I pride myself on being a fast learner. Yet it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that shopping, for most women, not just me, is an excruciatingly exhausting experience. While the media tirelessly feeds us visuals of women happily trotting from one store to the next, followed by their partners dragging the weight of infinite shopping bags, the truth is, I often find that all my deepest insecurities come out in full display during the, ironically labelled, retail “therapy”. This idea of self-care being equal to spending – on spas, skincare, and shopping – holds its flawed reins tightly on my thoughts. In this pursuit of happiness, all I get on the finish line is more anxieties. And the root of this discomfort stems from a ten square foot space − the changing room.
Much like my self-doubt uses a magnifying glass to find aspects of my body to comment on, I must first use the same detective skills to find cameras, dodgy mirrors, LED lights in the trial room − anything that suggests that my privacy is compromised. When news reports of women being recorded inside trial rooms become commonplace, it is expected of us to monitor our safety, even inside private spaces. Before even taking off my clothes, I am disheartened to find that my sanctuary has already been infiltrated by men, as I frantically search on Google, “ways to find hidden cameras in your trial room.” This possibility of being invaded, statistically small as it may be, sits with me in the changing room, staring at me and my efforts to look confident. We all know how precious time is in the changing room. And when we need all the minutes we are afforded inside to shut out the anxieties, here we are nit-picking through the pile of clothes, dismissing more than accepting, quick to escape this cell, like so many others, of dubious safety.
And on those peaceful occasions when familiarity with a place breeds comfort, when I am free from the mental vigilance of hunting for peep holes, the sight I see in the mirror is still corrupted. The idea of a “desirable” body, sewn in my brain from the threads of Instagram reels, weight-loss ads, and the women on this store’s website, stitches the clothes I wear so that they become coloured in every shade of rejection. I wonder if the women I see outside the changing room, admiring themselves in the communal mirrors, seeking validation from their accompanying shoppers, feel the same way as I do inside their cubicle of doom. I imagine knocking on their door (or calling out to them if the ‘we-think-doors-are-outdated’ store has curtains) and hyping them up for their choice. I imagine all of us forming a collective, a temporary female friendship, a safe space to challenge our baneful beliefs about our bodies. I urge Aarya, who thinks the blouse makes her top look heavy, to ask herself, “And what’s wrong with that?” I invite Sonali, who’s younger than me and who hates that the crop top doesn’t fit her like it fits her favourite Instagram influencer, to consider that two bodies maybe aren’t meant to look the same. I wish to hold the hand of Deepti, who thinks the dress is too short for her in-laws to allow it, in her journey of claiming her body back. I daydream that in an alternate universe, it’s natural for women to band together in the changing room and start a daily revolution against the voices in our heads. But the poor lighting in the changing room spotlights my stomach this time and jolts me back to this reality. One where I feel a twinge of jealousy that Aarya, Deepti, and Sonali look better than me in their clothes. Where the parasite of comparison doesn’t leave me alone.
It’s almost as if it’s hard to find a moment with just yourself in the changing room. It’s either the fear of men watching that quickens one’s breath or it is the voice of the all-knowing and unforgiving standard of beauty that leaves one exhausted. For centuries, women have moulded their bodies to fit the external world. Even in our private moments, it seems we are harassed by our own thoughts − those that make us choose clothes for the eyes of others. A changing room offers us the space to use the time we have for ourselves, in the service of our bodies, and it’s time we reclaim this room as the oasis it was always meant to be. So, I imagine the lighting fixtures, shining light, not on the inches of my body, but on sexist structures that wish to control my idea of attractiveness. I imagine my body too grand to be contained in the labels of ‘S’ or ‘XL’. I imagine Aarya, Deepti, and Sonali as different versions of me, looking at ourselves in the mirror of the trial room.
Here we are, in all our glory, hyping each other up as best friends do, leaving the changing room transformed into a safe space for exploring our femininity. And I aspire to turn these imaginations into reality the next time I visit the changing room. Perhaps by sharing a gentle compliment, I can hope to teleport my fellow female-shopper and myself from a state of doom to a warm cubicle of confidence.