Saturday, May 11, 2013

Abercrombie & Fitch: Unattractive Kids “Can’t Belong”

This graphic has been making the rounds on Facebook and the Web over the last few days:

I don’t know about you, but I’m troubled by the exclusionary attitude expressed by Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries.* “A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong.” Seriously? A&F is only going after the “cool kids” and the “attractive all-American kid”? And just what does that mean?

Let’s imagine that, instead of talking about “cool kids” or “all-American kids”, Jeffries spoke instead of “white kids”. Would you be troubled then? Or if his quotation had been that “black people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong”… Would that trouble you? Of course it would. So query just what an “attractive all-American kid” is? Is that sort of like Sarah Palin’s “real America” where certain categories of people are excluded?

When I do a Google image search for Abercrombie Fitch Models (models are what the retailer calls their in-store employees), I don’t see many African Americans, Latinos, or Asians. But I do see a lot of white guys and girls. Is that what Jeffries means when he talks about an “attractive all-American kid”? Just look at the plastic surgery that he’s had; the “ideal” into which he’s tried to transform himself…

And even if he’s not talking race or ethnicity, he is talking weight and appearance. Can an unattractive kid also be “all-American” or is that reserved for the attractive kids? Perhaps even more importantly, can someone who isn’t a muscle-bound guy or a size 2 girl be considered attractive? Or, in the Abercrombie & Fitch world, do a few extra pounds or the type of body that isn’t found outside the pages of a fashion magazine disqualify someone from being “attractive” or “all-American”?

Now, I do recognize that one aspect of this argument can break down if taken too far. For example, I don’t think that we would be dismayed by a sporting goods retailer saying that they were targeting athletes; then again, I don’t think a store like Dick’s Sporting Goods would say that non-athletes “can’t belong”. Rather, I suspect that a store like Dick’s would welcome to opportunity to help transform a non-athlete into an athlete.

I guess the real problem that I have here is that we know that we live in a society that is overly image conscious. And who is most impacted by that? I’d guess teens — the very clientele attracted to Abercrombie, some of who are being told that they “can’t belong”. Should a girl with a few extra pounds develop an eating disorder in order to dress like the “cool kids”? Or should a boy who is more of an academic and less of a jock, perhaps with a little teen acne, just resolve to live a life where he knows that he “can’t belong” because he can’t press 250 pounds?

Are those the sorts of messages that we want to send to our kids?

It’s bad enough that Abercrombie & Fitch’s adds are almost soft core porn. But when you add to the images of those bare-chested models the suggestion that only people who look like those models are “worthy” of shopping at the store, then we’ve crossed over a line into something … well, dangerous to our kids.

It’s not just bullying that leads teens to depression and suicide. Being on “the outside” can be devastating to a teen’s developing persona. And here we have a multi-billion dollar company not just perpetuating body image stereotypes but going further and saying that those who can’t meet certain standards “can’t belong”. If you’re fat, go to Dress Barn and live your life as an unpopular cow. If you’re not “cool”, go shop at Walmart or Goodwill. Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t think that you’re a part of the “all-American” society.

I don’t think that a boycott of Abercrombie will do much good. Their marketing is tied directly to their products and business plan. So what can people do? Well, I suppose that “ugly” people who might not match the “all-American” ideal could start hanging out in Abercrombie stores or “proudly” wearing Abercrombie apparel in an effort to make it “not cool”. But that doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. But I think that I have a three-step idea that just might put some pressure on the company:

  • When you see an Abercrombie & Fitch add in a newspaper or magazine, write to the editor and suggest that they not accept ads from Abercrombie & Fitch anymore. Ask the editor if they’d accept advertising from a company that espoused open racism or sexism and suggest that advertising from a company that says that certain people “can’t belong” is equally damaging to our society.
  • Shop at other stores … but do something else, too. When you buy something at one of those other stores, be sure to tell the employees that you’ve purposefully made the decision to shop at that store instead of Abercrombie because of its exclusionary worldview. If stores start to hear that inclusion is valuable it will become something to strive for and Abercrombie will be left out.
  • Finally, ask the owners of the malls in which Abercrombie’s stores are located why they continue to permit that sort of company in their buildings. Again, would they allow a store that espoused racism or some other form of bigotry? Tell the mall owners that you might choose to boycott, not Abercrombie, but the mall itself. Or, if you’re feeling particularly confrontational, get some of your unattractive non-all-American friends together and try picketing on the outside of the mall. Those sorts of activities will make the mall owners very uncomfortable.

If you do find yourself at an Abercrombie & Fitch store, don’t remain silent. Tell the “models” what you think of their CEO’s exclusionary comments. Be sure that they know that it’s not acceptable. Be polite. But be firm. And leave. Without spending your money.

We can’t make everyone feel good about themselves. But we don’t need to tolerate a business that chooses to succeed by making some people feel bad about themselves, especially teens and especially teens who may already have low self-confidence or image issues.

We strive to live by the notion that “all men are created equal”; so do we really want to reward a store that thinks only “attractive all-American” kids belong?


*And yes, I know that at least part of this quotation was from back in 2006, but that it's just now gone viral.

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3 Comments:

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