Did any of you ever walk into Abercrombie & Fitch as teenagers and become struck immediately with the feeling that you didn’t belong there? I mean after you were assaulted by the scent of that absurdly pungent perfume that they must have somehow installed into the ventilation system. You’d look around at the people they hired to work there and quickly realize that they all looked eerily similar. To be an A&F girl, you had to fit a certain mold. They were all white, rail-thin, with perfectly shiny hair. And I’d wager a reasonable amount that you also had to fit into their XXS size in order to be hired.
Now we’ll set aside the fact that A&F was actually sued for their discriminatory hiring practices and they were in fact deliberately only hiring people that fit a particular ideal of beauty that they themselves had come up with (that’s a whole other article, trust me), but a recent experience of mine made me remember those trips to A&F and how pivotal they were in defining my relationship with my own body. Because let’s face it, those teenage years are some of the most defining — and damaging — for all of us as we grow up and try to figure out how to fit into society’s definition of ‘beautiful’.
I have this wonderful cousin named ‘Anna’. Well, to be fair, she’s not actually my cousin, but if anyone can explain to me the difference between ‘second’ cousins and ‘once-removed’ — preferably with single-syllable words and some sort of visual diagram only — I would be eternally grateful (please sent to firstname.lastname@example.org at your earliest convenience). Anna’s mother, ‘Cassie’, is actually my first cousin, but my grandparents’ immigration to the United States caused a large generational gap in my mother’s family that actually makes me fall somewhere in the midpoint between Anna and Cassie age-wise. So for all intents and purposes I call both Anna and Cassie my cousins, causing endless confusion for anyone actually trying to figure out how we’re all related. All of this to say that Anna is actually quite a bit younger than I am. She just turned 15, and she started high school a few months ago. A new school in fact that she’s never been to before, and one that requires that its students wear uniforms.
Now Anna is a beautiful young girl. She has a dazzling shy smile, bright eyes, and brown hair that her mother (my actual cousin) Cassie finally let her highlight this summer. Every woman on that side of the family is tall — I somehow missed out on that gene — and Anna cleared 5’9’’ right around her 13th birthday. In that regard she takes after Cassie, a tall willowy blond (I know, right?) who eats Orange Theory classes for breakfast. But in her build, Anna takes after her father — muscular, with a wide face, and even the same frames to her eyeglasses in case there was any doubt in the world that the two are related. Living in Florida, Anna is super active just due to her proximity to outdoor activities, but she also plays soccer and has a mother who does Orange Theory so as you might expect Anna is in perfectly fine shape for a teenaged girl. Yet something peculiar happened when she and her mother went to buy her new school uniform.
Weeks before the start of high school, Anna and Cassie excitedly made their way to the store where Anna would purchase her new school uniform. Anna was thrilled. She couldn’t wait to start her new school, and frankly she seemed elated at the idea of not having to worry about picking out a new outfit every morning. She even had a few friends from her junior high who were joining her at her new high school, and they’d already meticulously coordinated their first-day arrival plans so that none of them would have to walk in alone. Anna blissfully pictured the group of them strolling through the gates, all in line and perfectly #twinning in their matching uniforms.
It didn’t take long for her fantasy to come crashing down around her. The saleswoman took one look at Anna and started pulling out her largest sized skirts. Girls at this school were required to wear plaid pleated skirts, and the school’s emblem was strategically embroidered in particular locations to ensure that the girls didn’t hem, roll, or otherwise modify them to be too short to abide by the strict dress code. But what that meant for Anna, as it did for any other girl whose body didn’t fit into the standard mold dictated by whatever sadistic designer this school employed (probably hired after working at A&F…), was that no matter what she did there was no way for the skirt to look ‘normal’ on her. She tried on size after size, and each time looked in the mirror and was struck with the visual of looking like a human circus tent. Anna dissolved into tears in the fitting room while Cassie tried desperately to comfort her through the door.
After the two of them made their way home, both emotionally drained and simultaneously dreading Anna’s first day at school, Anna shut herself in her room in dismay, and Cassie set out on a mission to make it right. Convinced that there had to be a way to work around the restriction of altering the dresses in this particular case, she called tailors. When they told her they were familiar with the school’s policy so there was nothing to be done, she called the school. Although no help with the issue of alterations, the administrator Cassie spoke to did ask in a confused tone, “So none of the new plus-size skirts fit properly either?”
She went on to tell Cassie that they had recently developed a special line of skirts specifically for ‘larger’ girls like Anna, and she couldn’t imagine why the saleswoman wouldn’t have shown her those options. Hanging up the phone in indignation, Cassie realized she was going to have to drag her traumatized teenager back to the store and somehow explain to her that the only way for her to look halfway decent on her first day of school was by buying her clothes from some special hidden closet in the back.
So they returned to the store the next day, where luckily a different saleswoman was presiding who had actually heard of the ‘plus-size’ collection, and headed to the back room. The saleswoman asked for Cassie’s help sifting through the boxes in search of the elusive sizes, all while Anna watched on, feeling more rejected with each additional box they had to paw through to find anything that might fit her disfigured body — because what else could she think of herself in this situation? None of her other friends had any trouble finding skirts that fit. They’d all already texted pictures of themselves twirling in their new uniforms, perfectly matching one another, for Anna to further compare herself to.
Eventually Anna ended up with a skirt that both fit her and was the proper length, no circus tent in sight. But that’s not the point. The point is that the experience that she had to go through in order to find that skirt was nothing short of traumatizing. And I’m sure it’s one that she’ll remember for the rest of her life. It breaks my heart to think of what went through Anna’s mind in that dressing room. But it devastates me even more to know that she’s far from the first teenager to have such an experience.
Isn’t that why you all remember what it felt like to walk into Abercrombie & Fitch? Or when you had to go to a special section in the junior’s department at Nordstrom to find jeans that would fit over your thighs? From a very young age, girls are being told, literally through store displays, that there is a single, perfect, and supposedly achievable ideal of beauty and body. And if they don’t fit into it they should get used to being relegated to the back — embarrassed, outside the norm, disfigured.
I don’t want girls like Anna to feel that anymore, that sense of not belonging. So I’m going to do what I can to help us navigate the ridiculous world of retail that we’ve all come to live in — to demonstrate that we’re all beautiful, our bodies are all ‘normal’, and that we all belong.