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May 28, 2013 at 9:16 AMComments: 10 Faves: 0

Abercrombie and Fitch: Picking up Where Jim Crow Left Off

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This past week, five little girls were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the US government. The award came as Memorial Day approached, as well as the 50th anniversary of their deaths, which occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The "Jim Crow" era was at it's height, a time where the black population was segregated and racism prevailed. The girls were in Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church when, without warning, fire and debris ripped the church apart, fueled by explosives and racial hatred. Beyond the senseless damage and death, the bombing served as a catalyst for people to stand up and demand civil rights and equal treatment.

On this Memorial Day, a half a century later, it's easy to say that things are better in America. A black man can walk into a cafe in Birmingham and sit where he wants without fear of Jim Crow attitudes. He won't hear, "We don't serve your kind here" in 2013, as he would have in 1963.

Denial of service based on bigotry is intolerable, but we're no stranger to these behaviors here in the U.S.

Two words: Abercrombie and Fitch

The CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch has been all over the media for several weeks. To paraphrase his exclusionary comments, Abercrombie and Fitch targets the "cool kids," the ones who people are drawn to. For that reason, they deliberately do not produce XL sizes. In short, they don't cater to large and/or obese people. This attitude comes right from the top, from the mouth of a charismatic leader. It's their company-wide marketing strategy. If an obese person visits their local mall and ventures into an Abercrombie and Fitch store, they're likely to be greeted with the attitude, "We don't serve your kind here." 

While I'm not going to make a stupid leap comparing Abercrombie and Fitch's CEO to Adolf Hitler, I do want to caution against these behaviors. Horrible, large-scale acts throughout history have begun with notions more innocent than these.

As a doctor, obesity (among other diseases) is an enemy. While I fight obesity and the behaviors that cause it, I treat the people in its grip with dignity and sensitivity; I treat them as equals they are.

Americans have battled the demons of stigma and prejudice for ages. Things are getting better, but there have been some hard times along the way - lives lost, destruction, chaos. Because this ground was so difficult to gain, any resurgence of dangerous behavior should be rightfully snuffed. In regards to Abercrombie and Fitch, in the absence of an apology or change in behavior, let the market forces of the American consumer respond with a resounding, "You will serve every kind."

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  • Doesn't this controversy feel a bit extreme? If someone that was a size xl handed over money to the absent minded jock at the Abercrombie counter to buy a size small shirt, it's not like they would refuse service to them, I'm sure they would be more than happy to take their money, and there are countless other places that one can purchase clothing, and probably countless other clothing companies that are "exclusionary". I'm not condoning the condescending comments that the CEO made, but on that note, I'm not getting angry because I'm bored either.

  • I see what you're saying here, Dayton, but I think Dr. V. is pointing toward the genesis of radical bigotry. Something seemingly innocuous can develop into something much more powerful. By purposefully, and arrogantly, alienating an entire group of people, this CEO is actually saying that he supports bigotry. When these attitudes become mainstream, we could be in for a real problem.

  • Kyle this attitude is already mainstream. We've never ever been completely color/size blind.

    I think people are making this way bigger than it needs to be. Again people turning a mole hill into mountain.

    Companies have target markets and demographics. I'm not going to get super pissed about the "bigotry" that big and tall stores have toward smaller people. They sell 4XL and I'm only XL it's not fair that they don't make my size. They're discriminating against me. Not to mention the fact that it's not just obese people missing out. What about the body builder crowd? I willing to guess they don't wear small size T-shirts.

    If A&F wants to limit their sales to skinny insecure preps let them. That is the small market in a country full of fat people (including myself) that they want. It's a stupid business move by a stupid company. It doesn't need to be read into anymore than that. If you don't like it don't shop there. FIN!

    Lastly, The fact that this article starts off with the civil rights movement is ridiculous. You state that you don't want to make the comparison to a massive racist, but racism is your lead in? People actually died in the Civil rights movement fighting for equality, and you create a comparison (intended or not) to a stupid company that wont make an XL T-Shirt. I find that reckless and disrespectful.

  • I have to stand with Kage on this one gents. On the whole, being overweight stems from poor lifestyle choices (as always, there are exceptions, but far less than we would ever admit). The color of our skin is something that we were born into.

    In the end, this was a rather intelligent move by a terrible person. He knew that his comments would cause controversy; also known as the greatest marketing drive known to modern man. The larger problem lies in the fact that this will work, not the method in which it was purveyed.

  • I realize that people feel the need to demonize others that are different from them and that this is just part of who we are as a people, Garchow. I mean "mainstream" in the sense that this kind of bigotry is viewed as acceptable. You're probably right; this probably is merely a mole hill. But if people begin to accept this attitude rather than condemn it, who knows when the next Weimar Republic will spring up and begin to create a "Master Class." Scoff all you want, but this was very close to happening only 70 years ago based on one man's finger pointing. Do I believe that there will be some sort of obesity Holocaust, of course not, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't express our opinions on this man's idiocy.

    Your big and tall comparison is misleading. No one outwardly prefers to shop at these stores, so there's no real corollary there. Big and talls are focused on tailoring to larger individuals - that is their niche business. None of their brands have the "cool factor" of contemporary fashion stores that you'll find in the mall. Conversely, A&F is focused on excluding an "undesirable" demographic. One is a business practice, the other is bigotry.

    Oh, and Dr. V's lead-in isn't about racism, it's about the eradication of such. Whereas his later comment about Hitler is meant to put this example into perspective, while urging his audience to be cognizant of the potential damage that seemingly isolated or innocuous bigotry can cause.

    At any rate, this CEO is a total jackass freely exercising his First Amendment right to be so, and Dr. V. is exercising the same to point this out.

  • Great discussion, guys! All very intelligent thought stream.

  • The service should be available to everyone else in the group, including all sizes. It is wrong to discriminate towards a group of people because of their size. It is a shame that Abercrombie has not already seen that this is not an effective tool of marketing, but their sales are not dropping enough to make a difference.

  • This is a great blog post, but I'd like to point out that A&F's size discrimination is toward women ONLY. Men's sizes go up to XXL. There's a serious double standard with this company. It would be less upsetting if the exclusive size range was across the board (they aren't the only retailer to limit available sizes). Most of the controversy A&F has had over the years (and there has been plenty of it) has been targeted to women. From firing a female employes because of her physical disability (that didn't interfere with her job performance), to creating a collection of girl's underwear that included thongs, it's sad that our society has finally decided to boycott this company because the CEO said a majority of us aren't "cool enough" to shop there.

  • great point, Mellissa!

  • @Kyle McCarthy Like you said, I really don't think a obesity genocide is going to occur, so what makes A&F so special to garner this much attention and be labeled as a company that supports bigotry when this happens everywhere? I find it hard to believe that A&F is the only store that limits their sizes based on the image that they want to convey.

    However, I do agree the ceo seems like a total tool, but that's a fact of life, right? People exist that are jerks that are even jerkier at delivering what spills from their vocal chords...seems like we could put our energy toward something that is more productive than hating a company that has such a minuscule impact on everyone.

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