Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Reflecting on my Time Working at Abercrombie & Fitch Corporate...

On May 30th I wrote an article for Salon.com on the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing size controversy ("Is Abercombie & Fitch the enemy? Or is it us?"). Thanks to all of you who provided such great feedback.

As I mentioned in the essay, I worked in the A&F corporate offices from 2004-2006. Several of you asked if I could add to my Salon.com essay by sharing how my experiences at A&F shaped my life. Here goes: 

My fascination with the politics of clothing size began during the time I worked at A&F as a merchant in the outerwear division. It was my first "real" job after college. I'd worked for a few years as a sales associate at JCrew, and fancied myself a fashionista. 

During my on-site job interview I remember asking an HR representative to describe the corporate culture at A&F, given it’s recent out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit charging the company with widespread sexism and racism. “We’re an incredibly inclusive organization,” he promised, “We’ve just hired a VP of Diversity and all of our employees go through diversity training. Everyone is welcome and respected at A&F.” The answer seemed okay to me, so I happily accepted the job I was offered a few weeks later. 

Looking back, I can see that accepting a job at A&F was a last-ditch effort at trying to convince myself I could be one of those "cool kids" Mike Jeffries referred to in his now famous 2006 interview with Salon. You know, the kind that have, as he put it, “a great attitude and a lot of friends.” In contrast, I spent much of my time at A&F depressed and often lonely, without many close friends, aside from my beloved design counterpart and roommate. I was a recovering anorexic and burgeoning feminist. I felt out of place and was occasionally scrutinized by my director for being “too cerebral” (Cue Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, complaining about hiring the “smart fat girl.”) 

Corporate employees were expected to dress “on brand” at work.  This meant dressing like our target young-adult customers. Imagine heading to work wearing a low-cut tank top, torn denim mini-skirt and flip-flops accessorized with leg-warmers (don't get all judgey... leg warmers were hip back then!). During my employee orientation the HR rep joked that wearing a GAP sweatshirt on campus would result in security being called. We were also subtly discouraged from wearing the color black, deemed "too urban" for the "East-Coast-Rich-Kids-at-Summer-Camp-in-the-Adirondacks" aesthetic A&F is known for. (If you doubt me on this, I challenge you to find a single stitch of black thread in an A&F store!) It took me almost a year after leaving A&F to feel comfortable reintroducing black into my wardrobe.

Speaking of summer camp in the Adirondacks...
THIS was what the corporate campus looked like! 

My body was an A&F size 8 back then, precariously maintained through carefully rationed low-calorie frozen meals and religious gym attendance, including - of course - the “Abercrombie Abs” class at the gym on campus. I wore the second-largest women’s size available at A&F, and the largest available at Hollister & Co. It terrified me to think that if I gained weight I’d have to join the ranks of larger women employees who had sized out of the women’s sizes and wore ill-fitting A&F men’s t-shirts and sweatshirts to work every day. 

Admittedly, staying "not fat" was never an official policy at A&F corporate, and there were many women my size or larger working throughout the office, including in leadership positions. Indeed, some larger women employees, especially those on the creative side of the business, were savvy enough to find Abercrombie-esque clothes that fit well and fit it. But I wasn't ready to go there. Part of me - the anorexic part - liked having an excuse to stay below those scary double digits. 

Needless to say, Abercrombie & Fitch and I weren’t a great fit (pun intended). After trying to make it work - of faking it - for a year and a half, I had to face the fact that my fashionable, “cook kid,” career path was making me miserable and keeping me unhealthy. I had to make a choice between my vanity and my sanity, so I left the company in summer of 2006, a few months after my first promotion. My next job was, again, in the fashion world, at Gap Inc., and I was happy there. But my experience at A&F had left a bad taste in my mouth, one that made me miss the intellectual adventures I'd enjoyed while earning my undergraduate degrees in sociology and gender studies.  Grad school was calling to me, and I'm so glad I heeded the call.

Academia isn't perfect, but I love my work and the community of scholars and social activists that support me in it, as friends and colleagues. Oh, and last time I checked, my graduation regalia will include a forgiving one-size-fits all gown in - what else? - black.

PS - I think most of us learned a thing or two about ourselves (and life in general) at our first "real" jobs. I'd love to hear your stories!


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