My Body For Sale: On Working In Retail

by Mo Johnson


I ask a lot of things while working in retail. “What are you guys doing tonight?” “Where did you get that handbag?” “How’s the weather?” But today, I should have asked one of my clients, “Would you like me served raw, medium, or well done?” When I clocked into work today, I became a piece of meat. A body for everyone’s disposal.

Tanner, as I’ll call him because he had the glisten of decades of white male privilege, swaggered into the store escaping the blistering street. His too-tight gingham shirt puckered over his belly. The end tails were shoved into sausage-casing chinos. I wanted nothing to do with him. But yesterday and today had been slow sale days because of the heat wave.

At the beginning of my shift, I was given the run-down that I had to sell over $1,500 in goods. With only one leather sale midday, I was about $1,000 short of my goal. But, today I was planning to ask my manager for a day off next week.

I was determined to make my goal, and if my manager said he couldn’t give me a day off, I would know it wasn’t due to my performance. Every customer had my upmost attention, including Tanner. He looked like a dad from Connecticut who had escaped the confines of his nuclear family and his hedge fund. He promptly walked over to me. Tanner was looking for a dress, size 4, black, for dinner or going out.

Tiny dings of alarm bells went off. Buying a skimpy dress in a size 4. To me, this was a classic SD (sugar daddy, for all y’all that haven’t had profiles on Seeking Arrangements). I could envision the SB (sugar baby) sitting on the other side of her computer typing, “I like black, daddy.” Good taste, girl! Now, of course, this narrative is my personal take, and I could be influenced by my knowledge in the SB/SD scene.

I pulled dozens of dresses. He gazed, touched, and then asked something I didn’t know someone was allowed to request of me: “Can you try these items on for me?” My fried egg from breakfast turned in my stomach. I looked around, hoping my managers had heard him, and could say no for me. In fear of confrontation, I nodded like some sort of lifeless puppet.

I sheepishly asked my managers if this was standard. Instead of making eye contact with me, they looked him up and down. I could tell what they were thinking: “He has the means to afford these dresses, and our store goal would be met.” “Yes,” they said, “You’re a stylist.” I’d never thought of this multi-million-dollar company as the new street corner. But here I was, pimped out for a white man’s capitalism.

I said nothing and closed myself in the dressing room. I detested this. I was reduced to a body. A body my managers owned, and also this stranger. They had no right to look at it this way. I was worth far more than a $308 dress, but I felt like I had a price tag dangling off my ass.

On principle, trying anything on for customers feels strange. But there is something extremely invading about making a young girl try on see-through slip dresses. The first black dress had a plunging neckline. I looked at myself in the mirror. I hadn’t worn a bra today because of the heat, and my uniform hid my nipples, which had now become very noticeable in the air conditioning. I watched the entire room watch this man watch me. I awkwardly turned and tried to discuss the fit, material, and washing conditions. Anything that wasn’t about my body. If he gave me a compliment, I might vomit over the satin.

I scampered off to the dressing room. The second dress hung tight, my turquoise underwear showing through. No one had seen my undergarments in weeks. I hadn’t planned for anyone to see them today. The last one was the sexiest, with chains and lace, a dress I had considered buying and putting away for New Year’s. I knew I would never be able to enjoy this garment again. He exclaimed that it looked so different on me than it had on the hanger. “It fits so snug,” Tanner said. I could feel his eyes molest my hips.

When he was done “shopping,” I stripped the dresses off. I wanted to spit and scream. This man and my managers would never understand what it was liked to be watched endlessly. Every man owning you with his eyes, and some with their hands. But I was a stylist, right? I had applied for a job that I no doubt received because I “fit the aesthetic.” I was white, young, and slender. I knew this. I knew the advantages, I felt them every day. These advantages have made my life very liveable as an able-bodied white woman. So maybe I deserved to be treated like the meat I sold myself out to be.

I brought all three dresses out to him. I wanted this transaction to be over. I wanted to go on my break and write this angry post. I wanted him and my managers to try on the dresses. I couldn’t fathom how to make them understand without making them hurt. Part of me, part that I don’t want to admit, yearned for them to all feel the micro- and major aggressions I had endured because of my gender. In that moment, I wanted someone else to truly understand me. A position, only those who have been oppressed can inhabit.

Tanner decided he wanted none of the dresses in the end. At this moment, I wondered if there ever was this mythical woman who was exactly my size. I hate to admit that the failure of the sale angered me just as much as my treatment. It wouldn’t have all been in vain if he purchased the dress. I refused to accept that my body was a commodity, but in this moment of everyday life, I needed something in return for it.

As he left the store with nothing more than a business card with my name on it, I willed one of the mannequins to fall and hit him. I looked at my managers for any acknowledgment. Nothing.

Walking into the back, our stock room manager, who was a woman, turned to me with a look. We both knew. Our eye contact spoke a lifetime of experience and commiseration.

I traipsed around the store for four more hours, depleting all my stores of false bubbliness. When I had nothing to say to people, I paid them compliments on an arbitrary clothing item. By the end of the day, there was no more meat left on me. I had become a disingenuous shell.

So what was I going to do? Quit? Maybe. I needed money desperately after going abroad. And the reality is, I am privileged enough to have my parents support me while I search for another one. Send an angry email to corporate? Where it would no doubt effect my position. Letting Tanner’s and my managers’ actions chase me out of a job seemed wrong. It also wasn’t right to work in a climate that made me uncomfortable.

I don’t know how to be in this world without existing just as a body. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. The answer I come to in moments of hopelessness is, refrain from the public eye. Do not go out, drink, take jobs in retail, as a receptionist, in the entertainment industry, do not wear spandex on the street, walk tight store aisles where others might touch you, just don’t exist. So how do I take this overwhelming existence with me and survive? I am currently not surviving. I am in my bed, at ten pm on a Friday night. Apathetic to everything. I wasn’t even able to eat, because I couldn’t open the block of Tillamook cheddar cheese with my teeth.

I am not hopeless, nor broken. I just feel the weight of society’s construct, and it’s just too heavy for me to move.

Mo Johnson is a twenty-one-year-old women’s studies major at The George Washington University. Her writings on sex, relationships, and what it means to be a millennial woman can be found on her blog. Follow her on Instagram. 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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