What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

Reader pjs has written in with this query:

Yesterday, I had a bad experience, and I need some advice. I went to return a shirt at Walmart. The customer service employee was maybe five years older than me, late twenties, white male. He asked me if the shirt was too big. Unthinkingly, I smiled and said yes. Almost immediately, I began to feel extremely self-conscious. I believe I blushed, a very rare occurrence for me. At first I thought he was just drawing attention to the fact that I’m fairly thin. Then, it dawned on me that he might be calling me flat chested (I am proud to be a 34A). The remaining few minutes of the transaction felt like forever, and then I dashed away.

Today, I was thinking about it again, and decided maybe I should submit a complaint to the store. But then I reconsidered – the thought of some manager and the guy having a laugh over the complaint was disgusting. From what I hear, Walmart has a terrible track record with these sorts of things (I probably shouldn’t have been shopping there in the first place). The complaint probably wouldn’t have any effect, and I’m highly unlikely to see this guy again. On the other hand, the comment was truly inappropriate no matter which way he meant it… right?

And maybe I’m overthinking it entirely. Maybe my recently acquired interest in feminism is turning me oversensitive and causing me to see males in a new and worse light.

What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

This sort of thing is very tricky to deal with. It’s hard enough to get one’s complaints taken seriously about comments and behaviours that are unambiguous, and in this sort of case it’s really hard to imagine a complaint accomplishing anything. Then there are the epistemic difficulties of knowing what was really intended. One fairly all-purpose solution I like is to simply look puzzled and ask for clarification, forcing the person to either spell out something offensive, make it clear they meant something else, or simply get embarrassed. I learned this from my excellent Irish friend M. We were dealing with a fool (F) who had come to pick up some boxes to be shipped to the US. M helped him with all the adding and measuring, for which he was grateful. Then he discovered he’d lost his card-reader (the old-style kind that stamps his company’s details on a receipt) and panicked. M explained that he needn’t worry too much since whoever had it could only put payments into F’s company. F started laughing, imagining “some Irish guy” doing just this. M simply looked at him and said “Oh, really?” with a sweet smile. F’s jaw dropped in horror and he froze in that position for sometime. I still smile when I remember it.

So that’s my recommendation. What’s yours?

27 thoughts on “What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

  1. It’s very hard to know what to say from the description as I can well imagine someone not meaning anything bad at all. Working in customer service is boring and often unpleasant and you’re often treated like a servant. Small talk can make things easier. I can imagine someone in such a case seeing the shirt, noticing it looked larger for the person in question, and just saying, “oh, was it too big?” He might even have to note the reason for the return. Now, maybe it wasn’t like this and was more obviously intended to be rude. We can’t tell from what’s here. But if so, I’d just say something like, “Does it matter?” and leave it at that. But unless it was pretty obviously meant to be offensive I’d assume that it was the sort of small-talk that one makes when doing customer service work to try to keep mildly sane and feel like a person, as it’s not an obviously or inherently offensive thing to say.

  2. This reminds me of the time I was selling a guy a suit for his grad. As he was trying on his clothes, we talked about the event through the door. I asked him where the prom was being held– he said the Marlborough Hotel — I said “oh yes, in the ball room.”

    Well, of course, he took it that I was asking him about the fit of his slacks and complained about me. This happened over twenty years ago and I will never forgive that jerk.

  3. This is interesting. What if he had asked, “Is the shirt the wrong size?” That is a very standard customer service question that would also have “drawn attention to” the apparent mismatch between the size of the shirt and the size of your frame, given current dressing trends.

    The question he asked is a more specific–and observant–variant. He didn’t give the slightest hint as to his body shape preference, nor did he suggest to you that anything is wrong with your body. He simply saw, and commented.

    Although it’s uncomfortable to realize that strangers see and evaluate our bodies (and sometimes comment on them), I’m not sure that the question inherently inappropriate. (If he had held it up to you, looked you up and down, made ‘breast hands’ in front of his chest, and then asked the same question…well, yes. That’s inappropriate, and then some!)

    I do think it’s important to understand that he wasn’t commenting about your body in an absolute sense, but only relative to the shirt he was holding.

