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Oprah Faced ‘Size Bias’ In Swiss Handbag Shop

From the UK’s Guardian:

Oprah faced not just fashion retail racism, but size bias too

Oprah’s bad experience in a posh Swiss shop was based on a snap judgment about her status. Not being size 10 is part of that

By Heidi Moore | 9 August 2013

Oprah Winfrey is a successful billionaire with an empire worth $3bn, a woman whose public reputation has been built on self-empowerment. She has been frank about the stresses in her life – racism and sexism figure often – and about her struggles with her weight.

It is this last aspect that may be the hardest to deal with. Oprah’s thyroid condition makes her weight problems unavoidable.

She has to deal with the rebellion of her body. She may find sympathetic tailors and fabulous shoes, and accessorize brilliantly, but she likely knows what all women know: shop assistants won’t be kind to women over a size 10, and that is especially true of woman of color.

To find something nice for Tina Turner’s wedding, Oprah walked alone into Trois Pommes in Zurich last month, an upscale shop that carries clothes from the usual runway names – Celine, Jil Sander, Lanvin – and has locations in wealthy ski towns that attract billionaires: St Moritz, Gstaad, Basel.

A shop assistant refused to show Oprah a $42,000 crocodile handbag…

That isn’t what happened. At least according to the shop owner. But it’s become the established myth now. By the way, note that Oprah wanted to buy a crocodile bag. Where is the outrage? Where is PETA?

No doubt, the details of the incident will be pored over. It has already been attributed to racism, and rightfully so: Oprah’s incident tripped a wire that worries many women of color: to be judged negatively and immediately by their race, to be treated as second-class citizens, to be pointed to the things that are not the best, but considered merely "good enough" for you. The best and most expensive, the implication goes, is saved for those with the obvious status markers: well-groomed, accompanied by a wealthy-looking man, and usually, not coincidentally, very thin.

This is what Oprah, and most other women, rarely talk about: the struggle for respect faced by women of color is shared, at times, with another group: women of size, another category to which Oprah belongs.

"Women of size." Hilarious.

The scale is not the same – racism can be as ugly as anything humans are capable of – yet, on a day-to-day basis, they have parallels. There is the same sense of diminishment, the same high-handed assumption by others, the same struggle for control of your own image.

Race is tied with socioeconomic status struggles; so is weight. There have been some studies of a link between a woman’s size and her socioeconomic status, showing that women with low incomes tend to be of higher weight…

You don’t need science to tell you this: in the cold calculation of high-end fashion or jewellery or luxury bags, a woman’s dress size is often assumed to be a marker of her status, as much as race is. Both indicate a certain institutional bigotry, an assumption based on outdated – and just plain wrong – cliches about what a person’s bank balance looks like based on what their body looks like.

This is what most women know: when a woman walks into an upscale store, she has already been evaluated as to the size of her bank account or credit line (or whether she looks like she can attract a man with both of them). High-end shop assistants, like everyone who works on bonus, commission or by their wits – Wall Street traders and pool hustlers, for instance – are taught to size up a mark at a thousand paces. They read grooming, body language, clothing, and accessories as a sign of how likely someone may be to spend – or lose – money.

This is what that Zurich shop assistant was doing. Lacking the crucial information that Oprah was a celebrity, she relied on shallow markers: her size, her race. Even a Donna Karan dress is not enough to overcome those biases…

Well, Donna Karan is not quite haut couture. And Oprah was not with an attractive thin man.

The key thing for people of any size is to remain hidden from areas where status is important…

As a result, there is a kind of social segregation based on weight as well as on race. To test this, walk into any other fashionable shop in Zurich, or Gstaad, or London, or Paris, or Los Angeles, or New York: you may see women in flip-flops, women with messy ponytails, women in ripped jeans. Those are all perfectly acceptable – as long as she is also carrying an expensive handbag or accompanied by a man who looks like he has means. But you will rarely, if ever, see even a perfectly groomed, immaculately dressed woman above a size 10.

Shop assistants in upscale boutiques in fashionable areas of major cities have become practiced at hovering around ample women in a hurry to remind them: Oh, I’m sorry: we don’t have anything in your size…

The common bias of tying socioeconomic status with weight is just bad business. The saleswoman who made that assumption about Oprah was wrong – and her shop not only lost a high-value customer, but is also paying a steep price in the very public wrath of a billionaire scorned…

There are women who would like to have access to upscale fashion and have the means to indulge – if only shops would recognize that high income and good credit comes in all shapes and sizes. Maybe clothing retailers should, similarly, learn that a woman’s cultural, economic and social power is not solely discernible at a glance – either by her skin color or by her weight.

It might help their bottom line if they stopped judging those of others.

For God’s sake, don’t say "bottom line."

This article was posted by Steve on Monday, August 12th, 2013. Comments are currently closed.

6 Responses to “Oprah Faced ‘Size Bias’ In Swiss Handbag Shop”

  1. GetBackJack says:

    Steve, you are full of Win this morning.

  2. yadayada says:

    I believe harpo is currently using any publicity she can lay her hands on at this moment because she has a movie coming out, and of course will be receiving her medal of freedom for ……what exactly?
    oh yes, campaign contributions.
    any publicity is a money maker, and playing the victim card is huge bank !!

    here is another young celebrity woman who has faced discrimination based solely on size and color;


  3. BannedbytheTaliban says:

    Maybe they were just discriminating against her based on her income. You know, like democrats do.

  4. mr_bill says:

    Didn’t the NYT just lecture us about how black people are so “forgiving?” Evidently, harpo is so forgiving, that she needs to destroy a store clerk over a perceived slight.

    Interviews with black ministers, political leaders, scholars and voters suggest two major factors at work: an emphasis in black congregations on forgiveness and redemption, and an experience, particularly among older black voters, of having seen their revered leaders embroiled in scandal.

  5. Petronius says:

    Hilarious stuff.

    Sounds like a bad case of Dorner Syndrome (after the manifesto left by Chris Dorner, former LAPD police officer and murderer) –– a form of paranoia, focusing on imagined wrongs by whites.

    The tale of the Zurich shop girl might have served as the basis for a masterpiece of literature, if one only had time to pursue it properly, and a Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, or Henry Fielding to develop the story fully, giving it the careful treatment it so richly deserves. But somehow I doubt whether The Guardian or its readers have the imagination for great art. Still, such a fuss over a crocodile handbag — certainly that is the essence of great comedy.

    Still it is amusing to see the British press (especially the non-tabloid British press) taking anything about Oprah Winfrey seriously. I mean really, who cares?

    Personally I couldn’t give a flying fig about Oprah and her trials and tribulations. If she came on the television I’d probably smack the screen with the bottom of my shoe. But that’s just my point of view, and of course I am prejudiced per se, being (as I am) a heterosexual white male of moderate proportions still clinging proudly to my guns, God, and the tattered shreds of the Constitution.

    • Steve says:

      “The tale of the Zurich shop girl might have served as the basis for a masterpiece of literature, if one only had time to pursue it properly, and a Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, or Henry Fielding to develop the story fully.”

      Or maybe even Leo Tolstoy, who managed to pad out a news report about a woman throwing herself in front of a train to over 800 pages. (Anna Karenina.)

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