I’ve always worked in some kind of retail and/or customer service capacity. It’s provided me with the most surprising life experience when it comes to interacting with the public (and their attitudes). However, this essay is by no means a rant to condemn the ill-mannered Long Island shopper. Surely, I’m not the only person who can attest to plenty of OMFG-moments at work when the individual with whom I’m speaking is a weirdo or disgustingly offensive.
I can’t say that it’s all been a bumpy ride of rudeness and bad behavior. After all, I’m an optimist, a wine glass half full kind of gal, always hopeful that my kindness will be equaled with polite treatment. One of the perks of so many years of clothing retail under my patent leather belt is that I’ve developed my voice as a woman passionate about fashion while in the field, even when my first department store job responsibility was essentially to just hang up clothes and keep the racks neat before closing time. Currently, my position (dream job, really) at the local community college is on hiatus for summer break, so I’m primarily working at my second job (surrounded by dresses and tops and earrings, oh my!) until the end of August divides my schedule between writing and fashion once again. While I long for the days when I can return to tutoring young minds about the importance of classic literature and language clarity, the classroom of life in which I’m currently enrolled is my retail job, where there’s no shortage of education (one much different than you’d expect to find in any textbook).
Lesson #1: The Beauty Debate is Real. Like Really Real.
On a sunny Thursday morning, I was ringing up a customer’s purchase with all the usual chit-chat that makes for an enjoyable, hassle-free shopping experience. Never afraid to participate in conversation with women in my mother’s demographic, I started with a “How did you find everything today?” and added an “I love the colors in this blouse you’re buying!” with all the manners and enthusiasm that my mother taught me to impart on others. The customer was a sweet, 60-something strawberry blonde who reminded me of a giggling Dianne Weist from Practical Magic (minus the 90s interpretation of a middle-aged New England witch). She adjusted her scarf and smiled at me with the same genuine pleasantry that I’d expect she’d show to her grandchildren when offering them dessert after big Sunday family dinners.
When it came time to pay, said lady unfolded the bills from her wallet and asked, “Did you hear what they are doing to money now?” They meaning society? The people who run the Internet? The government was likely the answer, but I didn’t ask to her clarify the they.
“No. What?” I was hoping (again, there’s that glass of hope getting gulped) to hear something refreshing from her. I knew well and good enough about arguments surrounding which female or individual representation of diversity should replace a dead Caucasian male president on U.S. currency. I accept this change—no matter who will be illustrated as the face on money—simply because change is inevitable. If the bank accepts the cash, I will spend it. Also, I believe everyone should be represented everywhere (diplomacy much?) since this is a melting pot nation.
“They wanna put Harriet Tubman on the ten dollar bill. I mean, I know she did a lot of good things, but she’s so ugly. Who wants to look at her ugly face on money? Certainly not me. I think it’s a bad idea.” This woman, content in her stance, looked to me as if vying to win my vote.
I took a breath to count out her change, gather her receipt, and hand her back both items. I wasn’t one to engage in political conversation (people pleasers like me rarely do). My reliable “Change is crazy” and “Who knows what’ll happen?” replies satisfied an end to the conversation before we mutually wished each other a nice day. I doubt Dianne Weist’s doppelganger gave her commentary a second thought.
This interaction took place months ago and I’ve probably thought about it every day since (along with the next zinger of a lesson I’m writing about). For anyone who follows fashion or beauty blogs, then you know the debate about beauty is really real. Additionally, saying that Harriet Tubman “did a lot of good things” is a very obvious and grand understatement (see that juxtaposition there?). Of course, in these complicated United States of America, people have the freedom of speech to say what they’d like about how they feel, just like I’m doing with this essay (and I’m realizing now that what I’m writing has become political and I’m not portraying my people pleaser side accurately). Had the chains of necessity to pay my bills and survive comfortably as an unmarried woman living on my own, I would have posed to the customer this question: “How does Harriet Tubman’s beauty, or lack thereof in your opinion, even become a legitimate factor in her eligibility to serve as a symbol of this country on our money?” My next question would be to this woman about another woman: “Do you hear yourself?”
