Weight Discrimination within The Fashion Industry

The metaphorical phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” is a saying that most people have heard of ever since they were young. The saying means that no prejudgment should be made towards anyone or anything, just by the way they appear to be on the outside. Yet, in today’s society, if an individual does not look a certain way, or does not fit into a certain category, he or she may be treated differently with an unfair advantage. Ultimately, this unfair treatment is called discrimination. There are many types of discrimination, but one that is often overlooked and ignored is weight discrimination. In a recent study where the occurrence of multiple forms of discrimination was examined in a nationally representative sample of 2,290 American adults, it was found that weight discrimination is common among Americans, with rates relatively close to the prevalence of race and age discrimination.[1] It was also found that among women, weight discrimination was even more common than racial discrimination. Among all adults in the study, weight discrimination was more prevalent than discrimination due to ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical disability.[2]

With this, it can be noted weight discrimination is continuously on the rise and can occur within many settings, especially within the fashion industry.   Companies such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Lululemon and Lilly Pulitzer have all undergone scandals that include weight discrimination. In 2006, CEO Michael Jeffries of Abercrombie and Fitch in an interview for Salon Magazine stated that the company clothes would not be over the size of ten, simply to target “cool kids.”  In 2013, the controversy gained renewed attention in which many have boycotted the company. As for Lululemon, in 2013, the company’s yoga pants were complained by customers to be too see-through, at which founder Chip Wilson responded by blaming the sheerness issue on the size of women’s thighs.  In May 2015, during a photo tour of the Lilly Pulitzer headquarters done by New York Magazine, photos were snapped from an employee’s cubicle which had cartoon sketches of “overweight” women with captions that stated, “Put it down, carb face!” and “Just another day of fat, white and hideous… you should probably just kill yourself.” The brand responded by saying that those sketches were the work of one person and do not reflect the actual values of the company.  Though this may be true, one may wonder why this wasn’t seen to be inappropriate for the culture of the workplace. Thus, the ethical, legal, and social responsibility issues regarding weight discrimination within these examples will be further discussed.

The Abercrombie and Fitch scandal first began back in 2006 when CEO Michael Jeffries held an interview with Salon Magazine. In this interview, Jeffries specifically stated, “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.”[3] By this, Jeffries meant that he only wanted his customers to be those of the thinner body types, as the company would only sell clothes that were up to the size of ten. This creates the ethical issue of discriminating against individuals of the larger body types immediately. Though it may be a free country and companies can do as they please, Abercrombie and Fitch created a hostile environment for those of the larger body types. Being told that one cannot shop at a certain store because one does not look a certain way or fit into a certain size category creates a bigger problem. Weight discrimination can often lead to worse effects such as emotional, social, and physical damages.   In 2013, the controversy rose up again as the comments made by Jeffries back in 2006 resurfaced the Internet. Within two weeks, Abercrombie and Fitch faced a “reputation nosedive” and was constantly hit with negative feedback. Jeffries tried his best to remedy the situation and even posted a rebuttal on Facebook, but people were not having it.[4] Finally in 2014, Abercrombie & Fitch decided to add plus sizes to women’s clothing, with the sizes of 12 and 14, though these sizes may be only purchased online.

Lululemon underwent a scandal that regarded weight discrimination in 2013. The scandal began in the summer as some of the company’s yoga pants were regarded as too sheer by consumers. The company is claimed to sell high-end yoga apparel, but when a number of consumers purchased the signature Luon yoga pants, many found that the pants were too sheer and revealed parts of women’s bodies that were meant to be covered.[5] CoFounder, Chip Wilson, responded to the sheerness issue by saying there was a “technical error in fabrication.” Because of this, Lululemon underwent a companywide crisis and the stock price greatly decreased. Shortly after, customers began to complain that the pants also started pilling, which disappointed many as the brand itself costs a good a mount of money. Chip Wilson then responded by saying, “There’s always been pilling. Women will wear a seat belt that doesn’t work. Or a purse that doesn’t work, and quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for [our pants]. It’s really about the rubbing of the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”[6] It can be seen here that with these comments, Wilson is definitely discriminating against women of larger body types.   By saying these words, Wilson also faces the issue of upholding a positive reputation of his company. Immediately, as he is a CoFounder of Lululemon, the public’s perception of the company is slandered just by these comments that have been made. A company is most definitely reflected upon a CEO’s actions and words. And thus, shortly after, Chip Wilson decided to step down from his position, as he believed this would be best for the reputation of the company.

