The Right to Discriminate?

Dream WorldThe recent Ambercrombie and Fitch dust-up has brought up some common issues faced by activists.  The minute we point out corporate behavior that is discriminatory, someone pipes up that corporations have a right to discriminate. Of course, that is not the point.

When someone engages in activism against discriminatory practices we’re rarely arguing whether or not someone has the legal right to do the thing (though it’s very often a legitimate question and this type of activism is valuable), we’re typically questioning whether it’s ok with us that they are doing it and, if not, what we want to do about it.

Whenever an activist says “This corporation’s practices are discriminatory and that’s wrong,”  someone always feels like the definitive and final answer to the concern is to say “It’s legal for them to discriminate in that way .”  To which I would like to say “Dude, thanks for pointing that out, because I forgot to eat my bowl of No Shit Sherlock Flakes this morning.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where the fact that bigotry against a group is legal constitutes a good enough reason to let it go on unchallenged.

Yes, I know it’s not illegal for a clothing store to delight in their refusal to make plus size clothes (though if a businesses’ expression of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to take pride in discriminating against a group of people for how they look, I think they might want to rethink their use of precious freedoms.)  Regardless, I have the right to discuss that businesses choices, take action against them, and try to incite others to take action as well.  The fact that someone, somewhere can justify the behavior is not a reason for me to stop taking action against it.  If discrimination is happening, it’s highly likely that there is already a justification for it, but that doesn’t make it right or indicate that nobody should try to change it.

Clothing businesses are allowed to choose a target market and are not obligated to make clothes for everyone, but when a business’s goal is to make their brand a status symbol, then their choice to systematically exclude all people who look a certain way becomes more than a simple business decision, it becomes a purposeful creation of a second class who can’t access the “status” they provide. It becomes especially problematic when almost every business that exists in a niche makes the same “business decision.”  When a “business decision” purposefully excludes a group of people in a way that adds to the stigma already heaped upon that group of people because of how they look, then that decision deserves examination and critique.

As a fat dancer, and now training for a marathon, I find myself constantly frustrated by an industry that tells people that exercise is good for us, but seems to want fat people to do it in togas that we make out of bedsheets because god forbid a fatty be seen working out in their clothes. So they justify it by calling it a “business decision” – let’s remember that plenty of horrible wrong things had similar justifications – the existence of a justification does not indicate an absence of issues, or a lack of impetus for complaint.  Pointing out the systematic exclusion of a group, and the ways in which that increases stigma on that group is not entitlement, it’s classic civil rights action.

One thing I’ve learned about activism is that when you decide to do something, there will always be someone who insists that there is a reason why you shouldn’t do it.  In my experience, anything worth doing is worth doing despite the critics.

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42 thoughts on “The Right to Discriminate?

  1. It’s not possible to know the motives of individuals who make these arguments, but often – and I recognise this may not be true of the people/person you’re speaking of – those who argue for privilege are those who are benefiting from it. In the case of A&F, arguing for the corporation’s right to insult people is even more problematic, because their business behaviour has gone way beyond trying to keep “cool” people out of their stories. The list of their questionable business practices is long.

  2. there’s a petition circulating trying to get a&f to make plus sized clothing. What I don’t understand is why anyone in the plus sized community would want to give their money to a business after the CEO’s display of jackassery.

    1. I agree with you, though as always, people are well within their own rights to petition for what they want. But to me, A&F’s actions have gone beyond neglecting to carry plus sizes or even defending that choice from a cost sense (developing patterns, etc.). They didn’t just “not consider” plus sizes or argue that it’s “impractical” for them to do so: They are ideologically in favor of discrimination and exclusion. That is something I will not support with my dollars, no matter how many of their clothes might ever be available in my size.

    2. I much preferred the approach of the person who started a campaign for people to donate their A&F clothes to the homeless. More clothes for people who really need them PLUS a bit ol’ slap in the face to the ‘cool factor.’

        1. A&F discriminates against many stigmatized groups (minorities, disabled, poor, fat, etc). So if a person was to donate clothes or repurpose them to any of those groups is going to have the potential to feel stigmatizing.

          1. That’s not the point the critique is making. Stacy Bias and others, and I agree with them, are pointing out that “Fitch the Homeless” only works to “rebrand AF” or “slap them in the face” if you agree that no one wants to look like a homeless person–that they’re gross,
            smelly, etc. It’s activism on the backs of homeless people.

            1. I’m sorry if you thought that I was trying to say that was the point that Stacy Bias was making, that was absolutely not what I was saying. My point was this: Any attempt to re-brand or repurpose A&F clothing to ANY group the company doesn’t target(since they discriminate against groups that have and currently are discriminated against in society, like minorities, poor, fat, etc.) has the possibility to feel or be stigmatizing. To repeat: re-branding or re-purposing those clothes will be difficult if not impossible to do in a way that will leave all people feeling good about it, it will bring up some of that discrimination that has been going on in our society for a long time. I hope this is clear.
              Also, can we please stop repeating the phrase “gross, smelly homeless person”, I know that these are words that some people use, but it is just really awful.

