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Is There Any Way to Feel Good in a Fitting Room?

Dressing rooms can be a place of great success — or horrible self-esteem lows.

H&M’s dressing room was silent. The only noise in the air was the metallic jangle of hangers being placed onto racks by the male attendant, who was also folding everything in sight.

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Then I heard it — quiet at first.

"Stay sassy, stay strong, you can wear it," one woman uttered.

Who was she talking to? Where was this coming from?

Other female voices responded with "uh-huhs" and acknowledgements. It seemed the woman’s commands were meant for at least two more women right beside her.

Then it came again, only more sing-songy and voluminous.

"Stay sassy, stay strong, you can wear it," she told them, sounding as sassy and strong as her words.

More nods and yeses. Apparently this statement was the group’s mantra, and the woman was their coach, giving a pep talk before the big game. I half-expected them all to put their hands in a circle and yell "break" before spirit-fingering off.

It was like being back at cheerleading camp, only in a slightly different setting than a football field. These ladies were getting psyched up alright, mentally jazzed... to try on clothes?!

"Stay sassy, stay strong, you can wear it," she told them, sounding as sassy and strong as her words.

How absurd. How odd to witness. And how dare they get their little chant in my head for what turned out to be hours.

Once some time passed, though, their ritualistic endeavor struck me more favorably. Afterall, if there’s a worse part of the shopping process than the fitting room, I haven’t found it.

Walking into a store is stepping into possibilities. Aisles of beauties from Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and their fabulous friends. Can I pull off that tank? Do they have that dress in my size? I wonder what those shorts could do for my butt.

Spending time in the fitting room, then, is witnessing those same possibilities viciously die. Pencil skirts, halter tops and prom dresses appear elegant on the mannequin. They’re ravishing on the rack, divine in the store’s display. Then the dressing room curtain closes and it’s an entirely different, unflattering story. The same piece of clothing is hanging funny, bunching at the hips, or refusing to close in the back.

Of course, this is never the case in the movies. In those portrayals, fitting rooms are either locales for sultry rendezvouses or apparel magic. The ugly duckling emerges in a Ralph Lauren gown and the fitting room has turned her into a swan princess.

Or cue the happy, victorious makeover montage:

Julia Roberts' hooker with a heart of gold tries on stunning outfit after stunning outfit. Each fits better than the next. Champagne’s flowing, pizza has arrived. It’s a fitting room party with a fitting soundtrack that stresses just how beautiful she — and this setup — is. She’s now ready to shmooze at polo matches and mix it up with lawyers. She even gets to take the shiny new clothes and throw them in the faces of the snooty clerks who previously refused to help her. "You work on commission, right?" she tells them with piles of bags in tow. A devilish retail revenge fantasy of a line is born.

Somehow I have never had a similar fitting room experience. Not even close.

I’ve had someone walk in on me. Actually many someones.

I’ve grunted and wriggled to get into black jeans that were supposed to fit me, given that they were in my size. Logic lost that round, though. The pants, after a 10-minute battle, turned me into a stuffed sausage who almost had to be cut out of them.

I’ve had someone walk in on me. Actually many someones.

And I’ve left the store not buying anything and, embarrassingly, in tears. Trying on too many items wiped away my self esteem. I just wanted to be out of the store and feeling slim again.

Certainly, I’m not the only one who’s had an unpleasant experience in a clothing store’s dressing area.

Why are these tiny rooms so wretched?

The individual elements are usually unflattering. Lights don’t exactly emit a soft hue. The temperature is either frigid or furnace, the air stuffy. The mirrors tend to feel not like reflections of marvel, but like carnival funhouse versions — warping and everywhere. I’ve never had the urge to receive the 360-degree mirror treatment that actresses get on "Fashion Police." On the couch with Joan Rivers mocking Helena Bonham Carter? That I’ve fantasized about. Not so much about being subjected to multiple mirrors bolstering all of my flaws collectively.

