Bikini brouhaha

By Mark Baker | Awards, Local News | |
Sandy McMillin, 51, right, and her sister Karla Vogt recount their experience being asked to leave a Walmart last Sunday because of McMillin's appearence. (Ivar Vong/The Register-Guard)

Sandy McMillin, 51, right, and her sister Karla Vogt recount their experience being asked to leave a Walmart last Sunday because of McMillin’s appearence. (Ivar Vong/The Register-Guard)

You can buy it there — just don’t return while wearing it.

That’s just one message Sandy McMillin feels she received from the West 11th Avenue Wal-Mart store after she said she was told while shopping there Sunday to put on some more clothes or leave.

The 51-year-old Alvadore woman was wearing a baby blue bikini top and matching “hot pants” shorts (over black bicycle shorts) that she said she bought from the very same Wal-Mart a year ago.

She was shopping Sunday with her sister, Karla Vogt. They were there to pick up some groceries but first made a beeline for the clothing section, where the bald and heavily tattooed McMillin was admiring some pink shorts similar to the ones she was wearing when Vogt was approached by a Wal-Mart employee, according to the sisters.

“ ‘Excuse me,’ ” Vogt, 39, recalls the employee saying to McMillin. “ ‘Ma’am, you’re going to have to put on a shirt or leave.’ ”

The sisters said they asked why and that the employee said McMillin’s state of dress made her a health hazard per state food handler regulations, since the store sells food.

The sisters say they were baffled since they were standing in the clothing section.

“I’m not serving (food),” McMillin said she told the employee. “I’m not selling food, so I’m safe.”

But a spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart corporation said Tuesday that McMillin was asked to put a shirt on over her bikini top because of complaints from other shoppers, not because of any concerns over health regulations. Also, McMillin was not asked to leave the store, spokeswoman Ashley Hardie said.

Wal-Mart has no dress code policy for customers, Hardie said. Customers can wear anything they like as long as it doesn’t bother other customers, she said. “We aim to make sure all our customers have a pleasant shopping experience,” she said.

McMillin, who said she is consulting with her Eugene attorney, George Derr, about a possible lawsuit, believes she was asked to put on a shirt over her bikini top for two reasons: “Because I’m disabled,” she said. “(And) I’m not a skinny, mini miss thing, and I have that middle-age spread.”

McMillin, who said she used to race three-wheeled motorcycles at drag strips around the country, walks with a cane because of injuries sustained in three motorcycle crashes over the years, the most recent on Clear Lake Road in 2008, she said. She wears a brace on her left leg because of severe damage to her surgically repaired left knee, and she keeps her head shaved because it’s easier to care for after traumatic brain injuries sustained in a couple of the crashes. The brain injuries are why she speaks with a slight slur, she said.

Vogt lives with her sister and helps her, since McMillin cannot shower or dress herself.

McMillin said her husband, Jim McMillin, was killed in a motorcycle crash on a Texas highway in 2006.

McMillin said she is also a longtime sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis, which has left her unable to work since her 30s.

“I’m not asking for special favors,” McMillin said. “Just because someone is disabled, or looks differently, we should all be treated the same. God made us all in his unique image.”

Derr said he doesn’t have enough information yet to determine if McMillin has enough of a case to file a lawsuit, but he did say he’s less concerned about her possibly being mistreated for her appearance — though it was an embarrassing experience for her — than about McMillin possibly being mistreated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The sisters say that after they refused to leave the store Sunday, they were escorted out by the female employee who first approached them, while a male employee called for assistance. If they refused to leave, the police would be called, the sisters say they were told.

But Hardie, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said that was not the case. She said McMillin and her sister could have remained in the store if they’d chosen to stay.

After they returned home to Alvadore, just northwest of Eugene, McMillin said she called the store and asked for a manager. Instead, she got an assistant manager. McMillin said she described the incident, and the assistant manager said she’d look into it and call her back, but never did.

She has done her grocery shopping at the store about once a week since it opened nine years ago, and she dressed similarly in the summertime but had never before been asked to put on more clothes, McMillin said. She said she saw others in tank tops there Sunday “with armpits exposed,” and has seen younger women wearing bikini tops there plenty of times.

The sisters say they saw teenage girls at the same Wal-Mart store just last week wearing bikinis.

“They weren’t asked to leave,” Vogt said. “So come on, what’s up?”

Several women could be seen shopping at the store Tuesday afternoon wearing tank tops, but none was spotted in bikini tops.

Asked if she’ll return to the West 11th Avenue Wal-Mart, McMillin said: “Probably not. I’ll deal with (the Wal-Mart on) Green Acres (Road).”

First place award for best short feature story in the 2012 Society of Professional Journalists’ Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest.