Powder Rooms and the Forgotten Power of People-Watching

By Emma Wilson

December marked two years that I’ve been out of college. I thrived in college, loved my classmates, professors, and coursework, so it makes sense that closing that chapter of my life triggered a major depression. I can finally say I’m reaching the other side of that canyon. That said, when I rewind back to the moment when they placed the diploma in my hand, I remember this dolly-zoom sensation of panic exploding all around me.

In retrospect, falling into depression was certainly the sum of many parts. I graduated during (what felt like) a brutal, endless winter. Besides that, I had the sinking suspicion that I had failed my now-ex boyfriend, as I couldn’t seem to land full-time work. The small savings I had quickly burned up with a few months of rent. My peer group was reduced to zero, my friends having moved away to new careers or grad programs, while I was still flitting around in my college town.

On top of everything, I was plagued by guilt—there I was with the whole wide world before me, and it was all I could do to get out of bed each day and comb my hair. I was surrounded by support and comfort, and yet I felt isolated. The fact that I even had the nerve to be depressed was (through my foggy perspective) clear evidence of being a self-centered fuckass.

When depression settles in, it becomes my sole companion and hobby. I cocoon into myself and shut everything out. So, post-graduation, the ritual of my days crumbled into a pattern of sleeping in, applying for a few jobs, and then the productive pastimes of drinking, getting stoned, and watching reruns of The Office. I stopped socializing, stopped exercising, stopped showering. I became impatient, hard to deal with. I spent a lot of time online, lying.

At first, I pretended my withdrawing wasn’t indicative of another depressive episode. I started by blaming it on the snow, blaming it on how broke I was, blaming it on the job hunt, etc. Soon, though, my thoughts began to devolve, from things like “Oh, I’m not going out because my friends have moved away,” to “Oh, I’m not going out because nobody wants to see me, look at all the things I haven’t accomplished.”

After several months, my (thoughtful and extremely patient) ex, who I lived with, suggested that I go do “something fun.” I rejected the idea and took offense, but secretly knew getting out of the house was a wise choice.

In my purse, I found an old, half-punched bus pass. I showered, got dressed. Embarrassingly, even this was difficult. I have a lot of anxiety when I leave my house, and it only increases if I haven’t ventured out in a while.

I got on at the stop by my apartment, rode the entire circuit, and finally got off at the mall, just because that was the last stop. I only stayed for a little while, and then I took the bus home. But I had to admit that the whole excursion improved my disposition, if only slightly. So I went back the next day. And the next.

Soon, a routine developed: get up, send out applications, make breakfast, and then shower and take the bus to the department store. Once there, I’d people watch, either by the piano or in the powder room.

Let’s pause for a moment and tour that rare relic from yesteryear: the powder room. Do you know these little alternate universes still exist? Yes, they’re essentially bathrooms, but with this little additional room where a woman can powder her nose and (I’m assuming) escape the crushing weight of the patriarchy (?). The powder room I frequented was lush with aqua brocade rugs, Regency-style overstuffed chairs, fake palm fronds, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The vibe was very Marie Antoinette and Betty Draper getting together for a tea-and-bitch.

People-watching at the department store and adjacent powder rooms became a study in unnecessary decadence: the kind of women who frequent these places at noon on a weekday are the kind of women who set their hair, wear stockings in warm weather, memorize the phone number for their Clinique consultant. The kind of women the world isn’t made for anymore—the aging bombshell. I think what I found most amusing about these powder rooms (and the department stores in which they appear) is their stubborn commitment to panache in a world where their existence is increasingly obsolete.

Initially, I thought the elixir that helped coax me out of my very sad place was the department store itself. However, upon closer inspection, it was the simple ritual of leaving the house and people-watching that became the reason for the ritual. Watching these women shop for perfume, or try on gloves, or hold gowns up against themselves in the mirrors was stupid, sure, but it got me out of my head. It provided a concrete thing to focus on besides how hopeless I felt.

With depression and mental illness, it’s important to bring awareness back into the body. Sounds very New-Agey and obnoxious, maybe, but it’s just about not letting your brain run away from you with worry and self-hatred. Going people-watching in places like department stores or libraries helps me stop freaking out about perceived shortcomings and turn my focus towards the external world.

I don’t want this article to end in a cute pink-bow, where I tell you that going to the department store and watching old women buy Chanel No. 5 magically cured my depression.

That isn’t what happened. What happened was that this small, insignificant ritual helped me through the winter, but then I got a job, so I went to the department store less. And then I got a better job. And then I moved away.

And I still have depression.

But even so, there was— and continues to be— a real comfort in going out and observing in the world. The department store was just the vehicle. The whole endeavor taught me that despite my neuroses, despite my depression, I do not exist in a vacuum. I am one of many in this weird hive, where everyone’s a little unsure, a little nervous, holding out for honey.

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