, I will tell you once again, you are an intelligent, gifted and incredibly beautiful woman. You are a great wife and a wonderful mother. I think of you every day and I wish I could turn the clock back just for one hour so we could laugh at the incredible stupidity of ignorance.

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