Is Abercrombie & Fitch the enemy? Or is it us?

I worked at Abercrombie & Fitch before studying body image. They deserve some of the fault, but we must change too

Published May 30, 2013 3:28PM (EDT)

 Michael Jeffries     (AP/Mark Lennihan)
Michael Jeffries (AP/Mark Lennihan)

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.

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 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?

By Kjerstin Gruys

Kjerstin Gruys is a PhD candidate in sociology at UCLA and the author of the recently published book "Mirror, Mirror Off The Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year" (Avery; May 2013)

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