Self-worth does not come from your jeans

You know how everyone has a topic of conversation that, if raised at dinner, will set their blood pressure skyrocketing, make their hackles rise, and will ensure that they manhandle the conversation for as long as feasibly possible before someone else wisely switches it?  I have a few.  My friends know to avoid them, unless they’re in the market for sitting back and eating popcorn whilst I rant.  My current #1 contender for a rage blackout is Abercrombie and Fitch.

Specifically, the ethos and hiring policies of A&F.

Every time I see a teenager on the Tube with one of those (really, really stupid) A&F bags with a picture of a man’s (very) chiselled torso emblazoned across it, I want to shake the kid.  I want to tell them the world isn’t like what’s in those stores.  That the world is so much better, more complex, more accepting than that.  I want to tell them that what they saw in that store…that’s the very worst of what can happen when one 69-year old CEO with the playground bitching mentality of an eight-year-old schoolgirl dreams up his vision of perfection and then markets it with terrifying consequences.

Mike Jeffries became CEO of A&F in 2002.  He is, to me, the prime example of a vile, insidious human being with the power of money, creativity and daring behind him.  I want to make clear, I know that what Jeffries is doing is working.  There are articles everywhere about how the monetary value of A&F is falling – in fact, in the first quarter of this year A&F’s revenue fell 8.9% to $838.8 million.  I’m not an economist but that doesn’t look like a figure that will cause Jeffries sleepless nights.  Even if it is, no matter.  His policies and ethos are being bought.  Specifically, they’re being bought by teenagers and their parents.

His first real ethical “hitch” was in 2004, marketing thongs to girls ages 11-14.  Not footwear.  Underwear.  With the slogans “Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink” printed on the front.  Everyone’s got their own views about sexualising little girls – I know it’s happening earlier and earlier – but the fact remains  that the act of wearing that underwear sends the signal that it could be a message for someone…even if no-one else ever sees it. It could be message for someone.  It plants the idea that someone COULD see that message, someday.  And, Jeffries, to argue that those are simply “cute underwear for little girls” and that “just don’t let your [kid] hang out with a bunch of old pervs” without giving any validation to the lobbyists is at best, ignorant, at worst, irresponsible.

Then of course in 2004, A&F paid $40 million to settle in a lawsuit brought by ethnic minority employees who claimed they were either forced to work away from the shop floor or denied employment, so they wouldn’t be seen by customers.  This forced Jeffries to sort out his racially-based recruitment policies.  Not that he ever, ever should have had to, but I’d almost give him a reluctant high five, if he hadn’t subsequently pointed out that now, “ if you go into our stores you see great-looking kids of all races.”

Well done for entirely missing the point.

I’d  hoped this “great-looking” kids meant something other than er…hot.  Perhaps Jeffries means kids that are eager? Bright?  Kids who aren’t conventionally attractive but are incredibly beautiful for a whole host of other reasons?  Stop that thought right there.   In a (fascinating) 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries makes abundantly clear that his business was built around sex appeal.

“It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that…In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids….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.”

Image from The Militant Baker

The farce that is the A&F recruitment policy rumbles on.   And of course, the numerous legal battles Jeffries and his cronies have had to fight because, surprisingly, being hidden away in a stockroom because your prosthetic arm doesn’t fit in with A&F’s “look policy” isn’t something people are willing to accept, not these days.  Or, to be fair to A&F, it was more that Riam Dean displaying  ”the link between her prosthesis and upper arm” was unacceptable, but then, so was wearing a cardigan on the shop floor to hide it.  So, disabled lady, off to the stockroom with you.  You might upset the customers.  Dean’s quote remains one of my favourites in this whole debacle:

“I am born with a character trait I am unable to change, thus to be singled out for a minor aesthetic ‘flaw’ made me question my worth as a human being.  Abercrombie taught me that beauty lies in perfection, but I would tell them that beauty lies in diversity, for I would rather live with my imperfection than to exude such ugliness in their blatant display of eugenics in policies and practices.”

This was in 2009.  Such practise is showing no signs of abating.

Now, I get that I’m not Jeffries’ ideal customer. I have a brain, I don’t tend to make men double-take on the street, and I’m not going to spend £80 on a tshirt, ever.  A few years ago I did, in the interests of research, go into the flagship London store just to see what it was like.  Well, Mr K dragged me in there because he thought I’d think it was funny.  I came out filled with fire and righteous indignation.  Greeting customers, at the door, is an eighteen-year-old with his tshirt off. There are a queue of girls waiting to have their picture taken with his ridiculous abs.  Holding their A&F bags.  Once you elbow your way past this shambles of an entrance you then descend into what I can only describe as a fetid pit of consumerism, where sex sells.  To teenagers.  Dance music blares, the whole place reeks of aftershave, and three girls in hotpants and bras writhe around on a balcony overlooking the store.  The clothes are piled high on mahogany desks, the aisles are infested with coltish limbs and beefy biceps.  I asked a tall, blonde girl perched on the side of a display table the price of a jumper.  ”Oh, I don’t do the prices”, she responded in monotone.   “What is your job?” I asked politely.  ”I just sit here” she replied.

