To Mike Jeffries:
I know who you are. You are the CEO of one of the most recognizable and desirable clothing retailers in the nation. Your products live in the closets of millions of young people. Your ideals live in their minds and worm their way into their hearts.
You have no idea who I am. You will never meet me. I will remain relatively inconsequential and insignificant in your life. As an individual, you have little impact on my life, and I have little on yours.
But I am part of a larger group of people, and we are certainly not insignificant or unworthy of recognition. My experience in life is a microcosm of the whole. A snapshot of what many men and women experience when their beautiful, divinely ordained and created lives smash up against the perversions and illusions constructed to shame their bodies, minds and souls.
You sit at the helm of a multi-million dollar marketing machine, and you are completely aware of the impact that you have on popular culture. You know that your approval of marketing, in-store merchandising and presentation of your brand can impact and define the choices, desires and ultimately, the self-image of an impressionable group of people. You know your power, and you exploit it in the name of exclusivity. You channel it into a falsely constructed reality that propagates the message that image, thinness, sexiness and improperly defined masculinity are the keys to happiness, success and value in life.
I spent years of my teenage life skulking through your store, the bass beat of dance music reverberating through my body as I picked at piles of paper-thin t-shirts, slim-cut v-neck sweaters and low-rise jeans, searching desperately for my size. I was disappointed every time. I remember wiping hot tears from my eyes as my friends hauled off piles of clothes to the dressing room to try on, and I stood outside, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, staring at highly sexualized pictures of flawless teenage girls and men dripping with washboard abs and deep v-cuts. I purchased one item of clothing from your store in 2003, when I had unhealthily reached a size that your store actually sold. I wore it once before it fell apart in the wash. I have since wandered through your myriad of different stores and labels, and found myself entranced and drawn in to your clever marketing that made me wish I was prettier, thinner, sexier and worth more than the little I felt as I looked around your cleverly constructed universe of image-driven perfection. You made me feel ashamed of everything I am. And you do that to boys, girls, men and women, each day, out of a desire for profit, influence and cultural relevance.
I have known people who have worked for your company. I have seen the way they obsess over fulfilling the company standard for appearance. I have worked for one of your competitors that markets toward a more inclusive market, and felt confident, comfortable and supported in my work environment. But I have not once felt welcome in your stores, even when I could purchase and wear clothes you sold.
To you, I am not cool. I am not attractive. I am not all-American with a great attitude. I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t belong. I am excluded. I am totally vanilla. I am large. I am not thin. I am not beautiful. I am not someone to be targeted in a marketing campaign. I am not worth your money, time or service. I am not a person. I am undesirable You don’t even want me setting foot in your store for fear I will mar the image you have worked to so carefully cultivate. And I am only one of millions that have been classified as such by you.
The thing is, I am a 29-year-old woman who knows the difference between truth and deception. I have the skills to dig myself out of feeling like a worthless piece of garbage because of media messaging. But that 15-year old girl you target as a customer for Hollister, or that 19-year old burgeoning man that you seek to draw through the doors of Abercrombie probably do not have those skills. You know that. You know that your definition of cool, sexy and valuable is seeping into their minds and hearts, and that you can potentially win the war for their dollars and ultimately, their self-worth. You know exactly what you are doing.
What you don’t know, and don’t care to acknowledge, is that I am a person. A human. I definitely don’t fit your standards of beauty and social worth. But I am a wife. I am a friend. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a teacher. I am created in His divine image. I am a woman. I am of infinite value and worth that is completely independent of your marketing campaign. You think you can define me by my height, weight and body shape, and others by their skin colors and nationalities, but you ignore everything that makes me who I truly am. But here is the key-I am also a consumer. And as a believer in the free market and enterprise, I know that a consumer has the power.
I will do everything in my power to not only encourage people to read your comments and personal ideals before they shop at your stores but also help people to reexamine their standards of beauty and social acceptance. When we break this entire mess of your insulting and demeaning comments and insinuations down to the most basic level, it lies in a desperate need to be culturally and socially dominant through shaming. As consumers, we can reject this method of marketing.
You will likely go on to continue making millions of dollars as people throw dollar after dollar at you while chasing image and perfection. But I and others will go on to make sure that consumers know exactly what they are buying when they buy your products. They are buying misogyny. They are buying body shaming. They are buying unrealistic standards of beauty. They are buying bullying. They are buying a membership into a club of false exclusivity. They are part-owners in the campaign to diminish the worth of those outside of narrowly defined standards of acceptability.
You are only a part of a much larger problem. There are countless companies and people who have the same vision and end goal as you. But you are so open about your beliefs and desire to be uber-exclusive, that you serve as a wonderful primer for people to learn the power of consumers educating themselves and rejecting a shameful and damaging message.
I am a person. I am of infinite value of worth. Your success is ultimately fleeting. But the damage you inflict along the way to the top of the crumbling castle of social competition will not be ignored.
We are all capable of so much more than being looked at.
You can read more from Lauren Voorhies on her blog.