Abercrombie & Fitch is an exclusionary company?!? Colour me shocked.

Hey guys, Abercrombie & Fitch is being offensive again. And, it's still not because they have yet to invent a belt that fits their male models.
Hey guys, Abercrombie & Fitch is being offensive again. And, it’s STILL not because they have yet to invent a belt that fits their male models.

There’s this viral thing going around the Internet: Jes Baker of the Militant Baker, angered by comments made by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, wrote an open letter to the company and attached photos of herself in the infamous black & white style of A&F ads and modeling an A&F t-shirt. Those pictures have since been shared across the Internet, covered on a host of mainstream news outlets, and has even landed Baker a coveted guest spot on the “Today Show”.

The comments that sparked it all? In 2006, Salon magazine interviewed Jeffries and included this passage:

“[W]e 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.”

As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

This quote implies — if not outright states — that fat people aren’t the cool and popular and beautiful customers that Abercrombie & Fitch wants shopping at their store. Cue the Militant Baker’s Attractive & Fat photoshoot, the Change.org petition, and Baker’s rallying cry that, “I challenge the separation of attractive and fat, and I assert that they are compatible regardless of what you believe. Not only do I know that I’m sexy, but I also have the confidence to pose nude in ways you don’t dare.”

Jes Baker poses with a male model in an image from her Attractive & Fat photoshoot.
Jes Baker poses with a male model in an image from her Attractive & Fat photoshoot.

Okay, so I get it: Abercrombie & Fitch shouldn’t be exclusionary.

…except,  I kind of don’t get it: this is Abercrombie & Fitch we’re talking about, right? I mean, hasn’t Abercrombie & Fitch always been exclusionary? Isn’t that their frickin’ business model!?!

That 2006 Salon article from which the original quote was pulled is about Jeffries’ (arguably highly-successful) reinvention of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand-name into an in-demand uniform for America’s self-identified young social elite. Over the last several decades, A&F has built a fashion empire by selling clothes to a very select, very specific, target demographic. In Jeffries’ own words:

To Jeffries, the “A&F guy” is the best of what America has to offer: He’s cool, he’s beautiful, he’s funny, he’s masculine, he’s optimistic, and he’s certainly not “cynical” or “moody,” two traits he finds wholly unattractive.

Abercrombie & Fitch is as much about selling surfer clothes to America’s tween and twenty-something self-described “cool kids” as it is a large-scale vanity project for a 70-year-old man trying to remake America in the image of his own very disturbed ideas about who and what the ideal American is and looks like. I mean, Jeffries doesn’t just want to sell clothes to the “A&F guy”; he is actually trying to be the A&F guy. I mean just look at him:

He's like Michael Jackson, except he's (probably) never set his hair on fire.
He’s like Michael Jackson, except he’s (probably) never set his hair on fire.

Writes Salon:

His 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.

Because nothing says “confidence” like thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery.

As for the company itself, Abercrombie & Fitch‘s business model is best-described with the one word that Jeffries’ uses: “aspirational”. Like it or not, Abercrombie & Fitch sells to a very specific, self-limited demographic that can and will purchase their clothes; and those who can’t, really really want to. Abercrombie & Fitch cultivates that exclusionary atmosphere in its stores because it caters to a very real, if distasteful, aspect of society: there is an “in” crowd, and we all want to be a part of it. Or, put another way, if everyone can wear your shirt, there’s nothing special about you when you wear it; and everyone likes being special.

And so, Abercrombie & Fitch is the most ubiquitous exclusive club on the planet. Despite the fact that every mall in America seems to boast an Abercrombie & Fitch store, the company is clearly trying to limit its customer base. First of all, all of their clothing styles look exported straight off a California beach, and are therefore remarkably impractical for anyone who doesn’t live in Southern California. Further, their clothes only run between sizes 0 and 10 — a maximum of a 38″ bust or a 31″ waist for women — despite the fact that the national average in women’s waist size is 37.5″.

