Abercrombie Protesters’ Plight Highlights Brand’s ‘Exclusionary’ Attitude

Kim Bhasin By Kim Bhasin of the Huffington Post

Posted: 06/04/2013

Abercrombie Protesters

Heather Arnet was escorted into the Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, flanked by her contingent of 16 teenage girls. It was late 2005, and they were there to voice their discontent about a series of shirts that the company had unleashed on the market with text celebrating skinny blonde teenage girls while deriding brunettes and less-slender figures.

The shirts in question: “I had a nightmare I was a brunette,” “Blondes are adored, brunettes are ignored,” “Do I make you look fat?” and more.

Once inside, the group of protesters walked through a sea of cubicles and past towering images of men and women locked in embraces. The girls looked around in awe, wondering how strange it would be to work each day permanently surrounded by such images. Then, they entered a windowless conference room to plead their case that the fashion brand not demean people who do not fit its version of cool.

Arnet left convinced that their mission was futile.

“What we witnessed in that room that was so tangible was how deep the culture really is at Abercrombie,” said Arnet, reflecting on the experience nearly eight years later. “The only person who seemed empowered in that building was white and male.”

In recent weeks, Abercrombie has been thrashed by consumers, activists and the media for refusing to stock larger sizes for female customers and for controversial remarks made by chief executive officer Mike Jeffries in a resurrected interview with Salon in 2006. Jeffries said at the time that his brand targets the “attractive all-American kid,” forcing the company to issue an apology.

“A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong,” he told Salon. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

For Arnet, the chief executive officer of a Pennsylvania-based independent advocacy group called the Women and Girls Foundation, the current controversy feels familiar. In an interview with The Huffington Post this week, she described her own efforts to persuade Abercrombie executives to reexamine their values as a new set of activists are now heading to New Albany to discuss the retailer’s latest brush with protesters.

Abercrombie does have women in powerful positions at the top of its corporate hierarchy. Three of the four executive vice presidents at Abercrombie are women, along with two of the nine members of the company’s board of directors.

“Diversity and inclusion are key to our organization’s success,” reads a quote from Jeffries on the Abercrombie website. “We are determined to have a diverse culture, throughout our organization, that benefits from the perspectives of each individual.”

But the way Arnet recalls her experience, that official message is quickly undermined by the reality inside the company’s headquarters: At her meeting, the men in the room did nearly all the talking, while dismissing the protestors as people who couldn’t take a joke. The two women present sat mostly silent, Arnet said. After the meeting, Arnet took away a clear message: Abercrombie was not interested in broadening its consumer base to those deemed uncool.

“The girls tried to push them to say whether they would move forward with this idea for a girl-empowering line,” said Arnet. “The A&F team declined to say anything specific or committal.”

Arnet’s visit to Abercrombie was the outgrowth of a “girlcott” she and her teenage volunteers had organized against the company five weeks earlier to protest several shirt designs they viewed as offensive to women. Abercrombie decided to pull the shirts, and then said the company would meet in person with Arnet’s group to discuss what happened and hear a proposal for a new line of shirts that would empower girls.

Abercrombie declined to comment for this story. But sources inside the company, who spoke on condition they not be named, said executives justified the controversial shirts on the grounds that they sold very well, reflecting that they were merely satisfying the tastes of their customers. At the time, it was simply the trend, sources said.

Once inside the conference room, the girls readied a laptop connected to a projector and beamed a PowerPoint presentation on a screen. They were nervous, Arnet recalled. This was a real boardroom, and they were about to come face-to-face with a throng of executives from a massive, multinational retailer. Abercrombie’s chief financial officer was going to be there, they were told.

The girls and their chaperones had talked at length about proper business etiquette, and they had all dressed in professional attire — suits and blazers — seeking to be taken seriously, said Arnet.

But when the cohort of Abercrombie executives sauntered in and took their seats, the girls were taken aback. The men mostly wore T-shirts, and some had on flip-flops, including then-CFO Michael Kramer.

According to the Salon story, nearly everyone at the Abercrombie headquarters wears flip-flops, Abercrombie jeans and a polo shirt or sweater, as part of the company’s easygoing culture. Jeffries wears the outfit around “campus” — which is what employees call the complex.

According to Arnet, the executives asserted that the designs at issue weren’t malicious, but merely humorous, effectively suggesting that the protestors should just lighten up. The shirts had gone through focus groups, and no one had a problem with them, they said.

