Forgiveness in the fitting room

On a spring Saturday, the fitting rooms in a suburban women's clothing shop are filled with customers updating their wardrobes for a new season.

But for at least one woman here, shopping for clothes is a sobering experience. Emerging from the fitting room, she pauses in front of a three-way mirror and looks at the stylish jacket and pants she is trying on. Then she says, to no one in particular, "I hate my body."

That harsh self-criticism startles a customer nearby. But to Karen Clift, owner of the Barry Bricken shop in Wellesley, Mass., it's simply a variation on an all-too-common theme.

"We hear comments like that every day," she says. "Women are basically, by nature, critical of themselves. They zero in on the part of them that they don't like."

Ask Ms. Clift and sales associate Judy Isroff what else women say, and they reel off a sampling of typical remarks:

"My hips are too big."

"I look so broad."

"My rolls show."

"My arms are so flabby."

"I want liposuction."

"I'm so short I can't find nice clothes."

"I have gorilla arms."

"Oh, I'm looking so old."

"My hair looks lousy."

"This makes me look fat. Well, maybe I am fat."

"I need to lose five pounds."

Now and then someone even adds, "Maybe I should get a face-lift."

Too short, too tall, too big, too small. On and on the self-deprecating remarks go in stores across the country as women play an unforgiving game of "Mirror, mirror on the wall." Longing for a figure more like the "perfect" ones portrayed in ads, fashion magazines, and entertainment media, we become our own worst critics.

As Clift says, "I don't think I've ever seen a woman come out of the fitting room and say, 'This looks great on me.' "

Even magazine articles about aging gracefully, presumably meant to reassure and inspire readers of a certain age, can set impossible ideals. Under headlines proclaiming that "60 is the new 40," photos of well-toned bodies fail to match the reality of most women's figures.

Complaints in front of the mirror are nothing new. Clift has been hearing them throughout her 30 years in fashion retailing. Most of us have probably been guilty of voicing - or at least thinking - negative comments at some point as we stand under the fluorescent glare in stores.

But in an age when women are constantly encouraged, as Clift says, "to tuck it, Botox it, rearrange it," standards of beauty have become ever more exacting and demanding. The potential damage goes beyond the feelings of inadequacy these images create in women. They can also filter down to a younger generation.

I once saw a little girl, not more than 5 years old and with the lithe body of a gymnast, look at herself in a store mirror and say, in a solemn tone, "I'm fat." Her mother, probably no more than a size 6, just laughed.

Yet someday that little girl will grow into a woman standing in front of a mirror. If she is critical of herself in kindergarten, how unhappy will she be decades from now as she magnifies some minor imperfection, real or imagined?

Where does the cycle end?

Perhaps women could take a lesson from male shoppers. When men buy clothes, the scene in front of the fitting-room mirror changes dramatically, says Clift, who has also sold menswear. She observes that when men try on sport coats or slacks, they take a matter-of-fact, this-is-who-I-am approach.

"The only thing they'll say is, 'This is too small,' or 'This is too big,' " she explains. "They don't criticize anything."

It's an attitude Clift tries to encourage in her customers. Sometimes, when a shopper expresses unhappiness with her shape or size, Clift might offer gentle advice, saying, "You know what? If somebody loves you the way you are and you've got a good life, don't stress about five or 10 pounds."

In her one-woman show, "The Good Body," playwright Eve Ensler observes that American women are particularly vulnerable to this kind of dissatisfaction with themselves. She believes that activism - getting outside of oneself - can be a valuable solution. "The more you focus on people who are really in need, the harder it is to hate your body," she has said publicly, calling this "a huge antidote."

What would happen if retailers of women's clothes declared April to be a "complaint-free" month, placing a moratorium on negativity in front of the mirror? Customers could comment honestly about the fit or color or style of a garment. But self-deprecating remarks about themselves would be off limits.

Who knows? It could mark the beginning of a new acceptance and appreciation of ourselves as we are. Armed with a smile, which Sandra Yancey, CEO of eWomen Network, calls "your greatest strategic advantage, and what attracts people to you," we might find our perceived flaws fading in importance.

In the meantime, the resulting silence in the fitting room would truly be golden.

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