Consider also that every single Abercrombie & Fitch model looks like they were cloned from two surviving members of Hitler’s Youth Army rendered immortal as a result of Nazi doctors’ human experimentation but were then forced on the run at the end of World War II before they were covertly discovered by CIA spies in Europe and smuggled into the United States for study at Area 51 by scientists hoping to reverse engineer the secrets of eternal youth, but then were subsequently kidnapped by A&F operatives and are now imprisoned in an underground bunker at A&F’s Ohio headquarters where they serve as source genetic material for A&F’s army of clothing models/child soldiers being trained to carry out Jeffries’ plans for a military takeover of the Western hemisphere.

Evidence of Abercrombie & Fitch's clone army.
Photographic evidence of Abercrombie & Fitch’s clone army.
Don't be deceived: these clones will one day be trained killers... Once A&F scientists figure out how to reverse the characteristic muscle atrophy that has rendered these clones without sufficient strength to pick up an AK-47.
Don’t be deceived: these clones are trained killers… or, they will be, once A&F scientists figure out how to reverse the characteristic muscle atrophy that has rendered these clones incapable of carrying an AK-47 or anything else that weighs more than 7 lbs.

And in my final example, just take a look at your typical Abercrombie & Fitch storefront.

It's like a fortress of douchebaggery.
It’s like a fortress of douchebaggery.

Where other stores have floor-to-ceiling panoramic glass and bright gallery lighting, every single Abercrombie & Fitch store I’ve ever seen looks like this: dark black wooden slats oriented to block curious shoppers who might want a casual glimpse at what’s being sold inside. Walk in the front door and you are immediately greeted with a wall upon which is mounted a huge black & white picture of a half-naked Aryan clone.

Don't look like this? Don't come in.
Don’t look like this? Don’t come in.

To actually access any clothes in the store, you have to make a right or left turn to see the shop’s wares; none of which you could preview from outside. And if you’ve ever been in an Abercrombie & Fitch, you’ll know it’s like being transported into a whole ‘nother world: a mildly claustrophic world stuffed full of highly pretentious clothing, devoid of natural sunlight, and smelling just a tiny bit of musk and mothballs.

... or what I kind of imagine it would be like to be stuck in Robert Pattinson's closet.
… or what I kind of imagine it would be like to be stuck in Robert Pattinson’s closet.

In short, Abercrombie & Fitch is deliberately trying to place obstacles between interested customers and their clothes, hoping to actually deter shoppers from buying their clothes. The idea is that those who have successfully navigated these deterrents — by making it into the store, fitting into their clothes, and having enough money to buy it — will feel that much more “emotionally attached” to their A&F wardrobe because they’re now a part of that exclusive club of “A&F customers”.

Like the finisher's medal for the lamest adventure race ever.
Like the finisher’s medal for the lamest adventure race ever.

So, colour me shocked that Abercrombie & Fitch is unwelcoming to plus-size customers. For a company with a history of being both sexist and racist, finding out that A&F is fat-phobic is a little like discovering that the guy who enjoys kicking puppies has also flushed a live goldfish or two in his life. I mean, this is a company that thought a woman’s t-shirt that read “Who needs brains when you’ve got these?” across the bosom was a good idea. And, this was the company that single-handedly galvanized the modern Asian American movement with its highly-offensive racist shirts depicting buck-toothed racialized caricatures of Asian men and hearkening to the stereotype of Asian laundries.

The only store that would sell a shirt like this is one that knows that a shirt like this won't insult its "target demographic".
The only store that would sell a shirt like this is one that knows these designs won’t be insulting its “target demographic”.

And lest we forget, this was also the company that in 2006 settled a $40 million lawsuit after complaints that it had an active and deliberate policy of discrimination against employees and candidates of colour. Because I always love an opportunity to quote YellowWorld, my former forum home:

Eduardo Gonzalez, a Stanford student from Hayward, California, was pleased with the settlement. “I remember how discouraged I felt when I applied for a job at the Santa Clara [Abercrombie & Fitch] store and the manager suggested that I work in the stock room or on the late night crew in a non-sales position. I felt it was because I was a Latino – but there was no one I could report this to at the time.”

