Photo: courtesy Darryl Roberts
The power of one person can affect the many. And if you're doubting it, just turn your attention to Cali Linstrom. She's the 17-year-old high school student from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, who, this week, boldly addressed Abercrombie & Fitch executives in person in the aftermath of last week's significant protest in front of the clothing giant's Downtown Chicago flagship store.
The brouhaha came to a boil last week after statements from Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries resurfaced from a 2006 Salon article. In it, writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote, in part:
As far as Jeffries is concerned, America's unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. "In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," he says. "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."
Needless to say, the resurfaced article and Jeffries' comments raised plenty of eyebrows. Suddenly, bold headlines surfaced and television and the Internet gobbled up the delicious news bytes -- Kirstie Alley even slammed Abercrombie & Fitch on Good Morning America; elsewhere, Jamie Utt of The Good Men Project boldly noted that "The Internet is agreement: Fuck Abercrombie & Fitch," which was also in response to the #FitchTheHomeless campaign.
Meanwhile, Linstrom decided to lend her support and join protest organizers in Chicago -- she created a number of signs and helped out with fliers. Dozens of other teenagers protested, too, and more than a dozen news crews covered the event. When networks contacted Abercrombie & Fitch for a response, all that came back was "No comment."
After the protest, Linstrom was concerned that Jeffries had not issued an apology, or, at the very least, acknowledged what he was quoted as saying in the Salon article.
Enter Darryl Roberts, the attention-grabbing documentary filmmaker of the America The Beautiful films. Roberts and Linstrom decided to stage another protest -- this time on Monday May 20 and in front of the Abercrombie & Fitch corporate headquarters in New Albany, Ohio. Many teens had planned on attending as well, and Lynn Grefe, the president of the National Eating Disorders Association was also on board.
But on May 14th, Jeffries issued a statement as a form of an apology:
I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. 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.
--Mike Jeffries, Chairman & CEO
Linstrom wrote back, noting, in part:
I'm sorry you consider your words to be taken out of context, but what you said is blatantly offensive to many people including myself. It is completely adequate for your company to choose a particular segment of customers. I find no issues surrounding who you target for business, and that is undeniably acceptable. I'm pleased to hear that A&F is opposed to any discrimination or bullying, although I hope you can see how your statements would be perceived as bullying. I accept your apology and am genuinely pleased to hear that you regret your choice of words ...
The May 20 protest was called off. But then came a curve ball. After Linstrom's remarks, Abercrombie execs called for a meeting to talk the whole thing out -- more or less. It's a nice move, especially from a corporation that so vigorously glorifies a "Look This Way (e.g. thin -- for women -- and buff -- for guys) And You'll Be So Cool" ideal. I've talked about that line of thinking in great detail in my Shut Up, I'm Eating blog and in the book I co-wrote, Shut Up, Skinny Bitches, which addresses body image, eating disorders and much more.
I recently caught up with Linstrom to learn more about the events and the actual meeting with Abercrombie. Read on:
Greg Archer: Why did you want to be a part of the protest in downtown Chicago?
Cali Linstrom: I had a history with an eating disorder and when I saw Mike Jeffries' comments [from the 2006 article] that really struck something in me that made me realize that statements like those can fuel bullying and fuel low self-esteem for people. I couldn't ignore them and sit back and do nothing about a major CEO saying something about physical appearance and the size of peoples' pants or how many friends they have. I feel like I had to do something.
Greg Archer: How did it feel protesting?
Cali Linstrom:It felt great. People were really receptive on the streets. Not one flier was dropped on the ground. You know, when people protest, they hand out things and everyone looks at it for a second and everyone drops it on the ground? There were none on the ground. It felt very good to stand up for something I believe in and actually know that I can empower other teens to do the same.
Greg Archer: I think I know the answer to this, but as a teen, what are your thoughts on the majority of images of people, especially young people, found in the media and advertising today? Do you feel pressured to look and feel a certain way?
Cali Linstrom: Oh, absolutely. In the eating disorders community, we call it "thinspiration," where the companies have the advertisements of extremely thin women, so when you look at them it's almost like inspiration to want to be that thin and take measures to get like that. Those type of images definitely have an impact and can be hurtful. It has an impact over how you feel about yourself.
