Abercrombie & Fitch: Who’s REALLY Uncool?

“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, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” — Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch

Teens should be told that they are beautiful, inside and out.

All teens should be told that they are beautiful, inside & out.

What teen feels “cool?” I’m fairly sure it’s the rare adult who looks back on their teen years, recalling confidence. I sure as heck wasn’t one of them.

I was 16 when a pair of hip modeling agents saw something in me I didn’t. From my first time before the camera, staring into what I lovingly coined the “beautiful black hole,” I seemed to morph into someone else—someone self-assured, pretty and Don’t mess with me-skilled. Afterward, I held my breath, awaiting dreaded feedback: You’re overweight, not pretty enough, too curvy in all the wrong places. When several meetings and shoots passed by with no mention of my size, I wondered for the first time if the notions I’d long held about my body were false. With the breath of one sentence, everything changed.

Following what had seemed a glorious shoot with a renowned Los Angeles photographer (I’ll call him “Gregor”), I laid on the ground, poised for that beloved black hole. Gregor lowered his camera, looked me in the eyes and said, “You could be working in Paris, if you lost ten or fifteen pounds.” The words felt like bricks to my stomach. Repulsion washed through me like sudden onset malaise. I wasn’t okay! My “fatness” was real.

My disgust rapidly transformed into motivation. Nothing would stop me, I decided. And nothing did, until countless shoots and weight loss tactics later, I lost consciousness while running toward the Seine in Paris, my heart and body too weak to carry on.

When I read of Jeffries’ remarks, his plot to keep the “uncool” (commercially unattractive) kids out of his stores, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’s become other individuals’ Gregor—confirming the belief that body shape, size and appearance determine whether one is embraceable or not, and that anyone larger than lithe is unsightly. I wish I could reach through the internet waves and hug every teen who feels unworthy, ensuring them that that is not the case: YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, AND OKAY—MORE THAN OKAY—PRECISELY AS YOU ARE. ♥

One of my last modeling castings, post-recovery, was for Abercrombie & Fitch. Upon arrival, I learned that they were seeking “attractive” people to walk around their store—illustrating the consumer type they hoped to attract. I wish I could say that I was so disgusted that I rushed out and alerted the press, but I wasn’t. Presenting an “ideal” image for others to admire and aim for is what models do. I found the notion bothersome, but more so, boring. For both reasons, I turned the job offer down.

Last week, 18-year-old Benjamin O’ Keefe displayed the courage and wherewithal I lacked. In response to Jeffries’ remarks, the teen, who overcame an eating disorder and depression, started a petition, beckoning others to boycott the trendy store.

“Instead of inspiring young people to make healthy choices and better themselves, Mike Jeffries and his company has told them they will never be good enough. Well, he is wrong.” — Benjamin O’ Keefe

The National Eating Disorders Association learned of O’Keefe’s efforts, and has joined forces. I had the privilege of discussing the Abercrombie & Fitch ordeal with Lynn Grefe, NEDA’s president and CEO, last week. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

AM: Critics of the outcry against Abercrombie & Fitch claim that there’s nothing wrong with a company targeting a particular group in the name of prestige and profit. How is it different from, say, a plus-size store targeting larger consumers?

LG: I’ve never heard of a store that says, ‘We don’t want ugly or fat people coming in our store.’ And that is basically what he said. There is no problem with targeting consumers, such as plus-sized models, but to actually discriminate and say, ‘We don’t even want those people in our store, who don’t fit in our clothes, and aren’t pretty and attractive?’ It’s terrible.

AM: You’ve described Jeffries’ marketing ploys as bigotry. What do you mean?

LG: I have it right here! Bigotry is ‘the state of a mind of a bigot, someone who treats other people with hatred, contempt and intolerance.’ That’s intolerance, to say that we only want pretty people, small people. They are teaching kids how to discriminate, how to body shame, how to make other people feel bad—hopefully inadvertently, but they are doing it.

AM: I’m glad you brought up the age issue, because it’s such a vulnerable age already.

LG: It is a vulnerable age! Nobody wants to be body shamed. Right now weight bias is significant in this country… To do this with children, and they know that they are appealing to children, is just awful.

AM: What are the repercussions of weight bias?

LG: It absolutely leads to poor self esteem and poor body image, and can lead to eating disorders. When you are body shamed and told that you are no good, it causes many people to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

AM: Tell us about the campaign to boycott Abercrombie & Fitch.

LG: Benjamin O’ Keefe created a petition through Change.org. He was willing to speak out, and we’re on top of it with him. We really support and applaud him. Beyond the petition, we’re pushing out a campaign targeting parents, as much as anything. For an awful lot of these kids, it’s the parents’ credit card. Why would parents want to support this kind of discrimination?

