For the past few days, I haven’t been able to skim the headlines without hearing a regrettable single from 1999. I was planning on posting a link to the video here, but after enduring it myself I’ve decided that would be CULMLR (Cruel and Unusual Last Millennium Lowlight Rehash). It’s that diddy by the Lyte Funky Ones, describing attraction through clothing purchases. “I like girls who wear Abercrombie and Fitch.” Back when this song came out, we all knew exactly what kind of girls were being described—or more importantly, who was being left out.
When I was in my early teens, these girls were the slender, self-aware fashion followers who kept us all in check with their clone-like ability to mass-personify the class superficial ideal. They wore matching pairs of Abercrombie and Fitch jeans and Jansport backpacks in primary color shades of nylon. Their palms perpetually clutched unclasped green Cover Girl pressed powder compacts, like their own personal Venus clam shells. At lunch their narrow backs formed a wall of breezy plaid cotton, which they layered over tees. I was still a decade away from mastering a layer. To dress like them was to be labeled a poseur; to march off to your own drum meant being a weirdo. Pick your label.
In case any doubt lingers over who these Abercrombie girls (and guys) are, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries has made recent headlines for clearing the air on who is and who isn’t wanted in his stores:
“In every school there are the cool kids 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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla.”
Young and old are immovable realities, but A&F’s “fat line” is disturbing. Abercrombie doesn’t carry clothes in sizes above a woman’s 10 or large size, because in the words of a 68-year-old retail executive, where cool, popular, attractive, and likable ends. Despite the fact that according to American Demographics, the average woman in the United States is 5’4″ tall, weighs 145 pounds, and wears a dress size of 11 to 14. Never mind that women above a small 10 can be active and healthy, fit into medically-sound BMI indexes, and personify all-American ideals (whatever those are to a sweatshop-loving corporation that markets thongs and bikinis to 7-year-olds).
I was in this average zone in middle school, climbed up above it to a size 18 in high school, and then settled down into the 10-14 size range (depending on how much sacrifice and work and madness I’m putting myself through at any given time). In the late 90’s and early 00’s, when the Abercrombie girls were still dictating how much I loathed myself, I was physically incapable of being a poseur. Retailers like Express, Forever 21, and Mariposa would dress my size-00 best friend, but had nothing for me and my freakish curves. I wore giant t-shirts by Adidas and Nike that were sold in the athletic section of department stores, and tried to accept the fact that I would never, ever be pretty. If my body wasn’t clothable, I thought, why should I be accepted or loved?
What is so jarring about A&F’s stance is not so much the message. Fat-shaming is such a deep part of our culture’s sexism and objectification that knowing someone thinks cool is defined by a pants size is not surprising. And while the coolest people who came out of my high school never sat at the same lunch table as the girls defining the rest of us sorry sacks friendless bad attitude, Jeffries isn’t talking substance. He’s talking image, and it’s something he’s trying desperately to sell.
No, the chord sounds particularly sour because it is out of step with the direction of the conversations and trends that have gained momentum in the past few years. Like Chick-Fil-A’s kerfuffle as equal marriage laws were finally gaining serious traction, A&F’s mean-spirited company policies are a throwback while the industry is beginning to change. This week H&M featured a bombshell size 12 model in swimsuit-ware without issuing so much as a press release, and Dove has been raking in a wealth of positive PR with their real beauty campaign. Retailers like ModCloth and direct A&F competitor American Eagle all offer sizes up to and including women’s 18-24. Unlike my not-so-distant generation, today’s teens have a world of options in all budgets and styles that didn’t exist in 2000.
For a company who has made millions off of adolescent insecurity, these advancements toward inclusion (even if it is for the sheer sake of corporate profit versus altruistic goals) can’t be good news. If a company cannot make you feel so worthless that validation will only come from forking over $38 for a t-shirt (Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition), they’re in some serious profit-trouble. Which is why the veneer is cracking, and Abercrombie isn’t looking so cool anymore. It’s looking like the dinosaur.