Thursday, November 10, 2005

Less than perfect

It’s a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon. There’s nothing good on TV, I’m not in the mood for a book so feminine logic dictates that I go shopping. I decide to go to Forum; I’ve not been there in a while. I like the place because I feel comfortable even when I’m shopping alone. Most places in my locality are still not very single-woman friendly.

I decide to start at the Westside store, the displays look good. But just as I step in, the detector goes off. Confused, I wait for someone to come and do something. A couple of store-employees casually look in my direction but don’t react. So I assume the detector is malfunctioning and walk in. The store is quite crowded which isn’t surprising for a Sunday. I look at some scented candles and potpourri but nothing really catches my fancy. I start walking out of the store without purchasing anything.

As expected, the detector rings again. This time, the store manager comes running. She quickly reaches where I’m standing and stops me from going any further by holding on to my bag. To avoid making a scene, I allow her to take it from me. She opens the bag and starts inspecting its contents. I look around but none of the employees come forward.

Looks like my defense is up to me,

“The same thing happened” I start stupidly. Collecting my thoughts, I try again “I mean, when I entered...”

“Just a minute, madam”, she snaps

Oh well, at least she still calls me madam.

She takes out things from the handbag and places them on the table beside the entrance. My face wash, hair-band, compact, credit card slips, company id & tag, tissue paper, comb, lipstick and purse out in the open. Not nice. I’ve always thought of myself as reasonably confident but I feel my cheeks burning. I feel humiliated, violated and angry.

Needless to say, she doesn’t find anything that belongs to the store. Undaunted, she calls her colleague and states

“I looked everywhere, but can’t find it”

That’s because there is nothing to find. She doesn’t say “I looked everywhere, but there is nothing here”. This lady seems sure that I’ve flicked something. Maybe she hasn’t heard that all are innocent till proved guilty.

“Did you look in all the compartments?” her friend asks

“Yeah, I did” she replies

She starts feeling the lining of the bag.

I suddenly realize what happened.

“I think the purse set off the alarm….” I say

Before I can complete the sentence, she takes my purse from the table. It’s obviously not new enough to be the store’s property. She puts it through the detector. And it goes off again. I had bought the purse from LandMark 9 months back but some-how the magnetic strip embedded in the purse got activated again. My friends who are regular LandMark customers always complain that LandMark doesn’t deactivate the magnetic strip properly. I must remember to speak to LandMark about this.

She puts the bag minus the purse through the machine and it’s silent.

“Did the detector go off when you entered?”

NOW she asks me.

“Yes it did” I reply “That’s what I have been trying to tell you”

“Oh! Ok then. Sorry for the inconvenience”

And she stuffs my things into the bag. She didn’t look apologetic, just a tad irritated. I’m willing to bet that she recites the ‘sorry for the inconvenience’ litany at least 10 times a day. She would have to, being as bad at her job as she is.

Some shoppers look at me with curious eyes and smug expressions. Wonder if they know what really happened. Some others look sympathetic. Others couldn’t care less. I take my bag and start walking out of the store. My eyes are getting wet with tears. I was raised by middle-class parents who have firm views on stealing. Even the implication that I shop-lifted is quite upsetting.

I should probably tell you how I looked that day. I had on shabby jeans and an old top. I had worn no makeup and had a non-branded handbag in hand; my looks are purely south-Indian. I don’t have model looks; nor am I even remotely fashionable. Being 10kgs over my ideal weight probably doesn’t help my image either.

Is there a connection between how I looked that day and the incident? Before you decide, read on.

On the Oprah show aired last Sunday (I think episodes are aired here 2 months after it’s shown in US), Oprah discussed what happened to her at the Hermès boutique in Paris.

An employee of the Hermès store turned away Oprah stating that the shop was in the process of being shut down. But Oprah thinks that it had to do with the fact that she looked like a poor black woman on that day having had no entourage or make-up. For more details, you can go to (

Here’s what Oprah said about the incident

"Everybody who's ever been snubbed because you were not chic enough or the right class or the right color or whatever — I don't know what it was — you know that that is very humiliating and that is exactly what happened to me."

Now, I know I am not Oprah and people can give me lots of flak for drawing a parallel between the two incidents. But isn’t that the moral here? Shouldn’t someone who is less than glamorous looking get the same kind of treatment as her beautiful, rich and sophisticated sister? I can understand if the distinction is made on the ramp or a beauty pageant but in a FREAKING CLOTHING STORE?

I would be lying if I said that this incident hasn’t affected me. I’ve realized that I am not as secure as I thought I was. I avoid Westside like the plague, but that really isn’t a loss because I’ve never really liked their stuff. And I get slightly anxious whenever I walk through the detector at any store. And that’s not easy when you are addicted to shopping.

Now the question(s) is;

Would the store manager have treated me differently had I looked prettier, richer and more elegantly dressed?

Did she know that I was an easy target looking at my simple pony-tail & Bata shoes?

Would she have given me a benefit of a doubt had she seen designer brands on my person?

And, would the employee at Hermès have admitted a celebrity like Barbara Streisand or Jennifer Aniston in the same situation?

Wasn’t Oprah turned away because they didn’t recognize her and thought she couldn’t afford Hermès’ in any case?

The answer unfortunately is a resounding YES.