Wednesday, June 19, 2013

About-Face Protests Victoria's Secret... In Their UNDIES!

Bravery and joy! So proud of my About-Face team!
As most of you know, I'm a long-time volunteer at About-Face, a nonprofit organization that helps girls and women develop tools to combat harmful media messages. I'm donating 5% of my book royalties to this organization to help keep their girl-positive programs strong. 

I'm feeling the urge to brag: Last Saturday About-Face pulled out all of the stops with a brave and inspiring protest outside of the Victoria's Secret in San Francisco's Union Square... WEARING ONLY OUR UNDERWEAR! 

If clothing companies refuse to show us non-photoshopped bodies, we'll show them ours! 

Go HERE to sign our About-Face Body Acceptance Pledge!

I couldn't attend the protest, thanks to my concurrent trip to NYC, but I've got the scoop. We received (international)national coverage in Huffington Post, Jezebel, and The Daily Mail (UK), and I'm cross-posting this amazing first-hand account of the experience, written by Annika Branson, one of our amazing undergraduate interns.  Enjoy! 

Never Did I Think I Would Be Standing on the Street Half-Naked: A recap of About-Face's most recent and gutsiest action yet! by Annika Branson

On Saturday, June 15th, 2013, I was with About-Face and supporters as we stood scantily clad in front of Victoria’s Secret on Powell in San Francisco for our latest action, calledOperation Real Bodies Real Love.

Wearing only our bras and underwear, we were making a statement about what real bodies look like (and how much we love them) in the face of the violently unrealistic, Photoshopped images we see in the media every day – Victoria’s Secret models included. These images can be extremely harmful to young and old minds alike, causing issues such as negative body imagelow self-esteem, lowered or negative moods, dieting, and eating disorders.

We wanted to represent the public and fight for more accurate representations of bodies in the media,so we were hoping for people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, abilities, genders, and gender expressions to join us.

From the outset, the action received a lot of positive attention as passers-by cheered and shouted comments such as, “YES! This is so great!” and “I’m so glad that you’re doing this!” The Powell Street Cable Car even stopped so that the conductor and passengers could give us cheers of encouragement and praise! Then, of course, there were lots and lots of pictures taken, as people wanted to pose with us as we held up signs with statements like “I Pledge to Love My Body” and “Fat and Fabulous!”

Our main goal was to bring light to the fact that all bodies are beautiful (yes, and also the thin ones!) and ask people to sign a Body Acceptance Pledge (you can take it online here!) that read:
  • I pledge to love my body, inside and out, with every dimple, scar, freckle, lump, roll and curve I have.
  • I pledge to try to start loving my body however I am feeling, however I look, and wherever I am.
  • I pledge to stop negative self-talk and to fight back against those negative thoughts with new, positive ones.
  • I pledge to resist the messages of the media telling me that I must change my body to be happier.
  • I pledge to keep my body healthy by feeding it when it’s hungry and refrain from hurting my body by committing violence against it and not taking care of it.
  • I pledge to appreciate what makes my body different from anyone else’s.
  • I pledge to remember that my self-worth is not determined by my appearance.
  • I pledge to accept the changes my body goes through.
  • I pledge to accept and love the skin I’m in.
Once signed, they were given a reminder of the pledge they took and tips on how to follow through with their pledge:
  • Give myself confirmations about how great I am to myself in the mirror.
  • Concentrate on the things that I do well.
  • Remind myself that bodies are always changing and that every body is different.
  • Voice my opinion on the practices of advertisers, media outlets, the fashion industry, and diet companies.
By the end of the action, we had received 66 signed body pledges, and many people talked of how they were going to pass the tips along to others! Even so, we were surprised at how many people didn’t sign the pledge, making comments such as, “I already love my body!” You can take the pledge online by clicking here.

After they signed the pledge, we asked people if they had any demands for companies such as Victoria’s Secret, known for their stick-thin (but somehow buxom), unrealistically Photoshopped models, and Abercrombie & Fitch, which has refused to make clothing for larger bodies.