Boycott Abercrombie

AM: A friend suggested to me that by speaking out against Jeffries, we’re supporting him—giving him free publicity.

LG: I think that people should be called out and shamed if they’re doing something that can hurt young people. People can buy what they want to buy, do what they want to do. I guess if this makes people want to shop there more, we didn’t do our job. But I don’t think we can ignore it. We don’t stand by and say it’s no big deal.

AM: What can we do to make a positive difference?

LG: I keep saying, ‘Be more concerned about the size of our hearts than the size of our hips.’ I really think if we could live that way, let people breathe and not feel like they’re under a microscope, it would make a huge difference.

To support O’ Keefe and NEDA’s efforts to make the world a happier, healthier place, sign the Boycott Abercrombie & Fitch petition. Show your support on Twitter by sharing this post, O’ Keefe’s post and/or the petition, using the hashtag #BoycottAbercrombie. For support regarding disordered eating thoughts or behaviors, call NEDA’s helpline: (800) 931-2237.

How do you feel about Mike Jeffries’ remarks? How about Benjamin O’ Keefe’s activism? Will they alter your shopping habits? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Leave a comment

46 Comments

  1. Great article. I just went over and signed the petition. I urge people to create an account and change your account settings to private. That is the place where you can delete mailings, if you aren’t interested in receiving them. So glad you got involved with this, August!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the tips, Renee, and for bringing light to this issue on Facebook. You rock!

      Reply
    • Renee – Change your settings on Change.org? Great news!
      August – I also tweeted, FB’d and signed the petition on Change.org. It’s important to send positive messages to our teens.

      Reply
  2. I was at the mall on Saturday night, and it was relatively crowded, or as crowded as brick-and-mortar retail places get these days, I think (we were there only because an 8:00 movie sold out and we had to wait around for a later showing). And as far as I could tell (from passing by at a safe distance, because yuck), there wasn’t a single non-payroll soul in A&F. I chose to interpret that as a hopeful sign, that Jeffries’ remarks are having the kind of effect (at least temporarily) that they SHOULD have, rather than the dumb luck it almost certainly was.

    This is great, and NEDA is a great organization. I bet Benjamin would be a really interesting interview, too… 😉

    Reply
  3. This is really great. I’m disgusted by what A&F is doing, and would think being so blatantly about finding certain types of people is more of a turn off and the opposite of “authentic” -something I think most people look for in a brand. Why would a teen want to be even be one of their fabricated clones? I love what Benjamin is doing and will sign. thanks for letting us know about it.

    Reply
    • Excellent point, Robin. Aiming for authenticity is so much more attractive and “cool” than wearing pricy, replicas—if we even fit into them! Thanks so much for the support.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for sharing this, August!

    Reply
  5. Signed and tweeted. No doubt Jeffries believes any publicity is good publicity, but in this case I think it will backfire. His message is so filled with smarmy self-obsession, it’s hard to believe anyone will buy into his philosophy.

    Personally, when I see an A&F in the mall I cross to the other side to get away from the obnoxiousness. He and his kind are simply ugly on the inside–but it shows through the supposedly cool clothes.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much. I, too, have faith that his words will backfire. So many people are speaking up and binding together, and steering clear of A&F (as you are – groovy!). As disgusting as Jeffries has been, most of the reactions, I’ve found inspiring.

      Reply
  6. Catherine Johnson

     /  May 13, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this, August. Kids have enough to deal with.

    Reply
  7. Aino A Järvinen

     /  May 13, 2013

    Thank you for this post, August! We must break through the veil of advertising and release the blinding truth. We are never too old to be reprimanded for bad behavior. Shame! Shame on him!

    Reply
  8. You know, I used to look at those A&F men and sigh. You’ve got to admit they’re darn pretty. Now when I see anything A&F I’m disgusted. Nothing against those lovely men. They’re beautiful, but so is EVERYONE else in the world. “Going after the cool kids?!” Come on. That just turns my stomach.

    Reply
  9. Amen! We have got to speak up when people say and do crap like this. Kids are cruel enough and self-conscious enough as it is. We don’t need to be giving either of those tendencies more ammunition.

    Reply
  10. Excellent article, and I will definitely share. This is the LAST thing we need in a world that seems to look for an excuse to bully. Call me naive, but it’s simply unbelievable to me that this kind of attitude exists in a company that caters to a generation.

    Reply
  11. As someone who suffered from an eating disorder for years, I found A&F’s stance and statement really disturbing. That’s the kind of attitude that made me think I was fat and would never be attractive unless I lost enough weight to do damage to myself. I’m the same weight now as I was in high school when I thought I was fat and ugly, and looking at my body now, with the wisdom and confidence gained through experience, it makes me sad to see how I let the perception of what was “cool” affect me.