Greg Archer: After the protest, was it that you, or you and others, were expecting some kind of apology from Abercrombie & Fitch over the original statements made in 2006?
Cali Linstrom: My main goal, along with Darryl Roberts was that we wanted an apology. We wanted Mike Jeffries to at least retract his statement or make a statement referring to the things he said seven years ago. I wasn't expecting to hear from him. I was expecting: "No comment, no comment." So when we received that statement from him, it was an absolute victory. But I can't say that on the behalf of everyone. Not everyone was pleased with his apology.
Greg Archer: And then you wrote back something after the apology ...
Cali Linstrom: I wrote back a response to his apology. He did address body image issues and you could tell he read what we were concerned about. I mean, was it sincere? That's debatable. But we can't use that against him and say, "He's not being sincere."
Greg Archer: Did you want a little more after that?
Cali Linstrom: After that, I was hoping Abercrombie would present more business-like behavior and maybe release a few more statements saying that they were going to start accepting and including [people], and maybe include ads that included people with different body shapes and say, "You know, we're all cool" ... or some sort of change that could come out of the company.
Greg Archer: And then came the idea for another protest.
Cali Linstrom: Yes. A lot of people organized the other one, but for the one scheduled for the 20th, Darryl and I had the idea to protest outside of the headquarters at 1 p.m. and then move to the main Abercrombie store in Columbus, Ohio, at 4 p.m. It was going to be a big protest. But we called off the protest because of the apology, and I think that after they read our acceptance, that they wanted to talk about our concerns and a meeting was scheduled.
Greg Archer: And what was that meeting like?
Cali Linstrom: It was pretty intense. There were some differences [of opinion] with some other people we were with, but we wanted to stand as a group because it was more powerful. There were six of us there. I started off the meeting by explaining who I was, and how this affected me and the idea of an anti-bullying campaign that focuses on self-love and self-acceptance, and then we went around, and everyone shared their concerns. Personally, I don't think it's realistic that Abercrombie would add plus-sizes; that just changes their company and their image and who they are. One of the requests [from the group] was to eliminate size zero and double zero ... I don't think that would happen.
Greg Archer: Mike Jeffries was not there. But do you feel as if you were heard?
Cali Linstrom: Yes. Surprisingly, they were extremely receptive, especially to the anti-bullying idea. They seemed to really like that and I am excited to help them maybe turn around their image and maybe pursue this anti-bullying campaign that they may be sponsoring. I think that could be very powerful for their company.
Greg Archer: Just to be clear, when we talk about anti-bullying in this sense ...
Cali Linstrom: We're saying that telling a group of people who don't fit a certain standard; that they are inferior or they are wrong, based on their body, physical appearance or popularity ... is cutting down that group of people.
Greg Archer: Not many teenagers would go the extra distance and do what you have done. So, how do you feel about what's unfolded over the last 10 days?
Cali Linstrom: It's definitely been a lot. I hope that I can empower teens and give a voice to the voiceless. Darryl Roberts has really been able to help me make this happen and I am lucky to work with him. He made it possible for me to stand up for myself and for many other people.
Greg Archer: As a teen today, what is one of the biggest challenges you face?
Cali Linstrom: Well, going to high school every single day is not a lot of fun and bliss [laughs]. Having had an eating disorder and trying to recover while still in high school has been one of the most difficult things -- ever! Because thin is glorified. Weight loss is main topic of conversation -- who's losing weight, how to lose weight and even taking extreme measures to do it. Now the word "healthy" has a new definition that means restricting calories, basically, which isn't necessarily the healthiest thing. One thing that has been really hard ... people are insecure and one way they express their insecurities is to cut each other down -- and I mean all the time. I mean, gossiping, talking "shit" as we say, or going on Twitter and Tweeting about people. Just constant drama. It's bullying, but they don't realize that.
Greg Archer: Do you think all that's happened may serve as an example for other companies to meet with others on a common ground, especially as it relates to this issue?
Cali Linstrom: One of the best things that has come out of this is letting society and people know that it's not OK to make those statements. A great thing that has came out of is it being able to empower teenagers and give a voice to people who don't know how to speak out. But it's also been a good experience in recovery to see that I can make a difference in the world because sometimes, you just feel helpless and alone. But one person is powerful. Don't under-estimate the power you have.