Sometimes I wish I liked online shopping. At the click of a button, I can peruse hundreds of different outfits and accessories in the comfort of my own room. But most of the time, I am left staring at the model wearing a cute blouse, trying to imagine what it would look like on me.
“This model is 5’9’’ and is wearing a size small” Does that mean someone who is 5’3’’ like myself would wear a size small too? Evidently, I always try on clothes physically at the store – I won’t buy a single item of clothing without going into the fitting room. I have to admit: there have been multiple occasions where I will buy clothes thinking I look great and try it on at home, only to find out that I don’t like the way it looks on me. What is it about fitting rooms that convince me to make irrational purchases?
I came across an article a while ago about a blogger named Inna who compared herself in 11 different fitting rooms throughout various stores. It is interesting to see how mirrors and lighting drastically change the way we look at our bodies.
According to a study conducted in 2016, a dressing room is the “clothing retailer’s selling room” where the environment plays a large role in the “consumer’s cognitions, emotions, and purchasing behavior” Researchers conducted this study on millennial teens and found that “store-induced enjoyment influences the amount of time spent in the space as well as the inclination to interact with store employees, while negative emotions can lead to a consumer perceiving the merchandise as of lesser value” (Vermaak & de Klerk). When we go to a store in pursuit of a new outfit, it is not simply seeing the outfits on our bodies that convince us to purchase an item but the environment – the music, the lighting, the employee’s engagement with the customer – that ultimately serves as the deciding factor for a purchase. Just as people get manicures for the social experience (including the power dynamics between the manicurist and the customer) and nail salon workers learn flattery English lingo to pamper their customers, shoppers are also more likely to buy from a store when they are placed in an engaging environment that generally makes them “feel good” (Kang 18). That’s something you don’t just find online.
Stores take advantage of this consumer culture. Another woman that conducted a similar experiment found that “in Zara, the dim lighting made [her] face look like that of a porcelain doll.” A gentle light coming from above can highlight forehead and cheekbones to look in a way that fits the dominant White discourse of “acceptable facial/body features”. Similarly, many of the distorted mirrors made women appear thinner. When these stores purposefully deceive people into thinking they are thinner, they are discounting differences, “differences that are associated with structure of systematic social inequalities” and “have been smoothed out, ‘homogenized’ or eliminated altogether.” (Hunter 151) Distortions in the mirror convince us to believe we fit the dominant discourse and fit in with a homogenized population. It convinces us to believe that the clothes we try on belong on our bodies, but when we remove ourselves from this altered reality, we realize we are nothing close to what we perceive ourselves to be.
We wonder why there is a never-ending desire to be thin or alter our bodies; we are constantly “pathologizing women for taking unnecessary risks with their health” and not paying attention to larger companies that have the power to alter the one object that influences how we view ourselves – the mirror (Hunter 151). Not only does this reinforce an idealized homogenous population, but it also tricks people into believing in the commodification of race/social classes. If you take the initiative to buy clothing, you can change your identity (and have the mirrors to confirm it). There is constant discussion about the gaze and how people judge other bodies, but what about the self-gaze, the type of gaze where we are alone looking at ourselves, that impacts how we perceive ourselves?
This poem by Sylvia Plath relates similarly to the self-gaze & the mirror:
Mirror by Sylvia Plath
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Anna Matheson. “MIRROR MIRROR: Blogger goes to 11 different shops in the same outfit to reveal how mirrors and lighting change her look” The Sun. February 18, 2017. https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/2896987/blogger-goes-to-11-different-shops-in-the-same-outfit-and-reveals-amazing-before-and-after-shots-to-show-how-lighting-changes-her-looks/
Maryke Vermaak & Helena M. de Klerk, “Fitting room or selling room? Millenial female consumers’ dressing room experiences,” International Journal of Consumer Studies (2016).
Miliann Kang. “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work,” University of California Press (2010).
Alba Carreres. “Here’s how to fitting room mirrors make you look better than you do” Vice. April 28, 2016. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/changing-room-mirrors-weird-body-image-876
Margaret L. Hunter, “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World,” The Journal of Pan African Studies (2011): 146.
Sylvia Plath. “Mirror” https://allpoetry.com/poem/8498499-Mirror-by-Sylvia-Plath