There’s something about the cramped nature of fitting rooms too that invites paranoia, claustrophobia and body imperfection woes. Stripped down to skivvies it’s hard not to feel stripped down in other ways. Are there cameras watching me? Have my hips always been this enormous? What is that mole?

Even the strongest, most assured could get tripped up.

Even the strongest, most assured could get tripped up.

I also seem to have a knack for arriving armed with the precise wrong undergarments for my selected outfits. A white blouse calls to me while I’m in an unfortunate black camisole. Carrie Bradshaw would be OK with it, but it’s not my bag. Nor is trying on a work-appropriate skirt in gym-appropriate tennis shoes, during a spontaneous shopping excursion.

When I shop with another female companion — be it my Mom, sister or friend — she can run interference. If a vest was an epic mistake she can get it out of my sight or run to replace a wrongly sized item. And she will be honest. I don’t worry that I’ll leave Macy’s in an animal print cowboy hat that will get me mocked. She'll voice concerns as they form in her brain.

More worried am I when I venture to a store solo. Doing so means only using my eyes and judgment to gauge whether an ensemble works. These can’t be trusted. I can also rely on employees’ feedback, while secretly wondering about their motives. In either case, when I err, the last thing I want to do is try to decipher the store’s return policy and come back for a switcheroo.

The problem is, as awful as dressing rooms can be, they’re not going away yet. Fitting rooms are as much of a fixture as department stores are. In fact, the boom in department stores during the early 1900s prompted stores to set aside areas for trying on clothing in the first place.

These days online shopping options are abundant. Warby Parker and Zappos have made it possible and acceptable to purchase items from the comfort of the couch. There are now sites doing the same thing for pieces from undergarments to Oscar-calibre gowns, and everything in between.

I also seem to have a knack for arriving armed with the precise wrong undergarments for my selected outfits.

Still, I prefer in-person shopping — to touch the fabric, assess whether the cut is cheap or chic-looking and how it appears on my body. I’m not alone. Allen & Gerritsen research found that last year, customers were 71% more likely to buy items after trying them on. That’s probably why 90% of retail transactions continue to take place inside stores.

So if the fitting room is a necessary evil, the only sane thing to do is make the experience better.

Stores are trying to leverage technology. Bloomingdale’s, for one, is tinkering with "smart dressing rooms." Each tablet, within an individual changing area, can give real-time inventory information or even signal to an employee that a customer is stranded inside a stall needing a different version of a top. Then the employee can do the fetching.

This could be great down the line. In the meantime, I try to do a few simpler things to make fitting rooms more tolerable.

For starters, I remember the rare retail miracles I have had as a result of dressing rooms. Case in point: On a recent shopping trip I found unexpected glory in the form of a blue and white romper. With just two dresses to try on, I decided I needed at least a few other items for a trip to the dressing room to be worthwhile. And if I was grabbing at random, why not go with styles not at all in my wheelhouse? A romper is something that hasn’t been on my body since adulthood. The last time I sported one I also sported pigtails and barrettes.

These days I tell myself: If a romper could work, what else could?

In the dressing room, I expected to laugh at the absurdity of grown-up me in a romper. However, the opposite proved true. I found surprising glee in the romper, and now the piece is a charming addition to my wardrobe. These days I tell myself: If a romper could work, what else could?

Shopping, in my ideal scenario, is no marathon; it’s a sprint. The longer I’m doing it the greater chance I could become beaten down. Energy and excitement are important to keep shopping fun, rather than tedious. So, like a swimmer not wanting to get wrinkled-up skin, I limit my time in shopping waters. One hour is plenty of time to peruse and test.

Thus far I have yet to begin a shopping session with an actual chant like the women at H&M. But I would consider giving it a whirl, at least in my head. They reminded me that an upbeat spirit can stave off even the most serious of fashion threats — fitting room-induced self esteem blows. That, and shopping can most certainly be a team sport.


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