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Are Trial Rooms Really As Private As We Think Them To Be? Will They Survive Post COVID?

Posted: May 24, 2021
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Trial rooms have always been fraught – a tiny private area in a public space. How are they perceived by women depending on their identity on the gender spectrum? Will they survive post COVID?

Certain parts of our pre-pandemic lives seem so impossible today. Large crowds feel odd and while before, having a stranger standing too close to you in a line felt annoying, now feels dangerous. But we do miss some of our usual pre-COVID activities.

I personally miss shopping – the feeling of entering a store and running my hands through racks of pretty clothes. But what I specially loved what trying on clothes and asking my mother’s opinions, which usually led to a fight to be honest.

Trial rooms, an integral part the shopping experience, might just be endangered. No one finds enclosed spaces, that so many strangers may have used, to be safe. We can’t be confident in the store’s diligence when it comes to disinfecting the rooms. Even brands themselves, while desperate to reopen stores, are wary of trial rooms. Sellers in Delhi’s Connaught Place aren’t allowing dress trials.

While it makes sense why people aren’t willing to enter trial rooms, does this mean that trial rooms pre-COVID were safe spaces for everyone? A further investigation may reveal that in reality, some of us were always sceptical and even afraid of trial rooms.

Feeling unsafe and sexualised

If you look up the words ‘women’ and ‘trial rooms’ on Google, you would immediately notice that most of the results that come up are about women’s safety- instances from across India of women finding hidden cameras, tips for women on how to be safe in changing rooms and  so on.

There are certain areas or times in life where women are the most guarded. The list of such spaces is endless but the trial rooms in shops definitely figure high on this list, and for good reason. One can find scores of articles which reveal all the different ways men ‘innovate’ to exploit trial rooms.

In the early 2000s, a woman was sexually assaulted by a group of shop assistants. What seems to be a classic by now is the case of a woman finding a shopping assistant trying to secretly take pictures of her changing. Some ingenious men even put the effort of hiding cameras in trial rooms or of placing a two-way mirror, in order to make their perverse attempts at capturing women easy.

It may seem morbid, and it is, but women have been forced to develop a set of ‘tactics’ that help them remain as alert as they can be. I enter a trial room on the assumption that I am not perfectly safe. I know that I cannot solely be focused on the clothes.

When a woman looks down a hall of trial rooms, she hopes to get one that isn’t too close to the front, where it may be easier for someone to peer into the room, nor does she want one that’s too far away.

When she enters the room, she must check to see if the lock works and if the door closes completely.

If it isn’t a door but a curtain instead, well then she is even more concerned about how much it’s truly covering.

Women do all of this almost subconsciously. In a survey conducted by YouGov, 52% of their women respondents said that they take measures on a regular basis to protect themselves in public. 47% of the respondents said they felt unsafe while changing clothes in recreational centres.

‘Constant vigilance’

“It’s tedious but it must be done. And anyway, I’m used to it so it doesn’t take time,” a friend of mine says, as we exchange our personal ‘tips’ to be on the lookout.

An individual woman’s mental vigilance marks the experience of public spaces (not to say that women aren’t vigilant in their homes, but that’s another story). Trial rooms are in the middle of the public and private –  while located in public spaces, they are meant to be little private pockets. Yet, predatory eyes need only a sliver of the public to invade a woman’s private space. And the means to do so are inexpensive – spy cams are widely sold at very low costs.

While store policies claim to be very strict on their policies against female harassment (funny how we need separate policies for basic safety), a woman cannot trust policies, laws, or promises. Articles online list suggestions on how to keep one protected- look out for LED lights or use the camera of your phone to look for infrared beams. We must become James Bond to look for bugs in the trial rooms. When I ask my friends or family about the anxiety we carry, they all say something along the lines of, ‘It’s better to be safe than sorry’.

A few years ago, in Goa, Newsline interviewed the police about safety in trial rooms and the response was something women have heard numerous times before- instructions have been issued to keep rooms safe but people have to take ‘basic precautions’. The onus is placed on women to protect themselves for men cannot be curbed. Why should modern democratic India go the extra mile when women have apparently already been conditioned to accept their fates?

But in democratic modern India, what does freedom mean? Must we accept simply being allowed  to go out as a victory or can we demand more?