    3. This is actually old news; the comments about plus-size customers were made 6 or 7 years ago. While A&F hasn’t changed in the meantime, their market share has – turns out the “cool kids” like to shop somewhere else. I suspect that this is a jaded, calculated move to get them more attention and press, hoping that fat-haters will start patronizing the store again to make a point. Lame.

  3. Back in the 1950’s it was perfectly legal for businesses in the south to refuse to serve customers based on the color of their skin. Does that make the lunch counter protests wrong?

    The hell it does!

    Right now it’s perfectly legal for businesses to refuse to make items to fit us and then for them to publicly insult us for not fitting into their super skinny clothes. Nobody will go to jail for cutting off their clothing sizes at a size that would fit Olive Oyl a bit tightly. Does that make it right for them to blame us publicly and tell little girls everywhere that if they get too fat for the super tiny clothes, they can’t be worthy people?

    The hell it does!

    I think that sums it up nicely.

  4. Sadly, I have no doubt this is a marketing ploy a la Samantha Brick. You couldn’t pay for the kind of advertising that pillock is now getting. I wish this weren’t the case, but I can guarantee that after those comments went public, morons would have swarmed in their jillions to the A&F webshite to see if they were skinny enough to fit into the clothes and at least some of them would have made a purchase while they were there. Possibly to prove they were thin enough to meet some random person’s standard, possibly because they saw something on there they genuinely liked, whatever, a fool and his money are soon drawn to the A&F webshite. Even people who had never heard of it or given a sun blushed shit about it before.

    On another point, I think I’ve commented here before that while there are certainly cases where higher end designers don’t want fat people in their clothes, a lot of times on the high street for us mere mortals it really is a simple business decision; scaling, pattern making, fabric cutting (wow, especially that) and so on are just so much more complicated than many people realise. The additional fabric in a plus size dress isn’t what drives a price up; it’s having to create a size break, scale around a new medium, get a new fit model, adjust details so they scale properly, cut the fabric to minimise waste and so on. None of this negates the difficulty and heartbreak of not being able to find a decent wardrobe, and it certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t campaign for companies to expand; innovation is a great thing and fashion does seem to be a bit behind the fact that we are getting bigger overall. But as I think I said last time, you have a better chance of success if you understand your obstacle, and putting it down to simple hatred of fat people won’t help your cause.

    (To be honest, I doubt that’s actually even true for A&F. I expect they have a limited size run for cost and logistical reasons, like many brands, and then the CEO saw a terrific marketing opportunity. Which doesn’t mean he’s not a prize prick.)

    And again as I’ve said before, I think we may be losing sight of what a fair price for clothing is anyway, in our world of uber-cheap fast fashion. Given the recent tragedy in Bangladesh, we should be rethinking this urgently. People often complain that fast fashion stores don’t go up to plus sizes and they have to pay more than this to find clothes. To me, this is the wrong problem to address. The real issue is that workers in Asia are being forced to produce these cheap clothes in sweatshops and, as we see, in horrifically unsafe buildings. This is not a case of me trying to draw attention away from one problem (“who cares about your clothes, we should be saving orang-utans”); it’s a case of acknowledging that cheap, fast fashion is a dangerous industry that exploits people in developing countries, and our response to it should not be “we can’t get our clothes that cheap”, because simply expanding the industry as it is now will have a much, much higher human cost than difficulty in finding a wardrobe. Our response should be “Decent and fair working conditions for the people who make our clothes, and THEN lobby the industry to be more inclusive.”

      1. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that it has something to do with the fact that men have much less diversity in their shapes than women do. Almost all men, however thin or fat, have shoulders broader than their hips, and most tend to carry weight in the stomach area. Women are much more diverse than this and scaling up is harder. Especially since designs on women’s clothing tends to be more complicated and detailed.

        I also wouldn’t know how the sizing difference between the smallest and biggest men’s clothes compares to women’s. The letters and numbers correlate to different size runs and may not be directly comparable.

        With all that said, I wouldn’t want to imply that I think A&F’s CEO (I can’t remember his name and don’t intend to give him any Google juice) is anything other than an enormous prat, or that you shouldn’t continue to lobby companies to expand their plus size ranges.

    1. Since their women’s sizes only run to a size 10, while most of their competitors go to a size 14 or 16, and some all to way up to an 18, I consider the economic argument frankly piffle in this particular case.