    At least…this WAS my response, until I flipped the sizes in this scenario. Suddenly the OP’s discomfort became easier for me to understand! Maybe it’s our culture’s bias toward all things skinny, but for whatever reason it’s easier to find the offense if the body is larger than the shirt. If a customer service agent looked at me and then asked, “Oh, is the shirt too small?” I would feel objectified and irritated. Why? I think it’s because in this (and the OP’s) situtation the SHIRT somehow becomes the acceptable societal template for body size, and the person in question fails to match it. Thus, “The shirt is too small” becomes “The body is too large”, and vice versa.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  4. Thanks for posting this, and thank you to the comment writers.

    Having just recently gotten interested in feminist philosophy, I mostly wanted to hear from some feminist-minded people as to whether or not I was overreacting. At this point in time, I do agree that there is some uncertainty as to what the comment meant. And I don’t think I’m going to complain.

    But… I still feel in my gut that it was inappropriate. I handed the guy an unworn shirt, tags on, and receipt. If he had wanted to make small talk, there were many other subjects he could have brought up.

    And, if it makes any difference, the shirt was a medium, when I should have taken a small. It’s not like I bought an XXXXL. I must have been looking particularly flat that day for a medium to look obviously too big, eh?

    I think Heather’s size flipping scenario is interesting. Certainly a large chested woman who had purchased a medium instead of a large would have felt weird on account of a similar comment about the shirt’s smallness?

    Thanks again for helping me think through this. I am glad to have become interested in feminist issues, but it does kind of make life more difficult in some ways. So many more things to be sad/angry/conflicted/etc about!

  5. pj’s emphasis on her gut reaction that it was inappropriate makes me think that tone of voice, facial expression and body language might have been significant. Maybe there are innocent ways to interpret the words; but if there was also the slightest raised eyebrow, or an almost imperceptible flickering of the eyes down to the chest and back up – anyone out there know what I’m talking about? – then in practice you’d be left with a strong feeling that there was more to it, even if you couldn’t say exactly why.

    I don’t know if that was pj’s experience in this case, but in my experience that’s what often happens, and it makes it even harder to object because it’s easy for others to deny, and easy to doubt whether you really saw it.

  6. If this happens more often, pjs, make sure to have a reply at hand that is in the line of “I am sure you often tend to overestimate the size of some bodypart as well” or something.
    I generally come up with a witty reply about a day or two after the event (if at all). Very unhelpful. Thinking up something in advance is not cheating, I think :)

  7. yes heg, that sounds right. it’s not clear that a clerk in that position should be making chit-chat about the size of one’s body no matter (as heather points out), but it sounds like pjs got some sort of subtle cue (or apparent cue) that he was making a specific, and specifically inappropriate comment about her body.

    pjs: i think i agree with jender. a totally accusation-free, innocent “why do you say that?” might’ve been apt. but it’s easy to think of the right response after the fact, eh? if it were me, i would quit shopping at that store, and drop an anonymous comment into their comment box saying briefly that they wouldn’t be seeing any more of my money, because their customer service clerk made inappropriate comments about an item i was returning, and because of this i don’t feel comfortable shopping there any more. if the management care at all about how the place is run, that’ll make for a general reminder to the staff about what is and isn’t appropriate to say. and if they don’t well, you don’t want to shop there anyway. (i agree that if you made a formal complaint, they’d just deny it and you’d be made to feel uncomfortable.)

  8. In all likeyhood he was probably commenting on something obvious about the size of the garment, not about the self consciousness of customer # 324 that day.
    Despite what you may think, not every comment from a stranger is laced with subtle innuendo – and in the case of the Wal Mart clerk, it’s becasue he needs a reason, any reason, for a return on an item and was trying to hurry up the process of getting your return done. My take is has better odds of being right than yours. You should relax, and I mean that in a good way to allow to let it go and feel better

  9. This comment was left by Jewels under “Our Policies”, but I’m pretty sure it belongs here:
    Your sense of feeling a bit bizarre, given the context, reminds me of Sandra Bartky’s description of new feminists in The Phenomenology of Oppression, which, unfortunately I cannot find on my shelf right now in order to quote for you. Suddenly we are seeing everything through the lens of a gender analysis, which can be disconcerting, and can certainly make one feel as though one has a bout of paranoia.