Trial rooms and trans identities

Not only do spaces like trial rooms objectify women, they also make some of us question our identities by enforcing societal notions of what is right. While writing about her experiences of shopping in India, Uttiya Roy, a trans woman, spoke about how her just being in the women’s section was treated with suspicion. On another occasion, when she decided to try on a few clothes, the attendant at the trial rooms told her that she “wasn’t allowed to try on dresses.”

When I interacted with Uttiya over email, she spoke of how the enforced gender binary impacts her psyche, “Passing is a ubiquitous element of living your life as a trans person in this country. For most of my friends and me, we constantly live in fear of being discovered, being known. For me, anywhere where I can be recognized and perceived is a space where the pressure creeps in. If I swing away from the binary, I will become the target of painful discrimination or be mischaracterized as someone I am not. I feel like in the public eye, I am always walking this line of wanting to be perceived correctly while not being subject to its discrimination.”

So then is every shopping experience for Uttiya the same? Or are there places where she feels more comfortable?

“It’s always been a bit difficult. I believe larger stores where your anonymity is challenged by the constant trailing eyes of the shopkeepers, the members of the staff at the store make me feel incredibly self-conscious. There’s this overwhelming sense of people looking at you throughout the time, and that perception is either of disgust or mischaracterization. In smaller stores, rather, when I am still misgendered, the judgment becomes much more subdued. I can walk comfortably and feel like I can be myself.”

A ‘hot topic’ of contention has been on which trial rooms should trans individuals enter? Or bathrooms?

A similar question has been debated upon when it comes to bathrooms and trans individuals themselves are unsure- should there be separate public bathrooms for trans people, or should they have the choice to enter the bathroom they want to, without being policed or stigmatised?

Cis-gendered people may take entering a trial room just ‘instinctively’ for granted; such is not always the case for trans people. Trial rooms, like most other public spaces, represent what is said to be the ‘correct’ order of things and are very difficult to navigate for anyone who deviates from said order.

Uttiya explains, “You see, every time I avail myself of the trial room, I am confronted with the idea that someone will stop me. Essentially I am crossing hurdles that are invisible because I am who I am. I also carry around the trauma that visibility will bring because I have to fear the people in positions of power there (staff, shopkeepers) and the people like me (customers) who might become violent.”

Uttiya goes on to offer what she believes must be done, “Anonymity, silence goes a long way. A gender-neutral trial room that allows you to try on clothes and then choose your own clothing and leave would make it incredibly easier.”

How do trial rooms feature in parenting?

For some of us, entering a trial room is easy, but for many others, it isn’t.

Simply just walking into a trial room isn’t easy for some parents either. On an online parents forum, a mother wrote about how even though her sons enjoyed helping her pick out clothes, she wasn’t sure if she could continue bringing them in with her to the trial room.

On Quora, a father asked if he could bring his three year old daughter into the men’s changing room. Though both questions are similar, they are also profoundly different- in the former, the worry was about other people feeling uncomfortable and in the latter, the worry was about the daughter being unsafe or mentally scarred.

Cis-gendered women may have easy access to trial rooms as compared to trans women but may also be more vulnerable than men when it comes to safety. On the other hand, a father may be more uncertain if his daughter needs help in the trial room than a mother would.

Differing experiences reveal to us how one room can mean totally different things depending on one’s identity, especially in the presence of others. It’s important to question what one may take for granted and to try noticing how ‘normal’ things can be highly contested and controversial. Empathy shouldn’t just be reserved for major political debates but must also be used to make everyday life safe and inclusive to all types of diversities.

Trial rooms in the post-pandemic world

The world is slowly opening up and people are adapting to circumstances in an attempt to ‘go back to normal life’. So then, how does one shop?

Some believe that stores must be extremely careful about disinfecting clothes, rooms, mirror – pretty much the entire store, constantly.

A few high-end brands may opt for virtual consultations, while brands will have to make their sizing charts even more accurate.

Other stores and shops will have to simply have to close their trial rooms, if they lack resources for constant disinfection or virtual fittings.

For any physical store, certain measures must be in place- thermal scanning before customers enter, enforcing masks and having store attendants wear gloves.

Brands, stores and customers will have to adapt and make informed decisions, for the end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight.

Image Source- Jack Hollingsworth from Photo Images free for CanvaPro

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