Emily Rapp once worked as a bra-fitter for Victoria’s Secret, and every single woman she fitted confessed how much she hated her body.
From 1992 to 1996, whenever I was home from college visiting my parents in Denver, I worked at Victoria’s Secret in an “upscale” mall close to downtown. This was before the store became a violent study of the color pink, awash in saccharine scents and garish eyeshadow colors. In the ’90s, “The Secret,” as it was known by my family, carried only a few fragrances (one of which was called “Rapture,” a somehow-sweet musky rose that trailed me like a stinky storm cloud all through college), and still sold flannel pajamas and underwear that actually covered the majority of the flesh on one’s butt.
At 16 I began in the “flannel room,” where each night after closing I “sleeved” the long Little House on the Prairie-style sleep shirts sprinkled with demure flower patterns that matched the store’s light pink flowered wallpaper. After wiping down the counters, vacuuming the carpet, and organizing the panties in each room, the manager lined us up outside the closed black gate, rifled through our handbags checking for a pilfered pair of panties or a bra (this ritual occurred each time an employee ventured into the mall for break), and then offered us a “puff” on the nose from the new makeup line that was, at that time, just emerging.
“This powder smells so good, doesn’t it?” she’d say, her always-manicured hands delicately raising the glittery goods to our tired and sweaty faces. The girls twittered restlessly, anxious to flirt with the boys (all blond, and wearing the requisite ’90s hairdo for dudes, a flop of hair over one eye, short at the back) closing up across the hall at Abercrombie and Fitch before hopping into their Jettas to go home.
I didn’t have a regular car, so my dad often picked me up. He’d sit on the benches outside the store, looking creepy in a gray sweatsuit and a ball cap. “Who is that guy?” One girl asked once, her tiny nose turning up. “That’s my dad,” I replied. She seemed shocked. (Any street cred I may have hoped for became a distant dream when the girls watched me and my father push the Volkswagen Bug to give it a running start before we both jumped in and he started the engine. Not only was it weird that I had no car, but my dad’s wasn’t even fancy.)
There were a few rules at Vicky’s: Employees were strongly encouraged to get manicures, there was an unspoken rule that no girl (we were always girls, never women) wore anything larger than a size six, and we only had 30 minutes for our lunch break, regardless of the length in work shift.
Although the work environment was hideous in its banality (I once sat through a lecture called GREET GUIDE GO during which we received instruction about the correct flow of customers through the store. Greeting, guiding to the product, moving on to the next person), I liked wearing dresses to work and I was good with customers. Standing up for 12 hours was grueling but seemed a better alternative than pouring frozen yogurt or serving up Cinnabons. I was saving up for my junior year abroad in Ireland, and I took every shift they’d give me.
When I moved up to bra manager in the back room one Christmas season just after the launch of the so-called Miracle Bra, I started to like my job less, which had something to do, no doubt, with the Santa hats we were forced to wear during December, and because I was face-to-face with the brutality of being a woman.
Every single woman I fitted for a bra (“Did you know,” I’d chirp, sliding the measuring tape from around my neck, “that 90% of American women are wearing the wrong size bra?”), confessed to me how much she hated her body. It wasn’t: “Wow. Check out what this Miracle Bra does for my rack!” or “My back feels better. You’re right—I must have been wearing the wrong bra size!” Instead, it was: “I’m hideous.” “I wish you could measure me with your eyes closed.” “Can you come in here and tell me what you think? If you were a man and you saw me in this, would you barf?” The women were willing to show their bodies, but hard pressed to find anything beautiful about them.
I could hardly believe it. I envied every woman’s body that waltzed into one of my carefully tended dressing rooms in my closely managed area of the store. All of these women had what I did not: normal bodies, easily moving bodies, bodies that did not come apart like a cheap Barbie doll. Until 1994, I wore a wooden leg that I frequently took to the back to be oiled by the guys in the stock room, a fact that endeared me to them, but made me feel hideous. What was I doing, floating around the store, pretending to be in the business of making women feel beautiful while hating everything I saw in the mirror? And then to have that same body hatred reflected back at me, in every single customer I encountered.
When it came time to change the huge marketing cardboard foldouts that sat around the store, photographs of women staring demurely at the camera, maybe a single finger folded into a painted mouth, looking perfect and slick in a push-up bra and panties, I happily volunteered to make a visit to the dumpsters where I could see those images crushed by the giant trash compactor. Be gone, I thought, but the problem with an image is that it sticks, for me and for millions of women.
Throughout my brief tenure as “the bra girl,” I stopped expecting any woman to come in and express anything but self-loathing for her body. Instead, I blocked it out. I pretended not to envy them, and I pretended to be normal. I organized my bras, finished out the summer break, took advantage of my discount, and hauled off to Ireland with 10 pairs of bra-and-panty sets that only I would ever see.
I’ve always liked lingerie, and I still buy it, and this time someone sees me in it. Most of the time I’m proud of what gets organized into those squares of lace and satin. It’s taken me 20 years to get there. But each time I walk past a Victoria’s Secret store, I feel a rioting in my body that goes from my stomach to my feet. I feel engaged in this conspiracy that women are supposed to look a special way—especially naked—and that they, when faced with their own bodies, should always look away.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.