As a junior at Glenbard West High School, Cali Linstrom says she’s used to hearing girls “talk about how much they hate their bodies.”
So, when she read comments referencing “fat” people by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, the Glen Ellyn teen decided an apology was in order.
“To me, saying that people don’t belong in his clothes and that they can’t belong proves he’s not only discriminating against people, he’s bullying them,” the 17-year-old said.
This week, Linstrom got her wish — and more.
After she threatened a protest at the clothing giant’s Ohio headquarters, Jeffries issued an apology and Linstrom was granted a sit-down meeting with some of the company’s top executives.
There, she outlined her vision for a public-service campaign that “focuses on self-love and self-acceptance,” and asked Abercrombie to empower youths rather than feed into today’s “image-obsessed society.”
“It’s hard to go to high school and hear all these girls talk about how much they hate their bodies,” Linstrom said, adding she herself has battled an eating disorder. “I just want to help every boy or girl who is struggling.”
She took up the cause earlier this month after comments Jeffries made to Salon.com in 2006 were resurrected and garnered new attention. In the 7-year-old interview, Jeffries told the publication that Abercrombie & Fitch targets “cool kids” as opposed to “not-so-cool kids.”
“We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he said. “A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. The companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla.”
That view struck a chord with Linstrom.
“I felt like we had to do something instead of letting a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company make statements like these and not get called out for them,” she said.
Linstrom contacted Chicago filmmaker Darryl Roberts, for whom she has interned as a researcher, to help organize a May 13 protest outside Abercrombie’s Chicago store.
Roberts said the demonstration drew about 35 sign-waving teenagers who landed extensive news coverage and set the stage for a second protest in Ohio after the company failed to respond.
The follow-up demonstration, planned for last Tuesday, was called off after Jeffries replied and his company agreed to meet with Linstrom, as well as Roberts and Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association.
“It was surreal,” said Roberts, whose series of “America the Beautiful” documentaries focus on teen empowerment and the sexualization of youth. “This is America — a very big country — and Abercrombie is a major retailer. Yet the actions of one 17-year-old girl was the cause of this meeting happening. That was a very overwhelming thought. I couldn’t believe I was there.”
In a statement responding to Linstrom, Jeffries maintained his previous quotes were “taken out of context” but said he “sincerely regret(s) that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.
“We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics,” Jeffries said.
In a subsequent statement, the company added it “look(s) forward to continuing this dialogue and taking concrete steps to demonstrate our commitment to anti-bullying in addition to our ongoing support of diversity and inclusion.
“We want to reiterate that we sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused by comments we have made in the past which are contrary to these values,” the statement said.
On Thursday, an Abercrombie & Fitch representative declined to comment further. But Linstrom said she believes some sort of change is on the horizon.
“They were really receptive,” she said of the executives. “They understood that what Mike Jeffries said was not appropriate and not business-like. They want to make some changes and maybe change the image of Abercrombie in a way.”
One idea she pitched was a cross-country tour of high schools where youth advocates and Abercrombie representatives could open a dialogue about issues such as bullying and discrimination.
Linstrom, who wants to study adolescent psychology after graduation, said she understands the retailer can’t immediately introduce plus-size clothes or eliminate its 0 and 00 sizes, though she says that would be nice.
Then again, you have to start somewhere.
“Women weren’t allowed to vote at one point, and we changed that,” she said. “We can turn things around.”
Change: Abercrombie CEO says company committed to anti-bullying messageCopyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.