The line exists, and Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries crossed it.
“We go after the attractive, all-American kid,” Jeffries stated in a 2006 interview with Salon.com. His words have come back to haunt him recently with the publication of a book about retail strategies, and he even halfheartedly apologized last month that his “choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.”
It seems Jeffries has a different idea of the “all-American” kid than the reality of the United States supports. But if America is known for its diverse ethnicities and cultures, of people who occupy all different shapes and sizes, why is one of its most popular clothing brands only targeting a narrow population?
The number of people who possess Jeffries’ ideal body figure is small. The average U.S. male is about 5’8”, weighs 195.5 pounds with a waist circumference of 39.7 inches. The average U.S. female is about 5’3”, weighs 166.2 pounds and has a waist circumference of 37.5 inches. However, according to Jeffries, all U.S. teenagers should be below a womens’ size 10 and a mens’ size 36. A women’s size 10 comprises a 28 inch waist, a height of 5’5” and weight of 145 pounds.
So if the average U.S. woman doesn’t even fit into Abercrombie’s largest size, there is obviously something wrong.
At the time, Jeffries may have thought that his discriminating comment would increase brand loyalty among the “cool kids.” However, this advertising technique seems to have failed. Since his comments to Salon.com, Abercrombie’s sales have declined, including a 17 percent drop in the first quarter of this year. And rightfully so.
His refusal to sell what he considers “plus-size” clothing has not only decreased sales, but he surely has also helped give teenagers negative self-images. Body image and popularity are vulnerable subjects for adolescents, and Jefferies’ comments only add to their insecurity.
“Candidly, we go after the cool kids,” Jeffries said. “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 cannot belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
And the damage is not limited to girls. Boys also experience poor self-image. Abercrombie’s male models exemplify the ideal, toned and good-looking physique that is advertised all over its store walls and shopping bags. This sets a ridiculously high standard for teenage boys to strive for, driving them to feel insecure about their bodies. Boys assume that girls expect them to match that level of perfection, when in reality all teenagers should accept themselves for who they are.
As for teenage girls, body-image has proven to be a much more threatening issue. Women endure pressure to be just like the “perfect” women plastered across Abercrombie walls. This pressure, which is initiated by portrayals of women throughout popular culture and elevated by comments such as Jeffries’, leads many teenage girls to set impossible standards for themselves, resulting in the development of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. It’s estimated that 7 million women in America suffer from an eating disorder. It’s clear that Jeffries was being insensitive to female vulnerabilities when he shamelessly declared his company’s marketing philosophy.
Living with the unreasonable expectations people such as Jeffries reinforce with vicious comments causes many teenagers to wrestle daily with an airbrushed magazine model and their mirrors. We hope Abercrombie and Fitch will continue to lose business and that young people continue to protest the company’s degrading philosophy until its definition of a worthy customer is revised.
Until then, it’s important for us to be our own definition of perfect, not someone else’s.