Greatist Op-Eds analyze what’s making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. The thoughts expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect Greatist’s outlook.
This week, news broke that Abercrombie’s CEO Mike Jeffries had no interest in marketing his clothing to plus-size women. In response, media outlets across the globe expressed outrage, some labeling Jeffries an “asshole” for making women feel unwelcome in his store. Almost immediately, a petition appeared on Change.org asking Jeffries to “stop telling teens they aren’t beautiful.”
The Abercrombie debacle came right on the heels of H&M’s controversial decision to feature a plus-size model, Jennie Runk, in its advertisements. Meanwhile, department stores across North America and Europe have made headlines in the last few months for using mannequins that better resemble real people than Popsicle sticks.
At a time when many people, especially women, suffer from negative body image, all this news points to an essential question: Are marketers and media really responsible for making or breaking our self-esteem?
What’s the Deal?
In a Business Insider article published last week, Robin Lewis, co-author of The New rules of Retail, said Jeffries “doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store.” The article also mentioned a 2006 interview, in which Jeffries told Salon, “We want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” Jeffries went on to say that he’s well aware that his clothing line excludes customers of certain shapes and sizes, and he doesn’t mind.
It’s truly incredible that these news stories have sparked such intense conversations about the way the media helps shape our relationship to our bodies. At the same time, it’s too easy to point fingers at Abercrombie and media outlets that glorify the thin ideal. Sometimes it seems like all we need is a couple of models and mannequins who aren’t stick-thin and everyone’s body image would significantly improve.
But that’s too easy. In reality, skinny models and mannequins don’t cause anyone to feel any way about their bodies. While we can’t always control the size of the T-shirts on Abercrombie’s shelves, we do have the power to walk through the overly cologned aisles without feeling bad about ourselves. So why don’t we arm people with the psychological tools to develop a healthy body image — even in spite of messages that can damage our self-esteem?
Why It Matters
Research from the last few years suggests improving young people’s ability to interpret media messages can have a positive impact on their body image and self-esteem. And studies suggest media literacy is an especially important factor in young women’s risk of developing eating disorders. There’s some evidence that girls who see the stick-thin models in clothing ads and want to look just like them are more likely to have an eating disorder than those who see the same ads and brush them off as unrealistic  . Luckily, studies have shown that adolescents as well as college-age men and women who learn about media literacy at school show substantial improvements in body image. Most importantly, they’re subsequently less likely to internalize cultural ideals and stereotypes about beauty    .
These findings are crucial when considering the impact of Abercrombie and other stores’ decisions to advertise with super-skinny models. They suggest we have the power to minimize the impact these sometimes-unrealistic standards can have by focusing on internal, psychological issues (like self-confidence) in addition to environmental factors. By educating young people about their bodies and helping them interpret media messages in a balanced manner, we can help nurture a world where people can walk through a shopping mall feeling confident in their own skin.
Getting people to talk about body image and urging retailers to use models of a variety of shapes and sizes are key steps to improving people’s body image. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what size clothing is on display if we don’t feel good about our bodies in the first place. Body image and self-esteem are complex issues that differ for everyone, but they always start from within.
How do you feel about Abercrombie’s decision not to sell plus-size clothing? Sound off in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.