      Yes, overall the situation in clothing manufacture is more complex than most people know, but this specific case is all about further narrowing the range of ‘acceptable’ in the face of other retailers who offer more choices and I do think that needs to be called out.

      1. It may well be. “Higher end” stores (as in, those who charge more and do not produce such high numbers of goods; I use the term “higher end” for want of a better expression) do trade on a degree of exclusiveness. That’s why designer wear is so expensive and, sadly, one reason the sizing in it is so limited. Does A&F count as a ‘designer’ range? I didn’t think it did; perhaps I was wrong. I’ve never given a monkey’s about them and their CEO has given me further disincentive to care any further.

        There is one other factor to consider, though, and I’m afraid I won’t make myself popular for saying it…but there is the fact that designers and stores will cater for their typical customer, and there is a correlation between poverty and obesity. That’s one reason why more expensive and exclusive clothing tends to run smaller (though very exclusive designers also definitely have a hatred of people over a certain size). Stores for teenage girls will generally run smaller than those for women in their 50s. (That’s also the reason why you’ll find you’re different sizes in different stores. The numbers and letters are based around their median size and the median size will differ based on who it is they’re catering for. It’s customer profiling and every business does it.) And rich people do often tend to be thinner. There are many reasons for this; it’s another discussion and highly interlinked with issues such as social justice, social mobility, equal opportunities, class division and so on. Perhaps Ragen will consider addressing it in a future post.

        So while A&F’s lead twit is clearly being purposefully provocative, he’s also probably honest to an extent in that they have a target customer in mind, one with a fair amount of disposable income, and those people do not TEND to be as fat overall as those whose means are more limited. Of course there will be many exceptions; we are generalising.

        And with all that said, we are getting bigger overall, and a decent work/casual/occasion wear wardrobe is a necessity for modern life. The clothing industry IS behind the times in the sense that there are greater numbers of plus sized people and DOES need to get its act together. And making cruel and snobbish comments about people is not the way to go. On the plus side (no pun intended), it does mean we know where not to shop from now on, even for accessories or gifts. A&F can piss up a rope.

        1. I agree absolutely with you thoughts on fast fashion. It is important to me to use my (admittedly small) amount of purchasing power to make ethical choices. Clothing is one area that it gets a bit complicated. I was following a discussion on another site about US companies who had not signed the Industriall agreement. A number of commenters posted recommendations of ethical companies but not one carried plus sizes. Several commenters noted that some of the non-signers are ones that have decent quality plus clothing and did anyone have suggestions for where else to shop? . I have scoured the internet and come up with very little in the way of organic and/or ethically produced clothing for plus sizes.
          One of the things that is striking to me about the fashion industry is that I cannot think of another where a substantial market will plead with businesses to sell us their products and be consistently ignored. I’ve heard a lot about the various and sundry “business decisions” . I have no expertise in the industry but none of the problems cited seem particularly unsolveable. The ambivalence in connecting with a plus size customer is a sadly common thread. I am not suggesting an orchestrated plot to deny clothing to plus size persons but I do think this is a good example of institutionalized fatphobia. This is also why I’m skeptical of the “plus just isn’t our target demographic” Target demographics aren’t brought down a mountain on a stone tablet. Businesses individually decide who they want their customer to be as is their right but I think it is good to step back and ask why things are the way they are.

          1. I can well believe it (I myself, though not skinny by any standards, am straight sized so I admit and own my own advantage in this regard. I do, however, have many plus sized friends and shopping with them is often a fraught experience. Some of them won’t go shopping with any straight sized person but me, which I take as a great honour.). Ethical companies are usually quite small and firms that extend to plus sizes can usually do so via economies of scale. It is a very sad state of affairs. Once we have ethical conditions for the Asian people who make our cheap clothes, it would be wonderful to see companies listening to the market and extending their lines.

            I was thinking about this earlier after making my previous comments, and it occurred to me that perhaps in the cases where “higher end” firms deliberately limit their size runs even though they have the means to extend them, it may be a case of class snobbery rather than pure fat hate (though the two are strongly interlinked). In other words, they might not mind if a famous, wealthy and beautiful plus sized actress, singer or writer wore their creations to a glittering event. Hell, they often make haute couture creations for people like that, so it can’t be fat hate alone. But they don’t want their clothes to be available to the kind of people who end up on websites like People of Wal-Mart (and what a cruel, snobby and unkind site it is) and getting that kind of jeering attention for it.

            Making clothes both expensive and size limited is one way of avoiding that kind of publicity. I guess this also ties in with the correlation between poverty and obesity. What a horrible state of affairs.

  5. I don’t care if A&F makes larger sizes of clothing, but I do care about a world in which people say shit such as, “Corporations have the right to discriminate.” It isn’t a huge jump to be thinking that corporations have rights that properly belong only to real people, rich people have the right to be greedy and steal from everyone else, prejudiced people (skin color, size, religion, ethnicity, etc) have the right to enact their prejudices upon everyone else.