Plaintiff Anthony Ocampo, a recent Stanford graduate, who was told he couldn’t be hired because “there’s already too many Filipinos,” agreed with Gonzalez. “It is important that Abercrombie seek out employees of color and provide them training and opportunities for promotion.”

Jennifer Lu worked at the Crystal Court Mall store in Costa Mesa, California for three years while she was a student at U.C. Irvine. She and five other Asian American employees were terminated after a visit from senior management and replaced with white sales staff. “I was very distressed after I was terminated for being an Asian American woman. I am now very excited about the policies and programs Abercrombie must implement that came about as a result of this lawsuit. I am looking forward to seeing a more diverse Abercrombie; one that actually reflects the look of America,” said Lu.

Carla Grubb, an African American student at California State Bakersfield, was constructively discharged from the Abercrombie store in the Bakersfield Valley Plaza Mall after being assigned cleaning and other menial jobs. “I felt demoralized being the only African American employee and being specifically assigned to dust the store, wash the windows and clean the floors. With this settlement, I now know that Abercrombie cannot treat other employees of color in such a manner.

So, yeah. Abercrombie & Fitch is also a little fat-phobic, too.

But, I guess what really inspired me to write this post is the overwhelming outrage against Abercrombie & Fitch. Where was this outrage 12 years ago when Abercrombie & Fitch was being racist? Where were the Asian Americans being invited on the Today show to talk about what it’s like to be Asian in America and how it’s totally not cool for a store to sell racist caricatures of our people, especially when you’re also putting your minority employees in the stockroom and on clean-up duty? Where were the hoards of mainstream reporters writing about how a company made routine practice of discriminating against employees of colour, while selling hatespeech on its t-shirts? How is it that only now — after Abercrombie & Fitch pissed off the fat-positive subculture — are people actually willing to call a discriminatory company discriminatory?

Which brings me full circle to Jes Baker and her Attractive & Fat photoshoot. Look, I’m a former fat girl: I totally and earnestly get what she was trying to do; really, I do. But there’s a part of me that’s a little disquieted about the message of the photoshoot. Here’s the thing: Abercrombie & Fitch is a multimillion dollar company because at the end of the day, the business model works. A&F has set itself up as an exclusive club, and there are customers who literally buy into it.

At the end of the day, because the Attractive & Fat photoshoot copies the Abercrombie & Fitch photographic style while merely replacing the size of one of the two models, I can’t help but wonder what exactly the message is supposed to be? In Jes Baker’s words, the problem isn’t necessarily that A&F touts an overtly restrictive beauty ideal, but instead that the restrictive beauty ideal doesn’t include short and fat people:

Never in our culture do we see sexy photo shoots that pair short, fat, unconventional models with not short, not fat, professional models. To put it in your words: “unpopular kids” with “cool kids”. It’s socially acceptable for same to be paired with same, but never are contrasting bodies positively mixed in the world of advertisement. The juxtaposition of uncommonly paired bodies is visually jarring, and, even though I wish it didn’t, it causes viewers to feel uncomfortable. This is largely attributed to companies like yours that perpetuate the thought that fat women are not beautiful.

Doesn’t this kind of imply that Jes’ problem is more that fat kids aren’t part of the “cool kids”, and not that there are cool kids in the first place? Or, it’s okay to exclude, just don’t exclude me?

I can’t help but remember the Abercrombie & Fitch protests organized within the Asian American community nearly twelve years — a movement that marked one of the first uses of the Internet for progressive social change, that provided momentum to build the politicized online Asian American community that thrives today, and that I was at least on the fringes of at the time (which I realize dates me but, y’know…). We took to the streets. We made signs. We advocated boycott.

Because what’s really troublesome about Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t that it’s exclusionary, but that it’s exclusionary and that it works. That people secretly or openly actually want to be a part of this dumbass exclusionary club, and they understand that if it didn’t exclude someone, than it wouldn’t be exclusionary.

That’s why twelve years ago, we didn’t suggest that there was anything positive about Abercrombie & Fitch‘s exclusionary business practices. So, yeah, Abercrombie & Fitch could throw in some pictures of short and fat models paired with tall thin models in their catalog. And that would certainly go a long way towards normalizing curvy folks into popular ideas of beauty.

But that still won’t stop Mike Jeffries from being the kind of racist dickwad whose stores stop uncomfortably short of hanging this sign on its front door:

Oh yeah, I went there.
Oh yeah, I went there.

So, in summary, I support Jes Baker’s Attractive & Fat photoshoot. I really do. I just wish that while she’s fielding calls from reporters this week, she takes a minute to mention how Abercrombie & Fitch has been discriminatory against a lot more people than just fat people. And maybe rather than advocating more plus-sized models in the A&F catalog, we should all be shopping at stores that aren’t trying to exclude people in the first place.

Because, there’s no part of me that wants to spend money in a place that thinks it can define for me what the American ideal is.

On fat acceptance and obesity research; or, lying about the science is just another form of fat bigotry

Obese individuals don't deserve to be bullied. But they don't deserve to be lied to, either.
Obese individuals don’t deserve to be bullied. But they don’t deserve to be lied to, either.

Health media and bloggers are a-buzz over a recent study by Flegal and colleagues of the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC. The study analysed data published in other papers in an effort to build a comprehensive dataset and determine whether BMI corresponds with mortality. In short, the broad analysis revealed that (not surprisingly) morbid obesity is associated with significantly higher likelihood of death; however, the study also found that the “overweight” BMI category is associated with a significantly lower (~6%) risk of death relative to “normal weight” individuals.

With this single statement in the study’s abstract, the primary investigators stirred a massive controversy. Obesity researchers have called this study “rubbish” while self-identified fat activists have taken to CNN to proclaim this paper a definitive blow to institutionalized fat bias.

Before I dive into this controversy, let me first remind us of a few things. The Flegal study used the BMI — or “Body Mass Index” scale — to categorize subjects based on their body weight. BMI is calculated from a person’s height and weight to generate a number that typically falls between 18 and 40; that number then allows you to plot your index against a table that let’s you classify yourself as “normal weight”, “overweight” or “obese”.

An "overweight" person  (called "slightly overweight" in this table) typically has a BMI that falls between 26-29, and an "obese" person has a BMI greater than 30.
An “overweight” person (called “slightly overweight” in this table) typically has a BMI that falls between 26-29, and an “obese” person has a BMI greater than 30.

Now, there’s a simple explanation for the findings of the Flegal study — the BMI scale is deeply flawed. The BMI scale is, in fact, a horrible tool for predicting an individual’s fitness or health status. The Flegal study is simply pointing out how the BMI scale is both over-used and incorrectly interpreted by primary physicians.

BMI was first created as an epidemiological and clinical tool that allows for rapid screening of a patient’s weight status, as a first-step indicator of whether or not a person may be at higher risk for obesity-related diseases. It’s strength was that the input data — height and weight — could be collected with a simple scale and tape measure, and you could arm patients with BMI as a way of monitoring their own fitness level at home. Further, the reason for its existence is that en masse,  high BMI correlates with a host of chronic diseases you really don’t want.

The problem is that in the non-scientific world, the correlative nature of the BMI scale has been confused with causation. While scientists still understand how BMI is (and is not) correlated with poor health and morbidity, doctors and the average citizen puts too much emphasis on BMI, mistaking the fact that having a high BMI means one may be at risk of also having other obesity-related diseases with the misguided notion that having a high BMI will cause those obesity-related diseases.

On an individual level, your BMI is relatively meaningless, precisely because BMI doesn’t directly test the actual health factors that lead to the development of chronic disease — blood pressure, diet, body fat percentage, and lifestyle choices. The BMI scale fails to consider variations in people’s body compositions (by definition, it assumes everyone’s muscle mass, bone mass, and hydration level are the same) in order to produce a rough guesstimate of whether or not a person might be obese or not.