Lesson #2: Style is What You Make of It.
As sales associates at my store, we are encouraged to ask customers questions to gauge their clothing needs, build a dialogue with them, and thus a relationship that they will return to for their next shopping trip. Most of the time, I like this part of the job. I offer specific options to meet a customer’s desire and more often than not, we cohesively come to a stylish solution. It’s very satisfying to help other women express themselves through fashion and style. In a way, it’s not very different from tutoring writing. In this case, words and punctuation are replaced with outfits and accessories, all serving the purpose of articulating our identities and ideals with visual symbols.
No more than a week after encountering the anti-Harriet Tubman customer, I was working on the sales floor, recovering the dressing room during a crowded Saturday afternoon rush. With an armful of recently discarded merchandise, I passed a woman who was searching through a color story sea of blue and green tops and coordinating bottoms. Before I could ask her if she needed help finding anything, she exclaimed, “I used to love to wear plaid!” Instantly, and because of the way she so forlornly spoke, I thought of plaid as a beloved television show that was prematurely cancelled, leaving the viewing public on a melodramatic cliffhanger forever (Nashville anybody?).
“Why don’t you wear plaid?” I asked. I looked at her full figure and roots with whispers of gray, prepared that she’d say something about how the lines of plaid designs were unflattering for her shape and size, or that plaid was for kids and Christmas pajamas (all of which are factual explanations that have been confessed to me in the past).
“Because only gay people wear plaid,” she said stone-faced. I was suddenly caught in another exchange in which I didn’t want to be, just as my tongue was caught wanting to say, “Do you hear yourself?”
“Oh that’s not true,” I replied with the playful disposition of someone who’d just heard that a Sasquatch walked into the store. “Anyone can wear plaid.” I, a heterosexual woman, have some plaid pieces in my wardrobe, but I wasn’t about to get myself and my style choices involved.
“No. It’s true. I went to California and learned that only gay people wear plaid. Now I can’t wear plaid anymore.” She slumped her shoulders with surrender and regret in the belief of a pattern that dates back to circa mid-18th century Scottish tartans.
“Ooo-kay.” When I don’t know what to say, I say “okay” in a way that sounds more like a question than a response. I continued, “We have plenty of nice tops at the front of the store. Lots of new prints and colors for the summer. If you’d like, I can show you.” Talk about chugging right along to a new subject. Even after I presented her with a table of t-shirts that were on sale, she continued to unhappily wander through the store’s selection. Perhaps she felt marginalized in her misunderstood self-imposed ban on plaid, just like she was marginalizing the LGBTQ+ community with her homophobic statement. I could chalk up this woman’s offensive stereotype as a filter malfunction, but that’s really too gentle of an excuse. Despite the fact that I vehemently disagree with the spreading of generalizations, I was compelled to look past her ignorance and do my duty as a loyal employee of retail. My hope (geez, hope is spilling all over the place here) was to open her mind and style to something that made her happy to express who she is in her own way (by more graceful and appropriate means like flattering clothing). After all, style is what you make of it, not what others make you believe it is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun to get dressed in the morning.
These are two examples that made me stop in my espadrille-marching tracks to wonder not just what the world is coming to, but how I can use these experiences to lead a more positive life. In my previous essay (#SelfieTherapy: Confidently Breaking Through), I encourage readers to spread positivity when it came to beauty. I’d like to reiterate that sentiment in an even larger sense, sharing positivity about life, especially given the recent horrific shooting that took place at an Orlando night club where gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender patrons were targeted and murdered.
I say, wear what you want to wear. In doing so, contribute something fundamentally positive to society. Teach future generations something valuable about respect and kindness. Celebrate the differences we have because we all have differences and we’re all here in this country because of those differences. It takes a stronger person to embrace those differences and a weaker one to use them as ammunition against someone else.
Hope is always present in my writing, as is strength (when it comes to acceptance and all that jazz), which is why I decided to end this essay with a song that readers might not be familiar with. Sara Bareilles’ “Hercules” sends a powerful message about overcoming weakness to become a better person. It’s a gives-you-chills kind of song when blasting it in the shower. Happy Styling!