    Reply
  12. Signed and tweeted and shared and shouted loud and long. This man is not selling the American Dream. By his words he is selling every mother’s worst nightmare. Hopefully, his sales will take a dive and his shareholders with show him the door. Soon.

    Great post and interview, August.

    I’m proud to know you.

    Reply
  13. Laurie

     /  May 13, 2013

    Not only is Jeffries ugly on the outside, more importantly he is ugly on the inside as well……He clearly lacks sensitivity and empathy toward others. People like him are dangerous. and perpetuate the divide among us rather than help unite us all.

    Reply
  14. I don’t shop there for myself, but I have bought things for my nieces there in the past. After reading Jeffries’ remarks, I won’t any longer. Contrary to the old saying, words can indeed hurt, and they can trigger terrible self-esteem issues in those most vulnerable.

    Reply
  15. Having worked with kids for twenty years, I know how much they suffer from not feeling like they’re good enough, popular enough, skinny enough. I’ve seen kids with eating disorders and one in particular close to death. What Jeffries has done is unconscionable in my opinion. I’ve shared. Will tweet and sign the petition. Thank you for speaking out, August!

    Reply
  16. I signed the petition and started spreading the word (through Twitter, Facebook, and beyond). I would like to say I am surprised at this kind of talk, but I’m not.

    Reply
  17. I would boycott them, but they’d never notice, since I’ve never bought anything from them to start with. Besides, I’m sure no one my age would be cool enough to get in the front door.

    Reply
  18. My concerns are not merely of the appearance + size of people, but of their financial status. This store sells expensive clothing, and now they are telling kids whose parents are unable to afford such products that not only are they too ugly &/or fat to be cool, even if they get that stuff “under control” they’ll still never be cool anyway as they’ll never be able to shop there. Popularity is not only about appearance, you guys — except insofar as what one can afford in attempting to make that appearance more appealing. Poor kids have it rough enough without this kind of crap holding them down. And yeah, this is coming from an ugly, fat, poor chick. So maybe I’m a little biased. Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll feel the burn. It’s taken me till my mid-THIRTIES to shake off other people’s opinions, and now this rich but ugly guy is basically saying, “Well, if you only had money, kids, you could afford to be cool. Too bad. Stick to being ugly + fat + whatnot.” Blah. Maybe when I finally hit my forties this kind of garbage won’t both me anymore.

    Reply
  19. The waters of adolescence are hard enough to navigate w/o comments like this. Me doth think Mike Jeffries protest too much. Sounds like he’s the one grappling with past teenage inequalities.

    Reply
  20. What a brave and awesome post, August. Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I’ll be sharing this on Twitter/FB/LinkedIn. I’ve also signed the petition. It’s not much, but it’s something. I guess I should be grateful that my mom didn’t have the money for me to shop at most overpriced clothing boutiques.

    Reply
  21. Interesting to see this from the perspective of someone who has been on the inside. I really want to say to the guy in your boycott picture: “Hey, Boy, button your shirt. I’m not trying to impress you with my ‘coolness,’ however you define that. I’m just me, uncool as that may be.” (Incidentally, isn’t using a model like that feeding into the same damaging body image culture we’re supposedly protesting?) And if Abercrombie & Fitch made fat clothes, I still wouldn’t wear them, unless I found something that fit absolutely perfectly and I got it real cheap, at a second hand store, and even then I’d think twice. No boycott necessary. Hey, I’m fat and old, so who cares what I think. Maybe it matters that my teenage daughters feel the same (not about me being fat and old, but all the other stuff…). I hope they can influence their peers to recognize that a person’s value is intrinsic, not relative, and certainly not dependent on their body shape or where they buy their clothes.

    Reply
  22. Raani York

     /  May 13, 2013

    Being born with no thyroid gland which caused me weight problems from the moment I turned into a woman I know how it is to be called “fat and ugly”… sometimes I still hear it!!
    It’s only a few years back I walked into an English shop at London Heathrow… I couldn’t even really check on the clothes when a sales woman walked over to me, took my arm and tried to get me out of the door telling me that she’s convinced I won’t find anything at their store. “We don’t have clothing in your size.”
    Holy cow… I freaked out… I just wrote down her name – visibly into a little paper pad, walked over to the front desk, took a business card and while turning to her I promised her she’ll hear from me.
    Then I wrote to their CEO.

    Not even 10 days later I got packet with a letter, signed by him, with a HUGE apology and a $400 purse.

