“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
This quote by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, Mike Jeffries, taken from a 2006 article by Salon, has raised considerable ire in recent weeks.
For example, take this article by Sara Taney Humphreys from the Huffington Post on May 9, 2013 which has received over 165,000 ‘likes’ and 40,000 ‘shares’ on Facebook alone. In her appeal as a “former fat girl”, Humphreys laments not being able to shop at A&F as a youth and recounts the bullying she experienced in school. “I was the girl you singled out, Mr. Jeffries,” she writes. “I would not have been able to shop in your store and your cruel message would only have validated my tormentors and their bad behavior.”
Ironically, the outrage of Humphreys and others over the CEO’s comments does not appear to be related to his company’s profound exploitation of sexuality but rather his unwillingness to exploit all people, regardless of their size or economic status.
The greater outrage should be that it took Jeffries’ comments for many of us to realize the selective market targeting that pervades our consumerist culture. It should come as no surprise that the consumer-driven market of American capitalism targets all of us in one way or another. Jeffries’ comments may have indeed been in bad taste but they were in no way untrue.
The tendency to heap shame on A&F’s marketing methods appears to be an attempt to dismiss our own compliance in such a despicable enterprise. Humphreys writes, “Shame on you [Jeffries] for perpetuating the bully on the playground mentality, in the online community and with our youth. The message you are sending is reprehensible and an appalling waste of an opportunity.” However, the shame does not belong on Mike Jeffries. The shame belongs on us – for allowing our youth (and perhaps ourselves) to believe the lie that appearance is the same as self-esteem, that popularity is the same as success, and that a brand is the same as an identity.
If youth ministers are not careful, our ministries could reflect similar values to A&F.
Often it seems that youth are less interested in the quality of our content and more about the attendance of their friends. This can (and has in certain organizations) quickly turn our attention to a ministry of attraction rather than one of faithfulness We think, “If we could only attract the ‘popular’ kids, our attendance would boom.” Before we know it, we’re using the same type of selective marketing proposed by companies such as A&F, albeit in a more subtle – and devious – manner.
When we speak of our ministries or our churches, we must take care not to offer simple brand replacement (i.e. replacing A&F shirts with youth ministry shirts or secular music with Christian music). Rather we are offering identity transformation. This identity firmly establishes us in Christ and we exist within this new creation in a way that transcends cultural contrivances. Unlike the augmented identity offered by consumerist culture, Christianity offers a completely new identity. Perhaps this is the true desire of people like Humphreys: not a more egalitarian Abercrombie, but a new identity in Christ – one that affirms the value of all peoples no matter their size or status.
***Lest one believes this is a polemic against Sara Taney Humphreys, I have merely chosen her article as a well-articulated example of the predominant sentiment of other contributors.