You can’t see anything, either, by the way.  The lighting is low and, I assume, designed both to emulate a nightclub but also to hide any of their customers’ flaws.  However, the atrocious lighting was my favourite part of the whole experience.

Now, A&F aren’t marketing to me, and aren’t going to give two hoots that I found it vile and degrading.   They’ve done their research, and that experience may well be what your average 17-year old wants to content with when shopping with friends.   It’s not the “fun” aspect that’s the problem.

That Salon article goes on to comment on Jeffries’ chilling ethos more eloquently than I ever could: “[Jeffries'] biggest obsession, though, is realizing his singular vision of idealized all-American youth. He wants desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), and in that pursuit he has aggressively transformed himself from a classically handsome man into a cartoonish physical specimen: dyed hair, perfectly white teeth, golden tan, bulging biceps, wrinkle-free face, and big, Angelina Jolie lips. But while he can’t turn back the clock, he can — and has — done the next best thing, creating a parallel universe of beauty and exclusivity where his attractions and obsessions have made him millions, shaped modern culture’s concepts of gender, masculinity and physical beauty, and made over himself and the world in his image, leaving them both just a little more bizarre than he found them.”

I don’t care what Jeffries looks like.  It’s  a free world, he can tart himself up all he wants.  I care that he says things like this: “I don’t want our core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing our clothing.”  I care that he’s using his considerable business talent to push a policy of exclusivity and beauty in a world where we’re only just beginning to treat kids who have faces and bodies anything different from “the norm”  as accepted.  And it’s not only the kids who don’t fit into the A&F army that I worry for.  Life will unfortunately throw them bigger curveballs than being told they can’t wear an overpriced hoodie because they have the audacity not to have a left leg.

It’s the kids that do fit in, that are deemed worthy of wearing the A&F brand that I think are in danger of being overlooked by this A&F farce.   Being told you have a place in the world because of how you look, being told you belong to part of a team because you’re skinny enough, because you’ve got all your limbs, because your hair is  glossy, because of something you were born with?  What is that teaching kids, really?  How is what you look like a valid criteria for giving someone a job?  I know this doesn’t apply to ALL of the A&F army, but how likely are those kids going to feel the need to strive, to achieve more, to become nurses, doctors, librarians, teachers?  How likely are they to learn that it’s your actions and your words that leave your mark in life?  How likely are those kids to promote a culture of acceptance, of equality, of understanding that beauty comes from flaws and that not fitting can be an incredible thing?  How likely are they going to want to listen to what the disabled, fat kid next door has to say when they’re taught that that kid will never be part of their world?

There are kids doing what they can to take a stand against A&F, and the stand has been powerful. People care, and the backlash is growing.  Whilst Jeffries and his cronies are doing everything they can to promote exclusion and self-doubt, parents over the world are trying to raise their kids to have some semblance of self-worth, one that does not come from what size or brand their jeans are.

That’s how we fight this.  And, of course, by never setting foot in one of those stores.  By never buying their stupid clothes.  By never fawning over their topless staff (this is me!  Next to a six-pack!”).   But mostly, by having to re-teach kids about being inclusive, about acceptance and about tolerance.

Categories: Body Image, Politics and Feminism, Written By Anna
26 interesting thoughts on this

26 Comments

  1. Becca @ 5 days
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Naked semi ‘model’ assistant : Can I help you maaaam?

    Me: Yes, you can switch on the bloody lights.

  2. Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Have you heard about this dudes private plane? It has the same rules as the stores – even enforced on the pilots!!!! Let me find you a link…

  3. Fee
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Anywhere that sells that kind if underwear for young girls should be roundly has chastised, in the most public manner possible. It is beyond belief.

    A&F has made me angry in general ever since one opened near where we live. For all of the reasons above, I think it’s ludicrous. I have two teenage brothers and am glad they have been teenagers during the ‘Glee’ era as acceptance and tolerance seem to be more common than they were in my teen time.