Arnet stressed to HuffPost the lack of involvement by the two female executives in the room. Only one of them spoke, and all she did was “reiterate and confirm” what the men said, according to Arnet’s account. The fact that the women didn’t add to the conversation struck Arnet as bizarre, she said, given that the discussion was focused on the empowerment of women.

“It was clear to all of us that the white men in the room in corporate director positions were ‘in charge’ and that they had the alpha dog status,” said Arnet.

Zoe Finkelstein, one of the leaders of the girlcott, asked Vice President of Conceptual Design Meredith Laginess what she thought about the shirts. Laginess said she “agreed with Mike [Kramer],” who had defended the designs and had done most of the talking at the meeting. When pressed about her personal opinions, Laginess did not respond, according to Arnet.

The group presented their ideas for a new line that would empower girls — not divide and degrade them. Arnet said one of the teens, Maya Savage, told the executives bluntly: “I have never seen anyone who looks like me in your stores, or in any of your ads.”

The man in charge of diversity at Abercrombie, Todd Corley, had remained silent in the meeting until that point. He was asked by a colleague to address Savage’s gripe, so he pointed the teen to the company’s website, which had a link to a page where she could read all about Abercrombie’s commitment to diversity.

“I’m sorry, but I should not have to dig to find a link on your website to find a person that looks like me,” answered Savage, according to Arnet.

At the end of the meeting, the executives thanked the girls for coming in and assured them that they were taking the issue seriously. But in follow-up conversations, Arnet said the movement was largely dismissed.

“They ended up saying that it didn’t fit with their brand to have a girl-empowering brand of T-shirts,” she said.

Several months later, Abercrombie released a shirt that said “Brunettes have brains.”It was a far cry from the systemic change the girls were hoping for, said Arnet. After all, Salon published Jeffries’ now-infamous quote about the exclusionary nature of the Abercrombie brand less than two months after the girls’ visit.

“Ultimately it was disappointing that there wasn’t a sort of long-term change that happened,” said Arnet, as evidenced by the current uproar over Abercrombie. Instead, they offered nothing more than “vague promises for change.”

Girls’ Clothing: A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy

Here’s an interesting New York Times article about the “sexualization” of girls through popular clothing, and strategies parents can use to help their daughters dress modestly.  Thank goodness for a school uniform!

Anastasia Vasilakis
By BRUCE FEILER
Published: May 10, 2013

It first happened to me this spring. My daughters, who had just turned 8, came bounding into the room to show off new outfits they were wearing to an extended-family gathering. My eyes bulged. The dresses drooped provocatively off the shoulder and offered other peekaboos of their bodies. Sure, as a parent, I figured I would one day face clothing battles with my children. Politicians aren’t the only ones who draw red lines.

But so soon?

As a father, I find these conversations particularly challenging. On the one hand, I’ve internalized all the messages that I should not criticize my daughters’ bodies, compliment them merely for their looks, or in any way stifle their emerging sexuality. On the other hand, I don’t want them to leave the house dressed as pole dancers.

For years, I had what I thought was a sly way of handling this issue. Whenever my daughters modeled a new piece of clothing, I would say: “I don’t care what you wear. I care who you are.” But recently they’ve begun throwing my line back at me: “But I thought you didn’t care what we wear!”

Time to get some new lines.

The issue of appropriate clothing for girls has been the subject of increasing academic and popular scrutiny, fed by skimpy panties printed with “wink wink” or skinny leggings that say “cute butt sweat pants.” In 2007, Walmart bowed to parental pressure and pulled pairs of pink girls’ underwear off its shelves because they were printed with the words “Who needs credit cards …” on the front and “When you’ve got Santa” on the back.

Sarah K. Murnen, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College, said parents today face greater challenges than those in the past because girls’ clothing has become more sexualized. “Some people say it’s due to an increased pornification of culture,” Professor Murnen said, “where the easy availability of pornography on the Internet has made its way into styles and popular culture.” She cited thong underwear, push-up bras and leather miniskirts for first to fifth graders as examples.

In a 2011 study, Professor Murnen evaluated 5,666 items of girls’ clothing on 15 popular Web sites to determine whether they were “childlike,” “sexualizing” or “adultlike.” She found that 29.4 percent of items were judged to have “sexualizing characteristics,” including more than half of dresses and two-thirds of swimsuits. In a separate study of girls’ magazines, she found that the percentage of provocative clothing had more than doubled since 1971.

