At a holiday gathering earlier this month, I noted with surprise and slight distaste that my friend's eleven year old sister had been "Abercrombie-d." The little girl who I had watched grow up, from sporting a little pink onesie, to wearing pastel corduroy overalls, to donning her first pair of flare jeans, had finally grown into a mini skirt. A tiny miniskirt. This once-little girl had grown into a really tiny miniskirt, with a sheer tee shirt to match. My little friend had been "Abercrombie-d."
Of course, I'm referring to the teenage retail wonderland that is Abercrombie and Fitch. Being Abercrombie-d is like being christened into youth culture. It is making the transition between being a sixth grade kid on the playground and being a sixth grade pre-adolescent, thank you very much. Being Abercrombie-d, however, requires much more than a full wardrobe of the store's wardrobe staples, including sheer shirts to be layered under even sheerer shirts, sheer leggings, skin-tight jeans, and teeny tiny miniskirts, paired with Ugg boots (a fashion trend that just won't die). Being Abercrombie-d means graduating from the Disney Channel and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and moving on to MTV and The Hills. It means knowing what oral sex is, and knowing a girl who thinks she performed it once (which means that being Abercrombie-d means "sort of knowing" what oral sex is). Being Abercrombie-d means knowing what the president stands for, knowing that you're against what he stands for, and thanking God that it's cool right now to be against what the president stands for.
(In the same sphere, for the more politically-cognizant twelve year olds, being Abercrombie-d also means knowing that Barack Obama is hot (in more ways than one), Bill O'Reilly is not (in more ways than one), and that your older brother's friends in the College Democrats are just plain cute).
There is something intrinsically adolescent about Abercrombie and Fitch. The music in the stores is loud, and the stores are generally dimly lit (although, nowhere near as dark as their competitor, Hollister, which is so dark it makes even the most youthful question whether they are prematurely losing their vision); it's distracting, but at the same time, it's energizing. The air is saturated with the scent of men's cologne, which seems to scream "I'm masculine!" because although there are enough hormones in the young Abercrombrie-d blood, it doesn't hurt to pump fake pheromones in the air. The store employees are pretty and hyper-assertive and all wearing outfits nearly identical to the one of the manikin (and probably the same size), and if you so much as accidentally wrinkle a shirt in their perfectly folded clothes' piles, ten of them swarm like bees to some refold the shirt you touched. I like to tell myself that I prematurely grew out of adolescence two years ago, but whenever I enter an Abercrombie store, I have the sudden urge to dance, slide into a miniskirt (two sizes too small and six inches too short), and pitch a temper tantrum because they don't have the newest must-have sweater in my size.
However, there's a darker side of being Abercrombie-d: it's the end of innocence and the start of life as a full-fledged teenager... and dealing with the pitfalls. There is the rise of hyper-sexualization; in the same vein that Abercrombie touts ads with nearly naked models, pre-teens become sexually active (generally without knowing how to do so safely, thanks to abstinence-only sex education), and start hearing rumors about those intangible "rainbow parties" that everyone loves to talk about. It's entering the age where a long-sleeved tee shirt is frumpy unless it's skin tight and has a risqué slogan printed on the bust, and where showing some skin is a near-requirement. While people (and parents) can decide for themselves on how they feel on this individual topic, I have trouble categorizing twelve year olds wearing the same clothes to the mall that twenty year olds wear to clubs as a positive thing.
(Especially because wearing those teeny-tiny miniskirts, at the very least, means that shaving one's legs becomes a daily requirement at the peach-fuzzed age of twelve).
For most young people, wearing Abercrombie and Fitch means they have a one tenth of one percent increase in their chance of being popular; not wearing Abercrombie and Fitch means they will likely never become popular. Feeling popular and accepted as a teenager (at least, for most teenagers) requires conformity. Hence, everyone wearing the same set of five or six outfits glides along with this notion quite smoothly. Being Abercrombie-d also requires loving the system. Young people feel empowered by sporting the words "Abercrombie" across their chests, even though they are more marketing vehicles for corporate teen engineering than the awkward teens with flexibility to grow (both literally, and figuratively, given how small Abercrombie's pants run!).
It's this same idea, "corporate teen engineering," that gives detractors of Generation Y their ammunition. As a Generation Y-er, I can vouch that my generation is nowhere near as ambitionless, apolitical, and apathetic as detractors try to peg us. What we are is impressionable--we don't quite know where we're going yet or why--and this is often translated into apathy (although, haven't young people in all generations been a little unsure from time to time?). However, it feels as though Abercrombie and Fitch and other teen conglomerates take advantage of the fact that young people are eager for acceptance, and thus eager to accept whatever Abercrombie and Fitch tells them as "cool." Why, in our culture, can't adolescence be a time to be awkward and unsure? Why can't we have pimples and cracking voices and often-unfortunate ensembles? Instead, Abercrombie and the likes displace the due teenage awkwardness with mounds and mounds of clothes, sexual innuendo, and conformity. We're like paper dolls, and instead of being colorful and different (and sometimes silly), we're dressed in varying carefully-pieced ensembles of khaki and navy blue, denim and pastel pink, and yellow and white, because we know that those are accepted. Companies like Abercrombie and Fitch jump in and tell young people what makes them cool (instead of letting them try to figure it out themselves), not to help them feel more self-assured, but simply to make a buck.
Not to mention, there are clearly sexist implications in this scenario. When young girls are raised to believe that wearing tee shirts with degrading slogans and very short skirts is what will make them accepted, how can they grow to be confident and fearless? I don't see us cultivating future female presidents in a generation that was raised in the degrading mindset (and minimal clothing) that defines Abercrombie and Fitch.
(And if nothing else, these girls will just be cold).
In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (the Free Press, October 2005), Ariel Levy, a contributing editor at New York, critiques the rise of young girls being encouraged to wear next-to-nothing. She notes a conversation she had with a female high school student; the young woman said her friends termed the Abercrombie and Fitch skirts "belts." Levy ties this into her theory that "faux empowerment" really isn't empowerment at all.
But how is an eleven year old supposed to comprehend sexual politics?
They don't, which is, again, why many accuse Abercrombie and Fitch (and their competing stores) of exploiting young people and drilling sexist ideas into their heads because the advertising guys in the corner offices know that's what sells.
In the fall of 2005, Abercrombie and Fitch was under fire for their provocative and generally demeaning tee shirts for women, while slogans like "I had a nightmare I was a brunette" and "Who needs brains when you have these?" scrawled across the bust. Ironically, Abercrombie executives got their you-know-whats handed to them by a pack of feminist-minded twelve to seventeen year olds in the Girls as Grantmakers program in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, who staged a boycott (or "girlcott," as they put it) of the tee shirts and landed on the Today Show discussing Abercrombie's misogynistic marketing with Katie Couric.
Those who evade being Abercrombie-d are an unusual species. They go against the grain. They think differently. And they refused to be confined to a teeny-tiny pair of Abercrombie jeans. Sometimes they're accepted into teen social circles, but more often than not, most are confused by their brash individualism and (usually subconsciously) their glowing confidence. (And in all reality, these anti-Abercrombie kids are probably the ones who end up with the corner offices paying everyone else's salary).
This isn't, by any means, to say that kids who wear Abercrombie can't be smart and ambitious and independent... but I'm not so sure that this is how Abercrombie wants their ideal consumer to be. I'd like to peg Abercrombie and Fitch as "just clothes," but I think the whole industry of selling to teenagers requires a certain exploitation of the curiosity (and often, insecurity) of this demographic... and it happens way too young. As an eighteen year old, I'd like to believe that my friends and I were Abercrombie-d a little older (maybe around thirteen?). I'd like to think that our Abercrombie miniskirts were a little longer, and that Abercrombie--and society let us wait a little longer before making us grow up and convincing us that conformity was the way to figure out who we were as individuals (ri-ight). More likely, I was just shorter and that's why my skirt was longer--because I know that we were sucked into this trick of trying to fit in and understand who we were all were by all wearing the same tiny clothes at eleven years old.
The beauty of the scenario? Even though I wore Abercrombie as a teen, I eventually figured out that I wasn't supposed to know who I was or what I wanted to be... and years later, I still don't know. The ugliness of that scenario? I wasted a huge sum of money on an Abercrombie wardrobe that wasn't particularly necessary for learning about life. And I probably didn't even look that cute.