    I have found it important, in my own life, to also factor in class, education, opportunity, and so on, as well. That doesn’t mean the gender analysis is “wrong”–there may truth to it, and in my opinion tone of voice and gesture/demeanor must also be considered–but rather one of many possible lenses which, if used simultaneously, give a much more complex (if not frustrating) realm of possible meanings, intentions, etc. And in my opinion it is very difficult, with a complete stranger, to have a sense of the person and/or the intent.

    What to do, then? I like the suggestion to attempt to clarify. Sometimes when you do this people become more aware of what they just said and what it says about themselves (and their “default” lense), and they just walk away embarrassed or apologize. Sometimes, if they did intend a slight, they get irritated that you didn’t just put up with it. And sometimes they suceed at proving to you that they are just not skilled in the discernment of the subtle changes in connotation that come with different ways of prasing a comment.

    But what I have learned is that if you don’t want others to expect you to be perfect when it comes to your own unmindfulness, you need to approach it in a way that acknowledges their humanness as well. Our humanness includes a process of enculturation, and learning (or unlearning) from others, and sometimes moments of unmindfulness.

    But, again, tone and demeanor and gesture make a difference. I wasn’t there.

  10. Thanks Jender, I was just about to transfer it here. LOL. Wanted to make sure I was following the policies in adding a comment. LOL.

  11. I don’t want to make a judgment about what the store clerk “really meant”. Instead I want to suggest this: When you start to be aware of sexism, you gradually realize that it is almost everywhere, and that it takes many forms and expressions. You therefore need to decide which battles to fight.

    If I opposed every instance of sexism (and ageism and ableism) directed at me, I would do almost nothing else. So one criterion I use is to ask myself, Will I feel better or worse if I put time into resisting this ageist remark, or that sexist act? If it seems I will feel better, then I do it. If it seems as if resisting will just exhaust me, or make me discouraged, or make me more vulnerable, then I don’t.

    We need to guard our energy, our optimism, and our will to fight, so that it is used in ways that a) have some chance of success and b) enable us to live reasonably good lives despite the injustices we encounter.

  12. I agree with the other comments that it is not clear from the description whether the person was being inappropriate. A clerk working in clothing sales probably becomes very skilled at judging the correct size for a person’s frame (it is part of the unnoticed skill-set that is developped in allegedly low-skill jobs). It could have been a comment about the garment rather than your body.

    But I also think that if you felt it was inappropriate, you were probably picking up on other cues that cannot be written down or explained. There are tones of cues in tone of voice, manner and so forth that are really hard to describe in words, so I think if your gut told you something was up, it probably was.

    So I agree with extendedelp that a complaint against a particular clerk may not be appropriate, but a comment on store policy might be a good idea. I think you should specify what the problem was, which extendedelp does not mention. So for example, you could say that a clerk made an inappropriate comment when you returned an garment by asking whether it was too large which you took to be a comment on your body. You could also include the reverse scenario suggested by Heather, because I think Heather is right, it might be easier for management to see the problem in that scenario because of size-bias. You could say that both of these comments are inappropriate and likely to make shoppers feel uncomfortable. You could also suggest a more appropriate alternative, such as “is that the wrong size” which does not have any judgment involved. This way, the policy of the store may change without necessarily punishing the clerk. I tend to prefer this approach, because if you punish the clerk, then they will simply lose their job or be otherwise punished and that only affects the one person. But if you make a complaint about policy, then management can inform all of their clerks about how to treat customers and what kinds of comments are or are not appropriate, and this will have a greater effect overall.

    As a bit of an aside, I have worked several allegedly low-skilled service jobs, and as Matt says, you are treated like a servant. When I was working these jobs I sometimes made a point of demonstrating my skills to my customers. For example, as a waitress I developped a really good memory for faces matched to regular orders (or even single-occasion orders if the person was repeatedly ordering a specific drink). So if a regular customer came in, I would say, would you like X today (if it was something they often ordered). I would also suggest specials to people based on their past orders and what I thought they might like. I don’t think my customers really saw this as a skill, but they seemed to appreciate it, and it made me feel a bit better about my job.