Professor Murnen said that this trend was particularly alarming because her research indicates that when adults look at girls dressed in sexualized clothing, they take them less seriously. “Teachers are looking at these girls and assuming they aren’t intelligent,” she said.

Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and the author of “Your Daughter’s Bedroom,” said girls today are unprepared to withstand sophisticated efforts by corporations that prey on girls’ desire to be popular. “As parents, we’re so afraid to talk honestly with our daughters about their sexuality that we end up leaving them out in the cold,” she said.

The American Psychological Association grew so alarmed with the objectification of girls in popular culture that in 2005 it set up a task forceSharon Lamb, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a member of the task force, said her hope was that their two reports “would bring attention to marketers and media to be more reflective about the kinds of girls they were presenting.”

Unfortunately, she said, the reports added pressure on parents to be more vigilant. “I don’t think it’s parents’ fault that they are ‘allowing their kids to walk around like this,’ ” she said. “There’s so much being done through peer culture that it’s a real struggle for parents not to be meanies and come across as antisexuality.”

So what is a worried parent to say? I suggested five possible retorts from girls and asked for guidance.

“EVERYBODY DOES IT.” “Ooh, that’s a rough one,” Ms. McFadden said, “because it’s the precursor to ‘Well, Johnny is freebasing’ or ‘So-and-so gets to stay out until 4 in the morning.’ You have to say, ‘Well, in our family we do things differently.’ ” The critical step, she said, is for parents to make sure they are on the same page before approaching their children. “You’re going to have to compromise on some pieces of clothing,” she said. “I had to give in on push-up bras with my daughter. But don’t let these items take over her wardrobe.”

“IT’S THE ONLY THING THEY SELL.” Ms. Lamb, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood,” said children who make that observation have a point. “Still, you have to state your values,” she said. “You have to say: ‘I don’t want to see you and your friends buying into these marketers’ schemes to sell teenage stuff to younger and younger kids. It’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The marketers are the body snatchers, and I’m going to fight them.’ ”

“YOU’RE SUCH A SQUARE.”Professor Murnen agreed that parents need to embrace their old-fashioned standards. “I’m not a conservative person,” she said. “But when it came to my daughter, I told her I hope she developed a wonderful body image and a healthy sexuality but that I didn’t think that’s what sexy clothes were doing.” Professor Murnen said she even adjusted her own fashion choices. “I personally like attractive clothing,” she said, “but I’m careful not to wear clothing with sexualizing characteristics, because I do feel like I need to be a role model for my students.”

“MOM WEARS THESE THINGS, WHY NOT ME?”Ms. McFadden said it’s fair to point out to girls that as they get older, they will have more freedom to make their own decisions. “Our generation of parents are such sissies when it comes to setting boundaries,” she said. “Parents concede to their children’s whims to make their children happy, but those children don’t grow up to be happy, because they have no internal compass. These limits are what make healthy, happy adults possible.”

“FINE, BUT I’M JUST GOING TO CHANGE WHEN I GET TO SCHOOL.” Ms. Lamb said her response to girls who threaten to peel off layers once they leave the house would be to redirect the conversation. “I would say, ‘I’m not interested in controlling what you wear,’ ” she said. “ ‘I’m interested in getting you thinking about what it means to be an attractive person.’ ” She said she often tells her teenage students that the species would die out if boys only wanted to have sex with girls who looked like Victoria’s Secret models. “We’re built to be attracted to people with different looks, with different personalities, with different talents, senses of humor and lots of wonderful things,” she said.

As for us, the night my daughters first flashed their approaching tweendom, my wife quickly heeded the message. Shawls were procured, and those once-revealing dresses soon became more age appropriate. With a little hunting, my wife and daughters located some Web site that sold attractive clothes with more modest, yet trendy-enough slogans: “I Love Music” and “Bee-You-Tiful” with a bumblebee.

Still, we had been warned. The big battles are yet to come. Ms. McFadden said we should stay strong. “You have to remember,” she said, “you’re raising a person who’s going to live a whole life. Just because one episode doesn’t go well doesn’t mean an accumulation of similar messages won’t somehow trickle down. You just have to be brave, let them have the freedom they deserve, but still set guidelines that represent your family’s values.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 12, 2013, on page ST2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy.