Last week, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire over comments the company's CEO Mike Jeffries made in 2006 about not wanting to sell his chain's clothing to overweight or uncool people. According to Jeffries, Abercrombie & Fitch's clothing should be exclusively available to popular, good-looking individuals. The plot thickened soon after when subsequent media reports revealed that Abercrombie and Fitch doesn't even sell women's sizes above large (size 10).
Unsurprisingly, Jeffries' interview sparked considerable public outcry in the media and the response was virtually all negative. For some reason, people didn't seem to like the idea that your size or social standing is what should determine whether you're "cool" enough to shop at a store.
The funny thing is, despite being a completely abhorrent message to be sending to customers and a veritable PR scandal, Jeffries' pronouncement about making his brand exclusive to cool people nevertheless shows an understanding of young people's social dynamics, especially in schools. By creating an association between his products and being cool and attractive, his company would inevitably move more inventory.
It's certainly an exploitative strategy, but an effective one if it works. By preying on teenagers' insecurities (that uncontrollable need to fit in with the rest), Abercrombie & Fitch is able to manipulate them into buying its clothes. Nonetheless, it doesn't paint a pleasant picture of how students' decisions are motivated. If Jeffries' strategy is a sound one, youth are driven not by their own desires, but by a need to conform.
Now, as young people going through adolescence, teenagers are naturally self-conscious individuals. We're physically and socially awkward, kinda gawky, and easily embarrassed. Unsurprisingly, our teenage years become a breeding ground for insecurities.
Whatever the reason, it's easy for young people to feel out of place. All the while, there is an aching need to fit in. For many students, conforming to the behavioural and physical norms set by their peers is the only way for them to feel that they belong. Unless they believe that their peers accept the way they look, speak and act, school can become a much more intimidating environment.
The fear of being judged and isolated by others is one of the scariest parts of school for many teenagers. As a result, to avoid embarrassment, students naturally gravitate towards and even imitate those of our peers who are less awkward, better looking and more confident. The cool kids.
At school, being cool is tantamount to being generally well respected and admired. The popularity and esteem derived from being cool make it something that we all, whether openly or not, aspire to become.
As such, it isn't hard to believe that Abercrombie & Fitch would try to associate their products with being cool. There may only be four Abercrombie & Fitch stores in Canada, but even so, it's not as if it's the only company to play up the "cool" factor to attract youth to their brand. After all, retailers are ultimately motivated by their bottom lines. If the plan works, they'll use it.
What's unfortunate about the current use of these strategies is how they highlight an underlying superficiality among young people. If decisions are based on wanting to be cool rather than the values we personally hold, what does that say about our generation? And why do we define "cool" in material terms (by the clothes we're wearing) rather than by who we are?
Admittedly, young people are starting to sound a little shallow. Materialism already consumes our lives. We cannot let it subsume our identities as well.
Moving forward, we must be more cognizant of how our actions, although perhaps out of self-preservation, could harm us in the long run.
One question remains: deep down, who do we aspire to be?
Patrick Butler is a Grade 12 student at Queen Elizabeth Regional High School. He lives in Conception Bay South and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.