I remember the moment as though it were yesterday (which is saying a lot, because it was nearly two decades ago...) Last week of 8th grade. One of the "popular girls" walked over to me in gym class and asked if she could write in my yearbook. When she handed my book back, I excitedly turned the cover, only to discover that she had written (in beautiful penmanship) the following:
Have a great summer. Stay thin.
Except the word "thin" had been crossed out with a single line.
I have always struggled with my weight. Big-boned. Plus-size. Thick. Curvy. Voluptuous. Padded. Pick your adjective. Over the years I learned to deal with it in different ways. I learned to ignore it. Compensate for it. Deny it. Dress it up. Cover it over. Like everyone who struggles with something physical, I wear my battle on the outside for the world to see. There's no running from it, because there is no hiding it.
According to Elite Daily, Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercombie + Fitch, has allegedly commented on everything from why he hates fat chicks to why he doesn't want "not-so-cool" kids shopping in his stores.
While I was initially outraged by the story, by the time I reached the end of the article, I felt more of a sense of overwhelming pity for the Abercrombie CEO than anything. A man blessed with unimaginable success proudly spouting off soundbites reminiscent of a cruel little girl I knew in eight grade? It would seem Mike Jeffries is a deeply unhappy man.
Mean-spiritedness aside, Mr. Jeffries' comments raise a flag about a bigger, more troubling cultural issue. Pretend, for one moment, that instead of fat chicks, unattractive people or "not-so-cool" kids Mr. Jeffries had said "African Americans" or "homosexuals" or "single moms." As a society, we would rise up and crucify any brand that flaunted that kind of exclusionary business plan.
I'm not slamming Abercrombie, proposing that they start carrying larger sizes or suggesting they welcome everyone into their stores. What I am questioning is why, in a country where two out of every three adults are considered overweight, is it acceptable for anyone, let alone the CEO of a major company, to proudly and publicly sling what could be considered by some to teeter on hate speech?
With each brand that joins arms with companies like Dove, TOMS and Anytime Fitness, opting to lead with their values in order to drive new, important conversations, a positive change is happening. Who do you think will thrive? I'm willing to bet at least two out of three Americans can answer that question...and they'll do so with their dollars.
Now on to the letter.
AN OPEN LETTER TO MR. MIKE JEFFRIES, CEO ABERCROMBIE + FITCH
Dear Mr. Jeffries,
Hi there. It's me, Amy. We've never met, but since it seems we won't be sitting at the same lunch table (or crossing paths in your stores) anytime soon, I thought it was important that you get to know me if you're going to hate me. I'm one of the two out of three Americans you can't stand and don't want in your stores. I'm your neighbor. Your doctor. The young woman working behind the hotel check-in desk. I'm your child's third grade teacher. Your sister's best friend. I'm the veterinarian who saved your dog's life...twice. And the lady sitting next to you on the flight to Los Angeles. I'm the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I'm the housewife with one heck of an expendable income. I'm the 13-year-old teetering on the verge of an eating disorder. And the 22-year-old battling depression and low self-esteem. I'm the employee working in your office, living in fear that two pounds are the difference between my paycheck and the unemployment line. I'm the American Woman...and I've got something to say to you.
Mike (can I call you Mike?), I'm not only a fat chick, I'm also a "not-so-cool" kid. Always have been, always will be. I've had 31.5 years to come to terms with that. Along the way I have been bullied, tortured, teased and harassed. Somehow I came out the other end better for it. In case you haven't noticed, those not-so-cool kids are the ones who are passing people like you by--and doing some pretty amazing things. (You can read about a couple of them here and here and here.) Funny thing about wearing your struggle on the outside: it makes you stronger. It teaches you how to adapt. It forces you to dig deep and do more. And while people like you are sitting at the cool kids table intent on holding others down, the ragtag team of not-so-cool kids is busy pulling others up...and we've become an unstoppable force driving the world forward.
You got me, Mike! I don't wear a size 4. You should probably also know that my middle fingers curve ever-so-slightly outward and I have a Morton's toe. I'm terrible at long division and I'm not that great at parallel parking. But I'm a good person. I have an awesome job, great friends and a family that I wouldn't trade for the world. I have mentors with brains as big as their giant hearts, and a rescue dog who is always happy to see me at the end of the day. Like everyone (size 4 or size 24), I have wants and hopes and dreams. I dream of writing a children's book and inheriting a large sum of money so I can open a rescue retirement home for all the old shelter dogs that nobody wants. I'd like to pay for the person behind me at the toll booth sometime, and it'd be nice to get around to taking the "Great American Road Trip" one day. Overall I'm a pretty happy person. I'm a loyal friend and I strive to make the world better whenever and however I can. I love my community and I'm proud to call Columbus home. Although Abercrombie is headquartered here, you don't represent the voice or the spirit of the place I know and love. When people think of this city, it is my hope they'll choose to forget your name and instead think of people like Jeni Britton Bauer and Christian Long and Liz Lessner; doers and thinkers giving Columbus (and humankind) a good name.
As a marketer, I understand where you're coming from on some level, Mike. I really do. When you say "a lot of people don't belong in our clothes--they can't belong," I get it. For consumers, every purchase is a declaration. With each dollar a consumer spends, they are saying, "I am part of this brand and this brand is a part of me. I believe what this brand believes. I support what this brand supports." As I sit here wrapping up this letter, I am proud to say that I may be a not-so-cool kid and the extra pounds I carry may not be a thing of beauty, but I am nothing like you or your brand--and that, Mr. Jeffries, is a beautiful thing.