In May of 2015, New York Magazine did a photo tour of the headquarters of the fashion retail company, Lilly Pulitzer. With photos of expected bright colors, tropical vibes and well-dressed employees, there was something in the office that came to a surprise: fat-shaming cartoons on the walls.[7] There were two cartoon images on the walls, one with the caption that said, “Just another day of fat, white and hideous… You should probably just kill yourself,” and another that said, “Put it down, carb face.” To respond to these images, Jane Schoenbarn, Vice President of Creative Communications, wrote in an email that stated, “These illustrations were the work of one individual and were posted in her personal work area. While we are an employer that does encourage people to decorate their own space, we are a female-dominated company and these images do not reflect our values. We apologize for any harm this may have caused.”[8] Though the images were of one individual’s, the question that comes to mind is that why were the images not seen before the photo tour to be inappropriate for the culture of the workplace? It should not take public display for anyone to realize that these cartoon images most definitely promote weight discrimination and could harm the reputation of the company as a whole. The images might have been personal, but they should have definitely not been posted in a professional setting, especially in a corporate environment. When at work, one should keep their personal lives separate from their work lives.

In conclusion, weight discrimination is often overlooked and ignored, as there are very few legal options available to fight against it. Currently, there are no federal laws that exist to prohibit discrimination against weight. There is however, one state law in Michigan, along with a few local jurisdictions that address discrimination based on appearance or weight. But, most individuals who experience weight discrimination within the United States must take other legal actions through indirect ways.[9] As a society that is continuously growing, it is our social responsibility to shift our attitudes towards individuals of larger body types, as they are human beings who deserve the equal treatment that they deserve. It is our job to take the necessary actions needed to create legislation in order for these equal rights to be established.

Bibliography

Bradford, Harry. “Abercrombie & Fitch’s Reputation Takes A Hit After CEO’s ‘Fat’ Comments Resurface [CHART].” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Chan, Jennifer. “Lululemon Founder Says Yoga Pants “Don’t Work” on All Women’s Bodies.” E! Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Denezit-Lewis, Benoit. “The Man behind Abercrombie & Fitch.” Salon.com RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2015.

Feldman, Jamie. “Lilly Pulitzer Under Fire For Fat-Shaming Cartoons In Its Headquarters.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

Puhl, Rebecca. “Obesity Action Coalition » Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice.” Obesity Action Coalition Weight Discrimination A Socially Acceptable Injustice Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Roose, Kevin, and Charlotte Cowlse. “Lululemon Is Handling the Sheer Yoga Pants Scandal All Wrong.” NY Mag. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

[1] Rebecca Puhl, “Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice,” http://www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/resource-articles-2/weight-bias/weight-discrimination-a-socially-acceptable-injustice (Accessed November 25, 2015)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Benoit Denezit-Lewis, “The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch,” http://www.salon.com/2006/01/24/jeffries/ (Accessed November 26, 2015)

[4] Harry Bradford, “Abercrombie & Fitch’s Reputation Takes a Hit After CEO’s ‘Fat’ Comments Resurface,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/16/abercrombie-reputation-ceo-comments_n_3288836.html (Accessed November 27, 2015)

[5] Kevin Roose and Charlotte Cowlse, “Lululemon is Handling the Sheer Yoga Pants Scandal All Wrong,” http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/03/lululemons-missed-opportunity.html (Accessed November 28, 2015)

[6] Jennifer Chan, “Lululemon Founder Says Yoga Pants “Don’t Work” on All Women’s Bodies,” http://www.eonline.com/news/478169/lululemon-founder-says-yoga-pants-don-t-work-on-all-women-s-bodies (Accessed November 28, 2015)

[7] Jamie Feldman, “Lilly Pulitzer Under Fire For Fat-Shaming Cartoons in its Headquarters,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/26/lily-pulitzer-fat-shaming-cartoons-headquarters_n_7443836.html (Accessed November 29, 2015)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rebecca Puhl, “Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice,” http://www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/resource-articles-2/weight-bias/weight-discrimination-a-socially-acceptable-injustice (Accessed November 30, 2015)

Source: Brettany Tu, BUS 447 – Business Ethics, Mark Palermo, Fall 2015

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