Is this really the ONLY way to be beautiful??
We received statements such as:
  1. “Hire real people to show your products and act in your movies.”
  2. “Stop Photoshopping everything and let us see what real beauty is.”
  3. “Stop the negative and self-hating articles and start writing about people who are doing good things in the world – no matter how small as that is what really changes the world.”
  4. “I want to see more people of color in advertisements/fashion.”
Once a large list has been compiled, we will be sending this list of demands to various advertisers.

Since the day of the event, About-Face as a whole has received an overwhelming response from people who are happy, shocked, proud, and amazed at our bravery to stand half-naked in public as a sort of protest to companies who refuse to show or accommodate real bodies. We have also made appearances on JezebelThe Huffington PostABC 7/KGO-TV, KRON 4 News, and various other sites. Success!

Participating in this event was a huge moment of empowerment and confidence for me and others who were with me or have seen the event. We at About-Face want you to know that we love your bodies just as they are, and you should too.
Operation Real Bodies Real Love: Complete.

Annika Branson is an undergraduate student at University of California, Berkeley majoring in Sociology and Media Studies. An advocate for media and eating disorder awareness for more than seven years, she is currently an intern at About-Face.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

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

On May 30th I wrote an article for 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 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!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Is Abercrombie & Fitch the Enemy? Or is it Us? A Call for an End to Vanity-Sizing.