    Another example, that may be more related, is one of my mom’s friends owned a lingerie store, and she was quite proud of the fact that she could tell a woman’s bra size just by looking. When I got my first bra, my mom took me to this store to be properly fitted, and her friend took one look at me and then told me what sizes I should be looking at. She was more or less right, too, though sometimes she was a bit off because bras themselves vary a bit in size. I did not find this inappropriate, but I think my reaction would be quite different if a man in a bar told me that he could take one look at me and tell me my bra size (I am less sure how I would feel about this if the man were working in a lingerie store). So, obviously, context matters a lot.

  13. I take Heg’s point that sometimes what prompts one’s gut reaction that some comment is inappropriate are the subtle details of the interaction, that one might not even have consciously noticed, but registered on some other level. However, here’s an anecdote. I used to live next-door to a lovely lady. She was retired and so spent a lot of her time campaigning for refugees. One day, some asian teenagers came into her garden to collect a football, and trampled all over her flowers. She went out and asked them a bit crossly not to ruin the flowerbeds, but to come round the front if they wanted to collect their ball. They instantly accused her of being racist. Having witnessed the whole scene, I can tell you that she was most certainly not being racist. But the teenagers’ sensitivity to racial issues meant that they read the situation through that lens. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that one has to be careful about becoming aware of an issue, and then reading too much into perfectly innocuous situations. (I’m not saying you have done this, by the way.) Also, picking up on what Jewels said, it is quite possible that after asking if the shirt was too big, the sales guy then realised what it might have sounded like he had implied. For all you know, he might have gone home horribly embarrassed about the fact that he had indirectly commented on the size of your chest.

  14. Maybe we should pick up on the idea that a feminist outlook can make one less happy? I tried and failed to find a post here from about 6 or so months ago about feminists finding their sexual relations more satisfying, or something like that. I’d expect feminism to result in a more accurate understanding of one’s relations and a better view of the place of one’s own needs and wants.

    What do others think?

  15. Again, thank you for all the comments. They have been very helpful to me.

    Regarding the idea that a feminist outlook can make one less happy (jj above) – that has been my experience so far, but I’m hopeful that it is just the newness of it all, and that so many injustices have been made salient to me all at once. My response has been doubly complicated because I am also getting married in three weeks.

    As long-time feminists, do any fellow readers think that my tumultuous inner state caused by new feminist interests will kind of mellow or reach equilibrium with time?

  16. That’s such a difficult question! I don’t know what your experience will be: but for me, anger at the awfulness of human beings has usually been balanced by joy when I discover unexpectedly wonderful things about human beings.

    I also think it helps to err on the side of forgiveness with individuals and err on the side of outrage at institutions. I think very often individuals are just muddling along in the context of institutions and rules which result in oppression – I certainly am. If I’m going to forgive myself for times I get it wrong or make assumptions or fail to challenge things, I ought to be a bit forgiving of others, too. And then I should get on with making the systems better…

  17. i think you definitely quit being as shocked about the little things as time passes, even tho you might be more and more shocked by the big things that start to become apparent to you. and you’ll start to get a feel for what you can do to change the big things. and that’ll feel good. and if you’re like me, you’ll acquire a new and better understanding of who you are, and you’ll be able to look back over your life and make much better sense of the shape it’s taken–and make much better judgments about what shape it should take in future and how to make it so.

  18. I have learned somewhat to pick and choose my battles, and I have also become less “in your face” and severe as I realized that I don’t like it when others are harsh with me in my moments of unmindfulness or as I go through the process of raising my own consciousness on some issues that don’t seem to directly hinder the quality of my life.

    Who was it who had the great quote about being each others’ oppressors?

  19. as a customer service representative myself, the company collects data on why someone returns something.

    so he was probably just using it to check off the “wrong size” box on his register. probably by looking at you and the shirt he could tell it was too big and just asked. that’s probably all it meant; nothing.

  20. Learning about feminism has made me happier in a number of ways. I feel a lot less awkward about my body. I have more confidence and feel freer as a result. It has also helped me have a whole new perspective on sex, which has been great. Another benefit is that it has helped me think clearly about injustices that I saw before in a muddled way, but couldn’t articulate. And it was a relief to find that other people had been thinking about them too.

  21. What a lovely discussion of ways feminism makes one’s life better! I’m lucky enough to have had an explicitly feminist upbringing, but discovering the feminist literature on body image still made a huge difference to me. I haven’t dieted since, and have only exercised to feel good.

