Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) and its subsidiaries, Abercrombie Kids, Hollister and Gilly Hicks are both popular brands among teens and young adults. However, the retailer only provides their clothing up to a size 10. Comments made by the CEO of A&F, Mike Jeffries, from an interview with Salon in 2006 and were recently brought back into the public spotlight and have created a large amount of controversy. Jeffries stated,
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all- American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. (Denizet, Lewis, Benoit.)”
The quote has incited outrage and a wide range of responses. One of the most prominent comes from Benjamin O’Keefe, a teen from Orlando, Florida who created a petition on Change.org calling for A&F to begin carrying XL, XXL, and sizes above size 10 in their stores. The teen states that this type of exclusionary practice was one of the contributing factors in an eating disorder he battled for several years, and that it only serves to promote poor body image (O’Keefe, Benjamin).
Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has joined with O’Keefe calling these comment “body shaming” and encouraged shoppers to boycott A&F (Flaherty, Maggie). A protest sponsored by NEDA was scheduled to take place outside A&F headquarters and one of their retail stores in Ohio on May 20, 2013.
However, A&F executives have agreed to meet with O’Keefe and NEDA, and Jeffries issued an apology on May 16, 2013 stating,
“While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics (Fairchild, Caroline)”
The protests have since been called off. However, the comments which have surfaced only lack the last few lines from the original comment which state, “Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny.” These lines do not add much “context” for why Jeffries believes those who are size 10 and under should be the only customers who are able to aspire to the popularity and “All American, cool kid” idea A&F is selling.
Others have come up with their own protests. Jes Baker, a blogger has created a series of sexualized black and white images which parody A&F print ads in which she renames A&F as “Attractive & Fat”. Baker says she hopes that this controversy can be an opportunity for social change. However, she also criticizes Jeffries and his apology, stating that his comments only reinforce “the unoriginal concept that fat women are social failures, valueless, and undesirable (Baker, Jes).”
Another reaction comes from Greg Karber who created a video on YouTube in which he buys A&F clothing from a thrift store and distributes it the homeless in Los Angeles’ skid row in the hopes of rebranding A&F as #1 in homeless apparel. He encourages the public to donate their A&F clothing to the homeless as well and created the Twitter hashtag #Fitchthehomeless (Karber, Greg).
While this response is well intentioned, it suffers from the same ills as Jeffries comments. It singles out a group of people who are branded as not being “All American” or “cool” and were only singled out to anger Abercrombie and Fitch because they are viewed as an underdesireable section of the population. Instead of further alienating and hurting people, reactions should call for a change that uplifts and promotes self-esteem rather than more shame.
Jeffries’ 2006 comments have been met with public outrage and his apology has not quelled this anger by any means. The attitudes which are portrayed in this comment are harmful to the very section of the population which A&F markets to. The message here is that one can only be popular if their body is a certain size and that their self-worth and worth as a friend or romantic partner is tied up in their ability to fit into A&F clothes. Those teens and young adults who do not fit into these sizes may develop shame about their bodies even though they are perfectly healthy and represent the average American. Teens, who are desperate to fit in and are highly socially motivated, may resort to extreme measures to fit into A&F’s clothing such as developing disordered and restrictive eating habits, purging or exercising obsessively and excessively. If they cannot reach this goal, they may cope with their “failure” with actions of self-harm or even suicide. Jeffries, whether he likes it or not, is positioned to decide who can be the “all American cool kid”. He can decide to expand his definition to include all kids, or at least kids who are of average size.
A&F executives at the time of this writing are agreeing to meet with representatives of NEDA. It is hoped that their policies will change after this meeting and that they will understand the huge impact they can have on the social climate of teens. However, his apology does not evidence that any of the feedback has altered his business practices. If Jeffries’ meeting with NEDA does not result in a change in their policies, which include hiring only “attractive” employees to serve as models (who therefore would risk their job if their bodies became unable to wear A&F clothing), then the public must send a message with their wallets.
Other retailers offer clothing in a wider variety of sizes. Retailer, H&M currently uses plus size model, Jennie Runk, who is a size 12 as the face of their entire line of swim wear, plus size or not (Sun, FeiFei). Retailers who promote healthy body image should be lauded and the wallets of the people should also support such retailers, not companies whose business practices promote body shame and are unfazed by the possible destructive outcomes of such practices.