    I appreciated the effort, really… but to be honest: I’m not really sure $400 can fix the pain she’s inflicted…
    I sold the purse by the way… *sigh*

    Reply
  23. The downside to this is Abercrombie and Fitch got a boatload of free press out of this

    Reply
    • Hmm, free press isn’t always good. For every teen who thinks they belong in that “cool” group and starts shopping at A&F, there will be two dozen parents saying to their teens, “Nope, you can shop anywhere BUT there for your clothes.”

      Reply
  24. Incredibly well written post, August! I am so proud of Benjamin and the way he got involved.

    It’s funny, I was just watching old family videos and was laughing at how “unattractive” I looked growing up. Big teeth, braces, cowlicks in my hair. And I never owned name brand clothes. But that’s not what I remembered about school. I remember being really involved with extracurricular groups, having amazing friends and laughing with them, being mentored by my teachers, and making my parents proud. So, while there may have been days where I wished I could dress better/look better, it was never what counted or was remembered. That makes me happy.

    Reply
  25. My favorite words in this entire post? “Be more concerned about the size of our hearts than the size of our hips.”

    That doesn’t mean I ignore healthy eating, exercise, and strive to look my best. But, I never had, nor will I ever have, the “cool girl” look. Body image, and self-esteem issues haunted me from my early teens until I found serenity through recovery from another addiction.

    Why would a retailer add to the unwarranted angst many teens already bring on themselves?

    With so many stories about teens committing suicide because of cyber or on-site bullying, I can’t fathom why a humane adult would advocate discriminating against less-than-perfect target clientele.

    Would I boycott A&F based on their biased and non-inclusive marketing policy? You betcha!

    Great post.

    Reply
    • I love what Lynn said there, too, Gloria. Teens, and many of us, “bully” ourselves enough as it is! Thanks for the support, beauty! (And I mean that in the fullest inner + outer sense. :))

      Reply
  26. Kourtney Heintz

     /  May 14, 2013

    Thanks for shining more light on this issue August! 🙂 I think a designer can design for a certain ascetic or body type. But to show so much dislike/hostility towards a group of people based on their appearance is not acceptable. And to actively discourage them from entering his store is really reprehensible.

    Reply
  27. A&F is a store I’ve never, ever shopped in…because it was obvious to me even from the doorway that I was not someone they wanted to take money from. It always astounds me when a business chooses to turn away money…but to each their own I suppose. I don’t mind someone targeting a specific audience, but I do mind the mean girls type attitude that went with it. They won’t ever get any money from me…and I do buy for people who fit their criteria. Bite me, I say lol

    Reply
  28. Excellent interview and post August! You know, it’s one thing for a business to target or cater to a certain group of individuals. That’s their prerogative. But there’s something really tacky, wrong or should I say inhuman about A&F’s approach. You almost want to ask, “What was this man thinking?” Obviously NOT. What goes around, comes around. The man’s remarks are going to wind up biting him in the butt.

    Reply
  29. K

     /  May 15, 2013

    Thank you for your discussion on this topic. I struggle with trying to teach my children to embrace who they are–no matter what size or shape they embody. I look forward to having them read your words. Thanks for raising your voice and supporting others who are raising their voices.

    Reply
  30. Here’s the interesting thing about A&F ~ my sister always, and I mean always insisted her two boys wore A&F clothing. So, being younger I figured it was a good brand, etc and tried to take my daughter there probably 8 years or so ago. She was like, ‘No way mom. Do you even know the kind of kids who wear this stuff? It’s so not me.’ Then we went to the thrift store and spent probably $25 for an entire wardrobe. She totally rocks. That’s when I first had a hard lesson on what the ‘cool’ kids were wearing. I had no idea it was this heinous, though, or that Jeffries’ attitude toward kids was this twisted.

    Thanks for sharing Benjamin’s campaign. I hadn’t heard about that and will happily spread the word as well as sign the petition.

    Reply
  31. I think this comment about sums it up –
    “AM: A friend suggested to me that by speaking out against Jeffries, we’re supporting him—giving him free publicity.

    LG: I think that people should be called out and shamed if they’re doing something that can hurt young people. People can buy what they want to buy, do what they want to do. I guess if this makes people want to shop there more, we didn’t do our job. But I don’t think we can ignore it. We don’t stand by and say it’s no big deal.”

    It seems to me that Lynn understands that the boycott will only give more publicity to A & F.

    Of course, you can’t really say “boycott A & F by ignoring it, that would still bring publicity to A & F.

    I work in a middle school, have done so for about seven years. I’m not trying to be cynical here, but MOST kids (especially the fat /ugly ones) will love the store even more so because they’ll be leaf to believe that, by wearing these clothes, they will distance themselves from the fat/ugly kids.

    The kids who are not part of MOST are the ones with enough confidence to “move to the beat of their own drum .”

    Reply
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