“As a business, we strive to be inclusive and therefore, we allow customers the choice of which fitting room they feel comfortable to use, in respect of how they identify themselves. This is an approach other retailers and leisure facilities have also adopted”
Women were not happy.
In response to the resulting twitter storm Woman’s Place UK posted advice on how to complain, within 5 days the model letter had been downloaded over 6000 times.
Our policy advice on changing rooms was viewed thousands of times.
Female-only changing rooms are lawful. Department stores CAN choose to exclude all males from female-only changing rooms, irrespective of their gender identity.
Despite M&S ‘striving to be inclusive’ by allowing anyone to ‘feel comfortable’ using women’s changing rooms this policy is EXCLUSIONARY. They have removed the option for women, the majority of users, to ‘feel comfortable’ in their own changing room.
Equality law is about CONSIDERING the impact on everyone who uses women’s facilities, including the impact on women themselves.
So we thought we’d compile some real-life stories from customers to help M&S understand the full impact of this policy.
If you would like to contribute your own story please send it in. We won’t print your name.
M&S changing rooms: Women’s stories
When I went for a maternity/nursing bra fitting, there was a man hanging round in the changing room — right outside my curtain, waiting for his wife. He was laughing to the staff member about how he was in there to see “boobs”. The staff member seemed slightly uncomfortable but laughed; he was allowed to stay in there. I cut short my appointment, bought nothing, and shopped online instead. Massively disturbing.
When I was pregnant, I didn’t get round to getting nursing bras fitted until 38 weeks. I had a huge bump, and my breasts were enormous, tender and veiny. I was acutely aware of how strange my body looked. The bra fitter was a lovely older woman, and she was so kind, sympathetic, empathetic and helpful at this intensely female time in my life that she too had experienced. The very idea that there might have been a male customer in the bra fitting area, or, even worse, a male bra fitter pretending to be a woman – and that a woman in late pregnancy might have to pretend she thinks he’s a woman too – I can’t even imagine how distressing that would be.
During my children’s half term I took my 12yr old daughter into H&M in Kingston. It is not our local H&M so I asked where the children’s Dept was and was then advised by the shop assistant that the Dept for my daughter’s age was on the top floor.
The store set-up seems to be women’s on the first two floors and then on the third floor girls age about 12+ (size 4+), men’s and the home Dept. I don’t think they have a children’s Dept in the store.
What concerned me however was that the girls and men share the same changing room area, which we went into and each cubicle had floor to ceiling side panels but only a curtain at the front. It had a shop assistant present when we went in, who was not present when we came out or indeed anywhere to be seen when we came out.
This must mean that there are both lone girls and groups of girls sharing changing rooms with men and that they are often doing so without any woman customers present (as they would be downstairs) to provide extra safeguarding. I imagine that many parents would be completely unaware that their young teenage daughters are going to use the changing rooms with their friends and then sharing with men, especially as the Dept is at the top and away from where most parents would necessarily go. I would imagine that many girls age 13/14+ would go to town and shop with their friends only. The fact that it is not supervised means that phone cameras etc can easily be used or the curtains pulled back and obviously it would be incredibly easy to pop a spy camera thing in and then return an hour or so later to retrieve it.
I was in the cubicle trying on bras when a man came into the one next to me and began talking deliberately incredibly loudly. Initially I tried telling myself to be understanding and caring as where else would “she” go for bras but it soon became clear to me as he continued to speak so loudly to the two shop assistants who was with him that he was looking to get something else from the conversation that wasn’t just a bra that fitted.
It was a light bulb moment to me as I properly acknowledged that a) transwomen might be identifying as woman for sexual reasons and b) that what is important to me (and others) for safeguarding reasons etc is recognising someones sex and also how I perceive them and not who or what they claim be.
As someone who was subjected to extensive childhood sexual abuse, I felt very upset and uncomfortable and I did not last 5 mins before I had got dressed and left the changing room.
I sort of blamed myself at the time for not being tough enough to cope with the situation, but now I realise that actually my boundaries kicked in and overrode all my ridiculous ideas about the importance of being kind and inclusive to men claiming to be women.
In the late 90’s my friend was the store manager of a Warners underwear store. She had a trans customer who regularly came to the store to try on underwear. They had been taking hormones and would seek advice on bra fittings. Initially she was friendly towards the customer and offered assistance as she would to anyone else. Like any other customer they would take the underwear and go into a cubicle to try it on. Eventually my friend banned them from the store because the person would try on the underwear, masturbate and climax all over the mirrors. It took my friend a while to realise what was happening and she’d end up cleaning it all up not knowing what it was. She eventually realised, decided cleaning semen off the mirrors wasn’t part of her job and banned him.Trans covers a multitude of definitions, autogynephilia is one of them.