According to the BMI scale, heavily muscled (and clearly fit) individuals like Arnold Schwarzenegger would be considered morbidly obese.
According to the BMI scale, heavily muscled (and clearly fit) individuals like Arnold Schwarzenegger would be considered morbidly obese.

Given these considerations, it’s not surprising that the Flegal study found that folks who fall into the “overweight” category of the BMI scale might have (en masse) a slightly lower risk of death than “normal weight” individuals: “overweight” individuals will include a large proportion of bonafide “slightly overweight” folks, but this group will also include a “contaminant population” of strength training athletes, people who have better access to food because of better socioeconomic status, folks who may eat a more varied nutrient-dense diet, and perhaps even younger individuals (who tend to have more muscle mass). The Flegal study did not — actually could not — tease these confounding factors out.

The bottom line is this: it is quite possible to be a healthy individual and to appear “fat” on the BMI scale. However, it’s also clear that folks who are both fit and fat typically have unusual body composition and weight distribution and/or have spent at least some of their daily energy focusing on maintaining a fit and active lifestyle that result in better heart health, good nutrition, and high muscle mass; even if they still carry a few extra pounds of fat. You can be fit and fat, but it is not the default.

What troubles me in this debate is, in fact, the opposite end of the spectrum, personified by self-identified fat activist Marilyn Wann is equally as alarming as the popular misconceptions about the BMI scale. Wann write in an editorial on CNN:

After a careful review of all relevant research worldwide, the U.S. government’s leading analyst of weight data just confirmed what I’ve long known: Being fat might not be a death sentence.

That this study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association seems at all shocking is a measure of the intensity and pervasiveness of weight prejudice in our society and in our sciences.

In short, Wann weighs the (questionable) findings of this single JAMA article against an entire body of obesity research literature, and finds the thousands of published papers showing a clear connection between obesity and poor overall health to be lacking; worse yet, she lobs a veiled accusation against the scientific community of, in essence, falsifying data based on internalized “weight prejudice”.

This is, in every facet, equivalent to climate change denialists touting the findings of a single, potentially flawed, study with “favourable” findings against reams of evidence that support global warming.

Despite the headline of her article — “You Can be Fit and Fat” — Wann fails to make a single compelling argument that in favour of her overall thesis that obese individuals are just as healthy as non-obese individuals. Instead, she spends the bulk of her piece in CNN speaking about weight prejudice and fat tolerance, telling anecdotal tales of individuals whose primary health advice from medical professionals is to lose weight. Wann goes so far as to suggest that obesity is not, itself, a risk factor for disease, but rather that fat individuals have poorer health because hospitals aren’t equipped with blood pressure cuffs that fit around larger arms:

One woman called in the middle of the night, hoping I knew of an MRI she could use for an important test. The machine at her local hospital, which she’d used before, was being guarded by a technician who strictly enforced the weight limits. The tray that slides in and out of the machine could break. Instead, she was denied potentially life-saving information in a crisis. How many of the deaths blamed on weight are actually caused by medical equipment — everything from blood pressure cuffs to surgical instruments — that fails to accommodate fat people when we need it most?

I’ll never forget the teenage girl who was told by a nurse practitioner that her complaint would go away once she lost weight. Luckily, she had the nerve and the parental backup to get another appointment and the prescription necessary to treat her condition. How many of the deaths blamed on fat actually happen when people are diagnosed as fat instead of being diagnosed and treated for an illness?

Wann’s argument is that obesity is not, in any way, related to fitness. She notes a study that showed that age, not obesity, was the primary cause of death in patients over the age of 65; she forgets that obesity tends to cause early death before the age of 65, and that cardiovascular disease (which arises in part from obesity) is the leading cause of death in America.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Obesity is strongly associated with metabolic disorders (with the latter likely causative of the former). Metabolic disorder is likely the principal cause of cardiovascular disease. Fat individuals are dying because — without being too hyperbolic — obesity kills.