(The following post is excerpted from my lead article in from 5/30/13.)
Over the past several weeks, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has been denounced in the media for not stocking women’s clothing in sizes greater than “large” while offering XL and XXL sizes to male customers.
“Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Hates Fat Chicks” read one headline. Another refers to “Abercrombie & Fitch CEO’s ugly quest for attractive ‘cool kids.’ and criticizes A&F for ignoring a purported ”revolution” of size inclusiveness in teen fashion led by H&M and American Eagle Outfitters. The backlash was further fueled last Friday by A&F CEO Mike Jeffries’ defensive response and non-apology for offensive remarks he made in a Salon story in 2006.  In response, customers and body image activists are boycotting stores and waging viral grass-roots campaigns in protest.
As a sociologist studying the harmful effects of our culture’s narrow beauty ideals, it’s gratifying to see a public outcry in defense of “large women.” As a former employee at Abercrombie & Fitch’s corporate headquarters, I’m frankly surprised it took seven years for journalists to link Jeffries’ statements about marketing only to “cool and popular kids” to the company’s somewhat limited range of clothing size.
My fascination with the politics of clothing size began in 2004 when I worked at A&F corporate as a merchant in their outerwear division. Employees were expected to dress “on brand” at work, which meant always wearing A&F clothes from the current season. I squeezed myself into the second-largest A&F women’s size available — an 8 — and dieted to stay that size. It terrified me to know that if I gained weight and sized out of their women’s clothes, I’d have to wear ill-fitting men’s T-shirts and sweatshirts to work every day, as I’d seen other “large” women do.
I am eagerly in support of any fashion revolution leading to more inclusive sizing and the lessening of fat prejudice, but I’m skeptical as to whether the current A&F backlash will bring about any meaningful change. Elitist CEOs are certainly part of the problem, but if we truly want ready-to-wear clothing retailers to embrace larger bodies we need to first address our own internalized prejudice against fat.
What we should be demanding from our clothing retailers, alongside our cry for more inclusive sizing, is transparent sizing that is standardized across brands. In short, it’s time to demand an end to vanity sizing.
“Vanity sizing” (sometimes called “size inflation”) refers to the common practice of ready-to-wear fashion retailers who lower the nominal (labeled) size of their garments without changing the actual measurements. Thus, this year’s size 8 may fit like last year’s size 10. Consumers presume (and retailers often affirm) that this is done to appease female customers’ size-conscious egos.
Size 12-14... in the 1950s!
Over time the sizing standards have changed fairly dramatically. For example, in my research I’ve found that the smallest women’s clothing size offered by Sears in 1930 was a size 15 with a bust measurement of 31 inches. By 2009 the smallest women’s size Sears offered was a 3 even though the bust measurement had increased to 32.5 inches. For a more visual perspective Marilyn Monroe – a size 12-14 back in the day – would today wear size “XS” jeans from A&F, thanks to her diminutive 22-inch waist.
It’s true that vanity sizing gives many of us an artificial (and superficial) self-esteem boost. Indeed, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that vanity sizing improved people’s body image.  But this boost to self-image is rooted in the belief that larger body size is bad and undesirable. In this way, vanity sizing reinforces persistent size prejudice, not to mention the sexist double-standard associating slenderness with femininity, and brawny mass with masculinity.
Given our emotional attachment to vanity sizing, our critique of A&F is both ironic and ill-conceived. If so many of us agree – nay, beg – to have fashion retailers lie to us when it comes to our own clothing size, why are we so horrified and furious to learn that retailers are just as fat-phobic as we are? We can’t have it both ways, not if we desire real change.
So if we look at measurements rather than labels, how does A&F sizing really measure up?
* According to data collected 2007-2010 by the CDC, the average waist measurement of a 19-year-old woman is 33.6 inches. The largest women’s size at A&F is a “Large” or “12” (not a 10, as has been incorrectly claimed pretty much everywhere). The waist measurement of this size is 31 inches. In other words, the average 19-year-old girl is too fat to shop at A&F.
* The average waist measurement of a 19-year-old male is 33.8 inches. The waist measurement of “XL” or “36” pants at A&F (it turns out XXL is only offered for shirts) is 36 inches. So, yes, the average 19-year-old guy can find clothes that fit at A&F.  Yet, a 19-year-old with a 36-inch-waist is in the 75th percentile for his age, meaning that 25 percent of men are larger, and too fat to shop at A&F. Better? Yes, but not jaw-droppingly so.
And how about the stores credited for launching a sizing revolution?
* As reported elsewhere, American Eagle is much more inclusive than A&F in their women’s sizing, with the maximum size (XXL/18) coming in at 36.5 inches. Men’s sizing is similarly broad, offering up to 38” in stores, with up to 46” available online.
* H&M, however, compares a bit less favorably. Although H&M offers women’s shirts up to size 3XL (48.75” bust measurement), women’s jeans are only offered up to size 16, measuring at 34.” This is juuuust higher than the average 19-year-old girls’ waist size, leaving 50 percent of them again “too big” to wear H&M. This doesn’t seem so revolutionary to me.
More fascinating is what we see in H&M men’s sizing: the largest size available is “XL/40R” which has a measurement of 38”. Read that again. See that? The actual waist measurement of H&M pants is a full two inches less the labeled size. In other words, H&M is “vanity sizing” to its male customers, leading them to believe they’re bigger than the listed size. Double-standard much?
If we want the fashion landscape to be less discriminatory toward larger women (and men!), it’s time that we demand size standards based on measurements, not market research. Forgive my Dove Campaign For Real Beauty puns, but it’s time we admit that real women have real measurements. Let’s get acquainted with our measurements and stop knowingly catering to our prejudicial insecurities.
The good news is that there’s evidence suggesting we’re ready. As witness in the current Abercrombie & Fitch backlash, snobbish elitism isn’t quite as cool as it used to be. Neither is hating our bodies. A recent survey of over 24,000 people found that the majority of women (58 percent) are satisfied with their overall physical appearance. Only 23 percent of women are dieting in 2012 compared to 35 percent in 1992. In 1985, the majority of Americans surveyed (55%) agreed that being thin was a lot more attractive than being heavy. Today fewer than 25 percent agree. Even “fat talk” is becoming eye-rollingly passé.
So what’s it going to be? Your vanity or your values?