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The female body is an object under siege.
This becomes perilously clear in an Aritzia fitting room. For the sake of journalism, I’ve spent a good five minutes behind a cheerfully patterned curtain wrestling myself and my 32Es into a black, off-the-shoulder bodycon dress. I have no idea how I look, because there are no mirrors in Aritzia’s change rooms. To see myself, I’ll need to pull back the curtain and line up in front of a communal mirror beside the mostly teenaged crowd, the ones currently chorusing, “Those are so cuuuuuute, you look so cuuuuuute,” over and over, zealous and collegial.
I try to visualize my new self: ponte fabric pulling across my soft stomach, boobs a few inches lower than the line I’ve drawn in my head labeled “respectable magical thinking.” I am sure I look (in one of my mother’s favorite sayings) “like mutton dressed as lamb.” I could be anything. I close my eyes, but I can no longer remember what I look like.
Simply by existing, women’s bodies invite judgement. For me, this reaches its apotheosis in the fitting room: facing zippers that stick and necklines that sag, shirts with too many armholes and judgmental size tags, all stripped of our chosen buffers — it’s dangerous, a battlefield. We should have soft music, an invisible cellist. We should have fainting couches where we can quiet our minds. We should have stillness and tenderness, assistance if we need it, privacy when we don’t.
Yet, somehow, we ended up with the ultimate indignation: Fitting rooms where in order to fulfill the deeply essential function of checking out your (new, vulnerable) reflection, you are required to leave your individual stall to access a group mirror. A super casual hellscape, with bell sleeves.
How did we get here?
The first fitting rooms appeared in 19th-century department stores. They were elegant spaces, where women received personal attention in womb-ish privacy: a sharp contrast to the communal dressing rooms popularized in 1980s designer discount hubs like Loehmann’s and Filene’s Basement. There, women in various states of undress jostled for floor space in front of a wall of mirrors, abandoning modesty for a good deal. The group mirrors used today in changing rooms like those in Aritzia, BCBG, Chico’s, and more occupy a murky middle ground, one that no customer seems to enjoy, and no researcher can explain.
Where marketing researchers do agree is that fitting rooms are a pain point for all brick-and-mortar retailers, especially in the heady times of online shopping. They’re difficult to staff, perpetually messy, and use valuable real estate that could otherwise be devoted to product. Yet research also demonstrates that a customer who uses a fitting room is 70 percent more likely to make a purchase. Knowing this, it’s understandable that retailers are grasping at tricked-out options like touch screens and virtual reality to hustle more customers into changing rooms. But according to Marge Laney, whose company Alert Tech has 25-plus years of fitting-room research from which to pull, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Laney sees retailers making the same mistakes time and time again, despite evidence that customer needs are actually quite simple: an individual mirror; good lighting; and a clean, amply sized space. It’s logical, reasonable: In other words, it shouldn’t be this hard. And yet, she says, many fitting rooms resemble “a dungeon you could die in and no one would notice for three days.” And when I ask her how she feels about fitting rooms that use group mirrors, she’s not pulling any punches.
“I hate them.”
“A fitting room is a really private space,” she says. “I hate retailers that feel like women just want to put something on and come out for all to see — for us to see ourselves in clothes for the first time like that.” Because if there’s one thing a woman needs, it’s another opportunity for people to judge her body.
Without an overhaul of the way retailers think about dressing rooms, Laney says, they’re going to lose. “Think of [Amazon’s] Prime Wardrobe — they’re going to send you all the things you want, and you can try it all in your bedroom. And then you send it all back for free, and get a discount for what you keep — how great is that?”
The sole leg up for brick-and-mortar is the possibility of meaningful, value-imparting interactions with a sales associate. Laney is a big fan of call buttons, which give control to the consumer, allowing them to request assistance if they need another size or want an informed opinion on fit or style. But forcing customers out of their stall to confront the staff creates a contentious relationship from the get-go. Additionally, with many retail employees overworked, underpaid, or operating on commission, it’s unlikely that customers will get the attention (or the honesty) they’re looking for.
“Fitting rooms don’t need magic mirrors or Champagne, just quick access to an associate who can help you, and privacy as well,” Laney says. “There’s so much psychology going on inside the fitting room. You meet all your demons in there.”
