Measuring Up

Fitting bras changed author’s perspective on what it means to be a woman

As a 19-year-old working her way through college, Natalee Woods accepted a job at a major retail department store. She imagined she’d sell earrings, shoes or sweaters. Instead, she found herself in the lingerie department, fitting women for bras.

Over the next decade, she met women from all walks of life at the job. One-on-one in the dressing room, they shared more than their measurements. In her new book, “Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room,” Woods relays her experiences with humor and insight into the ways women navigate society’s pressures and expectations. She is to read and discuss the book Wednesday, March 24 in an online presentation organized by the Asotin County Library.

Woods grew up in Federal Way, Wash., and earned her undergraduate degree in English at Washington State University in Pullman. Each summer, she returned to Seattle to work in the department store fitting bras. During graduate school, she found the same job in Los Angeles.

“The availability was always there,” said Woods, now 40 and teaching eighth grade in Seattle.

Retail was a natural fit for her because she enjoys talking to people. However, she has no desire for small talk. Deep conversations, even with strangers, come easier.

“I went straight for the real talk, as some would say.”

She met women from all walks of life. There were widows, facing life alone after decades of marriage, and the recently divorced, seeking a fresh start. There were young women searching for belonging and new mothers with bodies reshaped by childbirth. There were women with surgically enhanced breasts and women who’d lost breasts to mastectomies.

“It became so much more than just a bra, than just a good bra fit. It was the attitude, the longing, the reinvention — so many things,” Woods said.

She openly shared her own life with many of them, from rocky relationships to the grief she bore from caring for her parents, who died from cancer within a short time of each other. They offered each other support and advice.

“When you’re standing in the dressing room, it’s so intimate. Because of the intimacy and vulnerability, it led to me having these conversations,” she said.

She began to reflect deeply on these encounters during graduate school. She was assigned to write a brief essay about an experience with a person who changed her perception of something. The professor noted it could be a stranger. Woods went home and, after some thought, wrote about Crystal, a customer who worked in the sex industry.

“She used the term ‘prostitute,’ ” Woods said. “I remember she came in and she was very straightforward about what she wanted. We had a very long conversation about life. I appreciated her truth and honesty, and her vulnerability. She was so in command of her body and her needs.”

After reading the essay, her professor told her it was a book and that she had to keep writing.

“I thought, ‘Wow, you’re right,’ ” Woods said.

Woods fitted women for bras until she was 32, and the experience transformed her view of the world and of her body as she witnessed one woman after another reckoning with what she saw when she looked in the mirror. Many felt shame for not measuring up to societal standards, whether they had big breasts, small breasts or no breasts, she said.

“It was a real traumatic experience for a lot of women because of body issues. … So many times I felt like I had to say: ‘You don’t have to look like that. You don’t have to wear that size.’ ”

The experience taught her to love her body as it is. It also taught her how an attitude of acceptance and inclusion are vital and “how important solidarity is for all women of all shapes, sizes and cultures. When we come together, it really is a powerful thing. There’s power in knowing you’re not alone.”

Preregistration for the talk is required and available on the library's website or via the link below.

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