    The fact that companies are perpetuating the exclusion of anyone who is not their idea of perfect is something that I hope will make young people (and adults) vote with their feet and spread the message that this sort of behaviour by a retail chain is, quite frankly, bloody ridiculous.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      Fee that’s so interesting about Glee! I don’t really know any teenagers and had assumed things were probably worse now than when we were younger (when it was bad enough!)

      • Fee
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        According to my brothers, there’s definitely less stigma in being what is perceived as ‘geeky’ amongst the majority of their classmates. I think there’s always the bad apples but it sounds like there is a lot more acceptance than there was in my day.

        As an example, my youngest brother came out when he was 16 and has had no hassle from 99% of people he’s at school with. And the other 1% seem to get harangued for being intolerant by everyone else! I hope it’s a sign things are getting better.

  4. Kate G
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    YES YES YES to this!! Marketed “cool exclusivity” on appearance whether by images from trashy mags, to hair that isnt GH’D, to this all-emcompassing, disgusting A&C “ethos” makes my blood absolutely boil.

    Articulated with cutting precision Anna.

    “re-teach kids about being inclusive, about acceptance and about tolerance.” …AMEN to that.
    .

  5. Liz
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The largest size they is UK 14 and they keep these and the 12s on the highest shelf possible – way above the 10s, 8s, 6s, 4s and even 2s!! It’s a pretty clear message that you average girl is just not meant to shop there.

  6. Anon
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I know very few teenagers, bar a wonderful girl I used to babysit when she was a kid. Now 16 she falls square in the centre of the A&F target market of popular, blonde, pretty, skinny. Her main ambition is to model for A&F (or Hollister, Gilly Hicks etc etc) and her Facebook is crammed with pouty photos and provocative poses. Unsurprising to few, she has issues with food and anorexia since she was 11. Last year her best friend lost her battle with anorexia and killed herself. A&F might have this idea of the ‘in-crowd’ that all the kids want to be, but they don’t appear to ever stop and think about what the in-crowd kids might be going through to get their status, or the things they’ll do to stay there. It all makes me so sad. And so so angry.

  7. Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I can’t disagree with you at all, you’re so right. My youngest sister has recently turned 18 and I see her battle with her ‘image’ so much more than I did and I find that sad. Last year she was given a job in a clothes shop because she ‘had the right look’. I was not impressed…

  8. Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I love the fact the low lighting was the best part of the shop for you, Anna.

    I don’t know whether A&F are responsible for making the young beautiful people feel a sense of entitlement to success and happiness or whether that is there already in society and they are simply appealing to them and exploiting it. It’s probably a bit of both. Surely anyone with brain and beauty can see through this though?

    It’s encouraging to hear that the Glee subculture in some way counteracts this though.

    Long live the geeks!

  9. Posted June 17, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Here here, great feature.

    What a lunatic that man is – quite unnerving that he has managed to find himself in such a position of influence on impressionable young adults.

  10. Posted June 17, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    couldn’t agree more. I ashamedly have two A&F tee shirts i bought in NYC a few years ago, i just couldn’t wear them now. I saw a link on you tube to a guy giving all his A&F stuff to charity shops and homeless and urging people to do the same. I might just stick mine in the bin though.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Lauren, I was really close to writing about that in this post. The reason I didn’t was because that guy has actually come under fire from homeless charities because his position could be seen as “look everyone, let’s make a mockery of A&F and their ethos, by giving its clothes to homeless people, the lowest of the low, the very antithesis of what A&F stands for”. I still haven’t decided if I agree with that point of view. I don’t think that was the intention of the campaign at all.

      Use them as rags!

  11. Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I just agree wholeheartedly with this, it makes me rage. And as you say, it’s not just the outcasts and those who don’t fit the mould who concern me, but the people who do fit… how much PRESSURE are they under to stay perfect? Just the thought of it weighs me down. It’s criminal.

    And how dare A&F define people solely by their looks? How dare they tell young, talented, bright individuals that their entire worth to the world is the way they look and dress and the face they show? I want to stand outside A&F and tell everyone coming out holding a bag that they are worth MORE, that they are unique and valuable completely regardless of their face, or dress, or size. I know they’d think I was crazy, deluded and uncool and overweight but I want them to hear that message because it doesn’t get shouted about enough.

    KL x

  12. Lee-Anne
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    100% agree with everything you say Anna. I work with teenagers and it actually scares me to see how coveted one of the A&F bags are. I have had teens upset as they think they are not pretty/thin/cool enough to even go into an A&F shop and worry that if they do they will be made to feel ugly/fat/geeky.

