This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
Earlier this month, I read an article in Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, in which a Russian journalist had taken selfies in chain clothing stores and concluded that many shops use mirrors that have been manipulated in order to make shoppers look thinner. Ever since reading that, I've been suspicious of every mirror I've seen myself in. Was it really me in the mirror, or a thinner, prettier version of me? Which is the real me? Is there even a real version of my body if it's reflected to me in different ways? Can I really know myself if I don't know what my body looks like? Etc., etc. Pretty heavy stuff.
I'm perfectly fine with my body, it's not that. I'm built pretty average, usually a medium. It just seemed absurd to think that big brands have been tricking me for 27 years, and I've never realized. Can I hold these brands accountable? Can I request compensation for those pants that I tried on in Zara that seemed to fit perfectly at the time but made my legs look like sausages when I got home—not sexy hot dog legs but very unsexy sausage legs? But what if it wasn't true? What if the journalist was faking it? Her hair looked three inches longer in the changing room photos, her face looked touched up with Perfect365, and she seemed to weigh about 2 pounds less. I only knew one thing at this point—to trust no one.
To get some perspective, I got in touch with Carles Casas—a specialist in sensorial marketing who is very familiar with the world of retail. According to him, the main goal is not to make customers buy more but to buy better. "We focus on the sensorial experience within the buying process as a whole. The changing room is a moment in this process, which can dramatically affect it—positively or negatively. On a sensorial level, the shopper's experience in the changing room depends on the lighting, the temperature, the volume of the music, or indeed the fragrance in the room. We work to identify all details that may influence this experience, and we try to improve them."
I asked him to what extent companies are manipulating us with all of these different techniques. "It's all completely legal and regulated. But the biggest regulators are the buyers themselves. Brands don't actively try to fool or manipulate the general public, because they're aware that—beyond questions of ethics—it's bad for their brand and bad for sales in the long term. People aren't stupid. And they're not forgiving. If you believe that a brand has tricked you, you're bad news for them. Not only because you won't come back but because people around you might not either."
To see if Spanish shops trick their shoppers in the same way as the Russian shops did in the article I read, I spent four hours in Barcelona's city center, going from shop to shop.
I started in Bershka, which in Spain is better known for the unrelenting music they blast than for their merch. The lighting in the changing room was quite yellow, but there were so many shadows that I ended up looking like something out of a Caravaggio painting.
The spotlight on my cleavage created shadows above my belly, which made my waist seem smaller. My legs seemed more slender, my head bigger. Which on paper would make me seem like a Disney princess, but that wasn't the reality of the changing room.
My second stop was at Spanish high-street store, Lefties. The changing room had red curtains, which gave it a somewhat sophisticated and weirdly sensuous vibe.
Like, I'd be up for calling the changing room something classy, like "boudoir" or something, had it not been for the fact that A) I was in a noisy and hot changing room on one of Barcelona's busiest shopping streets, and B) the lighting showed every single wrinkle in my trousers and made my clothes look baggy. It showed every imperfection in my outfit, and my hand looked like the claw of a geriatric bird. I don't have claws IRL, I promise.
The smell in the next shop, Stradivarius, was overpowering—it filled the whole changing area. As did my suddenly bafflingly enormous chest—in the mirror, at least. There was literally a spotlight on my chest. For the first time ever, I knew how people with big breasts and small thighs must feel.
It made me feel like buying every single item in the store, so I'm glad I don't have huge tits and small thighs in real life, because I'd be penniless.
After that I went to women'secret—an underwear store. The intimate lighting was nice but didn't help for my figure. The orange frame around the enormous mirror made me feel pretty tall at first, but when I looked again, I was suddenly stockier—as if my bottom had been cropped, and my waist was much higher than it should be. It was weird.
In Oysho—another lingerie and swimwear shop—I discovered that, with the right lighting, my face can be vaguely reminiscent of Michael Jackson's—in his final, sad years.
In Zara, the dim lighting made my face look like that of a porcelain doll, which is always a plus. There were mirrors in every corner of the changing room, which all made me look thinner. I was standing, however, and I got a good look at a thin version of myself.
I felt bamboozled and happy to be bamboozled—the small, contained compartment of the changing room suddenly making me feel very comfortable.
At Pull & Bear, they went one step further in making you paler, and it had the same effect: I felt immaculate—one industrial strength fan and a smoke machine away from being the face of some perfume ad. And my belly was completely gone. Where had my belly gone?
It certainly didn't get a head start to the H&M, my next stop, because it wasn't there either.
I need this mirror in my bedroom—or better: I needed to make this changing room my bedroom. Not only was the light so perfect that it hid all imperfections in my face, it also made my chest and my legs look stronger. My skin looked pre-pubescently flawless. I never wanted to leave.
There were a lot of mirrors in the changing room at Springfield, so I didn't know where to look, but I liked what I saw. My skin looked wonderfully and unnaturally smoothly tanned.
My more conventionally attractive, healthy looking twin sister looked back at me. It wasn't real, it wasn't real. It was just the lighting. But still: It was technically also me.
Much to my regret I left and headed to the changing room belonging to El Corte Inglés—the biggest chain of malls in Europe. I looked way thinner there too.
Although the changing room itself was the tattiest one that I visited, the mirror made it clear that some sort of trick was being played. I'm absolutely sure that I'm not built like this.
In Topshop, my jeans seemed to suit me much better than they actually do. The gentle light coming from above highlighted my forehead and cheekbones. Light colors were highlighted and stood out against the cold colors, which appeared darker.
Lastly, I stepped into a shop in my own neighborhood, called Friends. The improvised changing room was just the bathroom without a toilet. A curtain divided the shop from the changing room, and a basket on top of the sink indicated that it couldn't be used.
But the shop did provide a towel, just in case I really couldn't help myself and just had to wash my hands. It was so dark in the back of the room that I had to get up close to the mirror to be able to see myself properly.
So I had been wrong. I had never noticed the huge differences between changing rooms and felt a bit cheated. I called up Raimon Margalef, a legal representative for the Union of Consumers of Catalonia, to find out if consumers can do anything about this: "You could say they willingly show you in a better light, which could be a base for an official complaint filed with Catalan Consumer Agency. But even if you do, you won't be compensated. The reported company would be required to pay a sanction for the breach, which would go directly to the CCA. There's also the possibility to take a legal route if you can find an expert who claims that the mirror caused non-material harm," he explained.
Since that is as difficult to prove as it is costly, it's unlikely many consumers will pursue that. Instead, they'll likely just keep feeling a little disappointed when they get home and see themselves in a different light.