At 33, I’m bewildered that I ever enjoyed social shopping — the hours I spent in the mall as a teenager, trailing groups of friends in and out of stores. I relied on their reflection of me as much as — or more than — my image in the mirror, banking on group mentality to make decisions for me. Today, I prefer shopping online; if I have to go to a store, my ideal is one that is quiet to the point of being tomb-like, dimly lit, and void of other humans. Basically I want to shop in the retail equivalent of Grey Gardens; just me, some heavy velvet drapes, and a bunch of cats. Stores that use group mirrors violate this on a primal level.
In this Aritzia (located in downtown Toronto), the change rooms are bunked together in the back of the store, only partly shielded by a mock-midcentury fireplace. The small curtained stalls open onto a wall of mirrors, clearly visible to the rest of the store.
I grab a cropped floral blouse to try on before realizing I can’t: I’m wearing a dress, and since Aritzia doesn’t provide personal mirrors, I’d also need pants. I don’t want pants. I pass a rack of lace bralettes and pause, confused: what do you do with a bralette when you can’t leave your stall? Just...intuit? When I asked the salesgirl if they had a private room I could use, she scrunched her nose.
I watch an older Eastern European woman in front of the mirrors, looking terribly out of place, fussing with a loose-knit cardigan. The salesgirl is cautious, approaching from the side, like the woman is a squid with unpredictable defense mechanisms. “I don’t understand,” the woman says, wrestling a sleeve. “Oh, it’s great,” the girl says. “Amazing, for sure.” The associate is enthusiastic, pleasant, encouraging. She has to be. The women in these mirrors have been stripped of their fortifications. She is our translator: Let me tell you what you see, she says, as she straightens your shoulders. Let me tell you who you are.
Toronto-based Dominique and Lia, both 32, have been customers of Aritzia for 15 years. By now, this dance is second nature, and they hate every second of it.
“Oh, I’m way less likely to come out of the dressing room at Aritzia,” Lia says. “I’m sure that means I buy less there than I do elsewhere. You can’t always tell if something fits right, so even if it looks amazing, I might not know, because I don’t want to deal with the sales girls.”
“They always lie,” Dominique says.
“Yeah, you could look fucking heinous and the sales girl will be like, ‘Bitch, you’ve never looked better!’”
“Group change rooms never feel intimate or kind,” says Dominique. “I know this runs counter to the body-positive movement and all of that, but the moment you come out in new clothes is super vulnerable, and I have the right to be by myself.”
“We all have our dances we do in front of mirrors,” Lia says, “like holding up a dress, or adjusting your boobs, or standing on our tiptoes — it’s so private, and you can’t do that in a communal mirror.”
Back at Aritzia, in the dress, I slowly slip out of my room. I look at myself in the group mirror and am suddenly 16 again, arms crossed over my chest, sucking in my stomach. I know I’m lucky to be the size I am: larger than most of the girls here, yet still small enough to be unobjectionable, to know that I can fit into most of what’s on offer (bralettes excluded). I think I might look good. I might even look great. But I can barely meet my own eyes.
“I love that look on you,” the sales girl says, unprompted. “So elegant.”
What individual mirrors give you, I’m realizing, is the chance at your own opinion, before one is handed to you. It’s a small thing, but considering how often women are denied their voice, it suddenly feels important. And while Aritzia claims to offer private mirrors at many of their retail locations (not this one, apparently), their overall policy — and that of any retail location that uses group mirrors — is by its very nature exclusionary, deeply limiting to anyone with physical anxieties, dysmorphia, trans people, disabled people. The fitting-room group mirror is not designed to show you how you look. It’s designed to show you how other people are looking at you. They’re looking right now, in fact.
These experiences are, of course, anecdotal. The communal dressing room might have fallen out of favor, but there has to be a reason certain stores insist on group mirrors. Research, let’s say. Data?
Professor of marketing Darren Dahl isn’t so sure. His years of work on consumer behavior has led him to question the efficacy of group mirrors.
“Our research shows that [group mirrors] are a negative factor in terms of the retail environment for consumers,” says Dahl in an email. “I think most consumers want to see what they look like in a clothing item, and simply being able to do so on their own terms — i.e., in the private dressing room — is what is critical.”
One of his recent studies, reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, demonstrated that when a woman tried on clothes in a communal mirror alongside a “more attractive person” wearing the same item, she was less likely to make a purchase. This makes sense: I’ve given away plenty of clothes after lending them to a friend and deciding they look better on her. I wore a school uniform for 10 years; far from milk-washing us into the indistinguishable flock of de-sexualized “Girl,” the uniforms only served to demonstrate whose waist was smaller, whose thighs more gaping, whose breasts most on the verge of freeing themselves from our Oxford shirts. Competitive dressing is not a sport any girl wants to play, and yet communal mirrors demand exactly that: the willingness to hold yourself up for scrutiny against whoever might be squeezing into the same jeans as you.
So why do it at all? Dominique and Lia agree that by not only implementing communal mirrors but making the fitting area open to the rest of the store, Aritzia is trying to broadcast to consumers that the demographic they are dressing is younger, prettier, and skinnier than you; if you won’t fit into a size 24, you really shouldn’t bother.
Dahl proposes something similarly cynical, albeit skeptically: “A Machiavellian guess would center on the type of customer that a retailer is trying to acquire. If a store wasn’t as interested in the low-esteem segment [i.e., the women who aren’t comfortable peacocking in front of group mirrors], that would be a way to keep them away.”
For Laney, it’s a matter of control. “A lot of customers go into rooms, take items to try on and consider, and then gather up what they want and leave. The retailer is left with no information.” Creating an environment where a woman needs to leave her self-contained temple in order to have any sense of how she looks puts the control back in the hands of the associate. “What these stores are thinking is, ‘Let’s get them outside the fitting room and talk to them,’” says Laney.
Let’s get these women back into the hands of someone who knows better; let’s remind them they can’t be trusted to know their own bodies. In retail, as in life, this is a familiar theme. The UK shopping chain Hammerson’s actually removed mirrors from their stores altogether after research showed that 71 percent of British women were “put off” from buying after trying on clothes, with 52 percent citing “poor self image” as the reason why.
"We want to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and confident when trying on clothes, so that's why we're trialling banning the mirrors,” Hammerson’s marketing manager Alex Thomas said of the decision. “We hope that women in particular will try something on and feel gorgeous and glamorous.” Just, you know, without actually being given the freedom of looking at our own bodies.
For their part, Aritzia’s director of public relations, Gabby Sabharwal, wrote the following:
Our fitting room areas are designed to provide the best possible setting for our customers when they are trying on our designs – as we provide extra-large mirrors and a spacious, well-lit environment to move about when viewing our products on.
Our fitting room design and communal mirror concept has resonated with our customer base since our company was founded over 30 years ago, as it allows for a more social shopping experience and greater access to our highly-knowledgeable stylists.
We continue to strive to provide a comfortable, modern and functional fitting room environment.
Sabharwal declined to share whether Aritzia had received any feedback — positive or negative — from customers about their policy. A cursory look at online reviews turned up a litany of complaints about the group mirrors — “NO mirrors in the change room, so you have to awkwardly try and see how you look while sharing the small mirror with lots of other people...and yes, they are judging you when you come out of the change room”; “lack of mirrors in the change room make me feel marginalised and grumpy”; “what's the deal with the lack of mirrors in the fitting rooms?” — alongside creative solutions:
“I take offense to the communal fitting rooms - there are no mirrors in the stalls so if you want to see how well the clothes fit (or rather, don't fit, if you're bigger than a size 6), you have to exit to the common area and view yourself in the large mirror. I managed to avoid this by wedging a makeup mirror into the groove between two hooks and stepping back - I was able to get a pretty good look at myself that way.”
As for me, I left Aritzia without buying the dress.
“I am shocked,” the sales girl said as I left, hand over heart. “Shocked.”
“I need to think about it,” I told her, which was true, but also: I need more space. I need a quiet room and a drink. I need to put my old clothes back on, and swim around in them for a bit.
We choose the clothes we do because they armor us, protect us, conceal and reveal by turns the parts of ourselves we’ve deemed fit for view, or necessary to hide. Communal mirrors — or any fitting room that fails to allow for those first few private moments of revelation — leave us exposed. Am I being dramatic? Fine, it’s dramatic. But as Laney and others point out, the ideal fitting room dynamic is almost laughably simple. Retailers who knowingly defy that — well, they’re waging their own kind of war. And our bodies have been through enough.
I took a photo of myself in that dress in that group mirror (again, journalism), and I’ve been looking at it for weeks now, gliding my fingers across the screen to zoom in, to analyze the curve of my hip, whether I’d need Spanx, if I do, in fact, look elegant. I’ve looked at it so many times that I have no idea whether the dress works or not. I can barely recognize my own body in the dress, although I know my expression. I look just like I did in photos of myself as a teenager: that tender mix of hopeful and anxious, alternately wanting to be seen and trying to be invisible. I’m alone in the photo, but I know they’re there, just outside the frame: all the eyes on me, the ones who have already decided how I look, before I’ve even had the chance to look myself.