  13. Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I thought I was done ranting in response to this but no… I’ve been thinking about this over lunch, and actually I went to a school where the cool kids were A&F kids. I’ve been that outcast, the uncool one, never quite fitting in, never quite right, not fitting the mould. And I’m now 27 and I still struggle with this, I still feel like a failure for being overweight, I still hate myself when I eat things I think l shouldn’t, because some rich white men told me so. It’s terrifying when you realise the scars that this attitude can inflict. They’re real, it’s not harmless consumerism or marketing, it’s vicious, and it serves no-one but those who orchestrate it.

    This has simultaneously made me want to cry and punch a wall. Or, you know, a certain someone’s head.

    KL x

    • Fee
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Well, having met you I can categorically say you are a better person that any fabricated A&F stereotype.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      I’ve met you and you are not overweight.

      • Posted June 17, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

        Thank you. I suppose I should have specified that I meant overweight by A&F standards! I think the issue is that most of my brain knows that I’m a perfectly reasonable size, but there’s a part that still remembers years spent ‘knowing’ the complete opposite. I think that’s what I mean when I say it’s damaging.

        K x

  14. Lottie
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Oh Anna-Thank you!

    I have obviously seen the Abercrombie marketing campaigns but really thought very little of them. I must admit I had no idea about any of these issues, apart from Riam Dean-who is an inspiration. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. What a vile character this man is!

    And hurrah for women like us who do not want young men and women pigeonholed, rejected and made to feel they need to be sexualised in this way. Childhood must be protected and young people need to be taught tolerance, acceptance and how to know when a big brand is trying to misguide them.What better way than to do this through our own actions, what better place to start than AOW.

    Well done!

  15. Leni
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Great piece Anna. Could not agree more. My tutor group are now 15. I have seen them twice a day, every (school) day since they were 11 and as Fee mentioned above I am incredibly proud of how accepting of difference the vast majority of them are. I remember explaining to my “popular” girls when they were in year 7 that one of their classmates did not always respond in the most thoughtful way as she has ASD and does not understand some of the subtlties of social interaction. Since that day 4 years ago they have never ignored her or mocked her and often take time to speak to her if she is on her own.
    These same lovely girls all carry their PE kits in the naked man A&F bags and are easily sucked into our local cave of a Hollister shop (The one time I went in it was so dark I nearly tripped over a waif of a shop assistant who was bent down replenishing the tiny vest top display.) They spend extortionate amounts of money on Gilly Hicks or Hollister clothes (who seem to have a monopoly of the 13-15 year old market) and believe that the A&F vision is what they should be aiming for. These are intelligent and talented young women and I hope, as they mature over the next few years, they will realise that wearing the exact same overpriced, tiny sized clothers as everyone else does not make you cool or stylish.

  16. ClaireH
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Fab post Anna – couldn’t agree more. One of my friends from home always wanted to go to the A and F store when she came to London…I couldn’t be bothered to begin to explain my objections to it and just went along with her (oh my god, the smell, you can smell it down the street!) but kind of wish I’d had that awkward conversation now.

    And as others have said above – I’m so glad there is this community of sane women who don’t think that people aren’t worth listening too if they’re not teeny-tiny with swishy hair

  17. Amanda M
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Oh hear, hear. FANTASTIC post.

  18. Posted June 18, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Skimmed this yesterday but didn’t get around to commenting. What a wonderful wonderful post Anna. Can’t believe what Jeffries said about ‘going after the cool kids’ and what a shallow thing ‘coolness’ is for him.

    I own an A&F hoodie -bought several years ago in San Francisco because I went completely unprepared for how cold it is there in September and this was the closest thing I could find to the hotel. At the time I knew nothing about the brand and remember being very surprised by the bag with the semi naked model on it… I feel like burning the hoodie now.

  19. Sarah
    Posted June 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Love this post! I popped into Hollister on 5th Avenue with my now husband a couple of years ago because they had a water feature outside and air conditioning and it was hot. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, well I say seeing but that would imply there was light! It was the strangest experience we had in New York and my husband is still traumatised – he brings it up now and then.

    But is it only when it’s spelt out for us, when the people modelling are in the store, that we draw the line? Because almost every single high street store targeting teenagers does exactly the same thing with their cool shop layouts, tiny mannequins with the clothes pinned at the back and publicity shots of ‘perfect’ models.

    I felt the same way about my local Miss Selfridge store when I was a self-conscious 13 year old. When all the staff wore Miss Selfridge products and wore loads of makeup and had funky hair, and they played loud music, and they didn’t have anything bigger than a size 12 – which was an issue because I was a size 12/14 and their clothes were always smaller than other shops – and they only sold high-heeled shoes and hotpants and t-shirts with sexy slogans, and none of those suit me. I dreaded it when my friends wanted to go there.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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