  22. I haven’t sold clothing, but I did work in retail for a few years, and offering someone a reason for return in order to smooth the return process is a perfectly normal thing to do. Of the possible reasons to return clothing, I would guess that size is the most likely, especially for a customer without an active complaint like, “this seam came apart”. So (maybe), this guy picked a reason (at a glance it was obviously not too small?), and guessed that it was too large? It seems a bit hasty to jump on him for a comment that could be innocuous which also happened to be correct.

    Of course, I don’t know what body language or tone might have been used in this particular case. Almost any statement can be made inappropriate if the person uttering it (or listening to it) tries hard enough.

  23. I suspect what I first read was Orbach’s _Fat is a Feminist Issue_. I vividly remember being baffled by the title, and not able to imagine how fat could be a feminist issue. Interestingly, I now can’t imagine how I could have been baffled! But I don’t remember an of it. I think the next thing was probably Wolf’s -_The Beauty Myth_, which is a powerful read despite its flaws. Now I vastly prefer Sandra Bartky’s (_Femininity and Domination_) and and Susan Bordo’s (_Unbearable Weight_) work, which I also really like teaching.

  24. I’ve found Jean Kilbourne’s lectures on advertising useful for teaching, but also personally. They’ve helped me be much more aware of the ways advertisements and other published images are trying to instruct me about the acceptable forms of womanhood. See, for instance, ‘Killing Me Softly’; ‘The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Women’; and ‘Slim Hopes: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness’.
    (There were videos of some of these lectures in the library at my last university – not sure where else to find them, but she has a website at http://www.jeankilbourne.com )

  25. I have done this before, but I’m sooo glad that I never reported it. You have no way of knowing which he meant, and if you made him lose his job because of a PERCEIVED slight against women… wouldn’t you feel awful? Although mentioning your breasts would be in very poor taste, it is more stupid than harmful. Feminists should not be ashamed of their bodies, or their sexuality, because that is a tool used to keep them submissive…. notice that you did not confront the man yourself because you were too embarrassed. Be comfortable in yourself, and leave cave-wage Walmart to figure things out a hundred years behind the times.

  26. When anyone asks, “…if the shirt was too big,” it means they wanted to know if it was too big. This is true regardless if a, “…late twenties, white male,” asked it or if a late forties, red male, or mid-fifties south pacific islander male asked it. Trust me, in the United States today nobody (nobody, not anyone, no one) will risk their job by asking the wrong question intentionally. In fact, especially because it was a “white male” the apolitical, asexual, areligious, asportual, a-everything, socially and culturally emasculated male in the US today probably thought of about 20 different ways to ask the question, and test ran the final winner with 12 different tones, and blank, sympathetic expressions (BEFORE asking) for fear of losing his job because he fully understands deep down inside that because he was unfortunate enough to be born as a white man in the US, he with all of us, is completely responsible for the oppression of all women in history, and of all other “races” throughout all time. I’m a mid-forties, (OMG) white male, born and raised in the US, and now I live in the former Soviet Union. Over here women understand they can be beautiful, sexy AND POWERFUL all at the same time. Most American men and women would gasp (out loud) at the way females dress, wear their hair and go outside over here. Girls from 12 years old on up through and including many mid-forty year old ladies here wear 6″ heels (in the US we’d call the designs “hooker pumps”), painted on tight, tight, tight (OMG, can she breathe?”) pants and shirts, and they wear long hair, with too much dramatic makeup (way too much for my prefs)… and most of them who dress like this do so regardless of their weight–Russian speaking women are CONFIDENT and POWERFUL. They’ know they’re powerful and sexy. Men do not whistle or glare lewdly at sexy women. They look and take it in. The women see the looks and do not acknowledge it. Then the men look away. And are you ready for this one–over here rape is almost unheard of. I don’t think for a minute that Russian speaking, former Soviet countries are any better than our US culture. But it’s overly obvious and very interesting that the men and women in this society do not have the insecurity issues we have in the US. And women are absolutely 100% powerful, even when they’re beautiful and sexy. I just don’t understand how the Soviets made it alive without the US’s aggressive, cut my hair and dress like a man, feminism.

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