The mouse on the left is the famous leptin mouse, a classic model of obesity. He basically suffers from metabolic disorder leading to profound obesity. The leptin mouse is a notoriously sick mouse, suffering from hypertension, diabetes, acute inflammation, arthritis, and signs of rapid aging. This mouse is not sick because we don't have access to a scale big enough to weigh it.
The mouse on the left is the famous leptin mouse, a classic model of obesity. He basically suffers from metabolic disorder leading to profound obesity. The leptin mouse is a notoriously sick mouse, suffering from hypertension, diabetes, acute inflammation, arthritis, and rapid aging. This mouse is not sick because we don’t have access to a scale big enough to weigh it.

Here’s the thing: Wann is completely on the mark when it comes to wanting to fight against fat intolerance. Obese individuals should not be targets of society’s derision and ridicule. Obese individuals need access to adequate healthcare, insurance, and resources for healthy weight loss. Obese individuals shouldn’t be made to feel shame or self-hatred for their obesity, or to be associated with such negative terms as “lazy”, “unintelligent” or “ugly”. This is about as productive, and as charming, as throwing rocks at the fat kid in the playground until he breaks down and cries. It’s bullying, plain and simple, and it’s nothing I want to be teaching my kids.

But, isn’t it demeaning, patronizing, or — dare I say it — even intolerant to advocate that obese individuals should be treated to a selective interpretation of the science because they don’t deserve to hear the truth that obesity is, demonstrably, a risk factor for one’s health? Doesn’t is suggest that obese individuals can’t, or shouldn’t be, given all the facts about their own medical status because their self-esteem can’t handle it? Doesn’t it imply that we should lie to obese individuals because it’s mean to suggest they need to lose weight? And, when the consequences of these lies is a proven reduction in lifespan and overall quality of life for obese patients, aren’t we at risk of institutionalizing a form of fat oppression by way of deliberately limiting an obese person’s health outcome?

Obese individuals can be smart, beautiful, competent people. But, obesity is also the single greatest health epidemic facing America today, with a full 30% of children now being classified as overweight, and with some developing type II diabetes (traditionally an adult onset disease) as young as age 10.

I get that the fat acceptance movement comes from a place of wanting to encouraging healthier relationships between people and their own bodies. But, the movement against weight bias should be about addressing the institutional bigotry against fat people that aims to shame obese individuals into losing weight, rather than supporting them in that process. The movement against weight bias should be highlighting the mental health and self-esteem issues that obese children face when they are ridiculed by classmates and teachers, instead of offered in-school training and access to proper nutrition. The movement against weight bias should be working hand-in-hand with federal health initiatives that are promoting better eating and more activity by promoting the message that obese individuals should lose weight because they love their bodies, not because they hate them.

Instead, the movement takes a step backward, in my mind, when it highlights fat activists like Wann who would rather fall back on science denial to support her argument. It takes a step backwards when its most high-profile issues involve an extra fee for airline seats rather than actual public policy debates that could genuinely improve the quality of life of obese patients. It takes a step backwards when it focuses on self-described anecdata. The movement simply can’t be about promoting the misguided notion that fat people are healthy because doctors are intolerant bigots; this is just not a rational argument supported by the scientific facts.

The medical community really needs to improve how we assess and treat obesity. We need to throw out the BMI scale, and popularize measures of body fat percentage as our primary assessment tool. We need to be encouraging all patients, including those that are normal weight as well as obese, to take the stairs, to eat better, and to spend more time on our feet. We need to be issuing pedometers to every patient who walks through the door’s of a doctor’s office, we need to be putting nutritional information on ever restaurant menu, and we need to bring back physical education and recess in public schools.

And yes, we need to hear about how our society is intolerant and abusive of obese individuals. We need to challenge our current beauty ideals, which portray skinny women (and some men) who are no more healthy than a morbidly obese individual.

 

At 110 lbs and 6'2", model Jodie Kidd is medically underweight, by BMI.
At 110 lbs and 6’2″, model Jodie Kidd is medically underweight, by BMI.

We need to get Americans comfortable with being active for its own sake — because it’s fun and it’s healthy and it’s better for the environment.

What we don’t need to be doing is give any more airtime to obesity denialists.