I remember clearly my first bra. Going to the “city” with my mum. A late developer I wanted a bra, not through need but because all my friends had one. I finally summed up the courage and off to Marks we went. My toes curling with excitement, nervousness and embarrassment.Navigating the changing room was terrifying. Outside the entrance was a collection of men. Boyfriends and husbands congregating outside whilst grown women went in with exotic and confusing underwear. Walking past them felt embarrassing. A walk of shame. Surely they all knew what I was doing? I was regretting this day-trip into the adult world. But I also felt a thrill. These men all standing behind the invisible line that was the women’s’ changing room.I entered into the sacred and mysterious female space, into a cubicle away from the ever present eyes.On finding a cubical a gentle woman pulled out her tape measure. I was far too embarrassed to take off my top. Without having to express this humiliation, she gently understood, took a measuring over my t shirt and brought me a selection. This unspoken kindness stays with me to this day.Forward some years and I was mum.Trying to replicate this unspoken kindness to my own daughter. So off to Marks we went.It was a weekday, so aside from a few men scanning the racks we didn’t have to run the gauntlet. In came yet another assistant, who read the room perfectly. She understood what a seminal moment this was, and understood perfectly the anxieties felt by mother and daughter.What would have been unacceptable for me as a child, and for me as a mother would be how to navigate this situation with people in the changing room, or bra fitters that me and my daughter perceive as male. I always felt Marks would implicitly understand the unique role they play in our lives. The huge navigation that is a girls first foray into adult life. And the huge navigation it is for a mother to guide her daughter into a new and scary adult world.In a world dominated by the male gaze, by instagram, by smart phone porn we need spaces where we don’t have to navigate this. Where we don’t have to walk the continual line between appraising male intentions, the male gaze in our own space.
A friend had visited M&S for a bra fitting with her 15 year old daughter. As they waited in the queue a man waited with them clutching skimpy bras and other bits of lingerie. My friend’s daughter was really uncomfortable and the whole thing became awkward and embarrassing. He was determined to discuss his underwear choices with the assistant on the door of the changing room. As she was getting changed she could hear him loudly speaking with the assistant in a very deep voice about where his bra did and did not fit. The mum did not know her rights or whether she could object. The man clearly enjoyed the whole performance. The mum felt she let her daughter down in not complaining and it ruined the whole bonding experience she had planned. She is furious that this man’s need for validation and the incredible respect shown for his needs and feelings completely trampled over a young girl’s need for safety and privacy. Girls are already struggling with their changing bodies and anxieties over their image. They are experiencing sexual harassment both physically and verbally at this age as their sexed bodies develop. The last thing they need is a male in their space as they try to negotiate this complex time and work out their position as young females in a world where they are routinely sexually objectified and demeaned by men. The response by Marks and Spencer’s that men must be made “comfortable” at the expense of young girls is utterly reprehensible. from Jean Hatchet.
In May 2018, I went to a John Lewis store to be fitted for new bras. Yes, bras, plural. I’m a bit of a special case. Double mastectomies at 36. Cancer. Hey, the surgery saved my life, and I had three small children at the time, so that mattered more than losing my breasts. But still, I’m a woman. I want to look as good as I can. I was too slim for the best kind of reconstruction – not enough of my own body fat – so my ‘breasts’ are reconstructed with silicon implants, one boob successful, one a disaster after two attempts. So I also wear an external prosthesis, a ‘partial’. But I’m a tough cookie. I get on with it.Then, early last year I had further health complications. Suddenly, unexpectedly 4 vertebrae collapsed from osteoporosis. This caused curvature of the spine. The two inches loss off my spine shortened my torso, and that shortening plus the curvature combined to cause my abdomen to protrude – and my breasts to sink in. My self-esteem was shattered. I felt SO LOW. It was as if my 34B boobs (modest enough) had disappeared. I felt miserable. But once again, I rallied. I decided one way to help all this (as well as physiotherapy) was a good padded bra with support and uplift. I wanted a female bra fitter, I wanted to be in a female space, I wanted a mature woman. Correction. I NEEDED a female bra fitter. And a female space where I could explain my complex situation in privacy.Why do management people who recently have started changing women’s changing rooms at the stroke of a pen to so-called “unisex” or “gender neutral” not understand the complexities of women’s needs?Do they think we all just bounce in with Victoria Secret bodies and flounce in front of a mirror and say Oh, I like the black lace with pink, I’ll have two! then bounce out again?Are Management incapable of stopping and thinking for two seconds that women’s bodies are in fact different. That our life experiences are very different. That we have already had to grow up and live in a male-dominated world where our physical bodies are seen as fair game to be objectified, ogled, groped, whistled and jeered at, discussed, rated on a score of one to ten, and yes, even traded. And that sometimes, just sometimes, like when we are at their most vulnerable – getting a bra fitting for example – women FULLY DESERVE the right to be treated with DIGNITY and feel safe in an all-female environment?On that particular occasion, I didn’t see coming just how emotional I would get.The mature woman assistant dealing with me was absolutely amazing. I cannot praise her highly enough. It was just a curtained cubicle, heavy curtain, very roomy, and in an well separated off area from the shop floor lingerie department, which is discrete from other areas of the store. (Thank you, John Lewis.) I would have been very distraught had a male been anywhere near, either as an assistant or as a customer within the changing room area. Why, you might wonder? And I have wondered too. So, here’s the answer, based on my life experience. There is an understanding women have with each other, where there is huge sympathy and helpfulness should someone need it. I have encountered it many many times in hospital surgery wards, in women’s public toilets, in women’s changing rooms, in labour wards, in cervical screening clinics. And it is something to be valued and celebrated, not dismissed and destroyed. That assistant took time to understand my issues; she really sorted me out. She sent my partner, who was waiting outside, off for a coffee. She made sure I was fine before sending me off to join him. Along with the bras I’d happily purchased.THAT was first class woman-friendly service.
If you have a story to share please send it in. We won’t print your name (unless you want us to).