    Do people who say that corporations have the right to discriminate spend even one minute thinking about what they are saying? Or are we, as a minister said to me, so deeply identified with corporations that we think whatever they do is simply wonderful?

  6. Some people are just professional apologists. And refusing to expand your business into other markets (in this cases sizes) is stupid when your company is large enough to do it. Victoria’s Secret has been refusing my money for so long that I don’t think I’d ever buy anything from them even if they did expand their size offerings.

  7. AF doesn’t just discriminate against plus sizes. They discriminate against others they deem “unattractive” to their brand–the poor, the non-models, etc. And they would rather burn excess clothing than donate it to those who need clothing. In relation to your post, I thought you might be interested in this link that has been circulating about what another activist is doing to “remake” the AF brand as a brand of clothing for everyone, especially the needy, albeit against AF’s will. I’m sure it is pissing the folks at the brand off. I can see how some might agree or disagree with this guy’s actions, but I think it is pretty smart.

    1. “but I think it is pretty smart.”

      Using vulnerable people as props isn’t “smart”. It’s contemptible behavior and shows a callous indifference to issues of consent and respect for agency. There is serious privilege fail at every level in this so-called “activism”. There is a link provided above in this thread to an excellent post that points out why this is problematic.

      And it’s so tiring and contemptible that those with privilege cry foul whenever someone suggests making what they take-for-granted be accessible to others. Suddenly it’s a problem…. Yeah, it’s a problem alright, but not the one they think it is. How disgusting it is to be so entrenched in privilege that discrimination is okay, as long as it doesn’t interfere with whatever they want and can easily be dismissed with “it’s not against the law”. As if the fact that it is legal makes it okay, instead of even more contemptible.

  8. Hmmm the only time the “right to discriminate” is warranted is when it’s against people of size.That totally contradicts the so called “Progression into a new society”, where acceptance and equality is suppose to be the main focus. The constant controversial stories regarding weight discrimination and fat hatred does not depict that at all.

    It also does a disservice to their brand and company, I guess they don’t realize the more diverse you are, the more successful the brand. But I guess they hate fat women so much they don’t care about logical business revenue.

    1. “ Hmmm the only time the “right to discriminate” is warranted is when it’s against people of size.”

      That is a serious problematic narrative. Playing the oppression olympics ignores intersectionality and erases the real danger to the lives and prejudice that people of color, women and other people with uteri, victims of rape and other violent crimes, those with physical and mental disabilities, gay and transgendered people (not necessarily mutually exclusive groups), experience every fucking day of their lives. So no, it’s not only people of size with whom those with undiluted and unacknowledged privilege decide its okay to discriminate against and that they have a “right to discriminate” because ‘tradition” or “religion” or “social construct” or some other such bullshit.

  9. My mom thought of a great activism idea re: A&F not wanting “not-cool people” aka fatties in their clothes.
    We both thought that the guy handing out A&F clothes to the homeless was actually being a dick to the people he was using as props in his “campaign” to alter A&F’s band image. My mom suggested that, instead, us “not-cool” people should dig up some A&F clothes in the thrift stores and alter them to fit, or just cut out the logo and sew/safety-pin it onto a t-shirt or other clothing item (I’m considering on my jeans, over my fantastic fat ass), take a picture, add a comment about the “no fatties” policy, and post it to A&F’s facebook, and/or a “A&F, stop being jerks” page. (Which, does anyone know if there is a page like that? I searched, but I didn’t find anything.) What do you think? Would you contribute to a campaign like that? I’m considering starting it for real, but I want to see what other people think.

  10. More about A & F:

    They market t-shirts with these slogans to teens:

     “Who needs brains when you have these?”
     “Blondes Are Adored, Brunettes Are Ignored.”
     “I’m too pretty to do math.”
     “Do I make you look fat?”
     “No Money, No Car, No Chance.”

    Here’s a piece about their “look”:


    Here’s a piece about their labor practices:


    1. I just saw this on the internet. It’s from a recent Ellen show and her message is great IMO!

  11. Woops, sorry, I guess the info in brackets got left out. I’ll re-post:

    Here’s a piece about their “look”:

    What exactly is the Abercrombie & Fitch look?

    “It’s dominated by Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed males; skinny, tall,” says Lu. “You don’t see any African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and that’s the image that they’re portraying and that they’re looking for.”

    Liu says she was fired after corporate officials visited the store, and, according to her, didn’t like what they saw: “A corporate official had pointed to an Abercrombie poster and told our management at our store, ‘You need to have more staff that looks like this.’ And it was a white Caucasian male on that poster.”

    Anthony Ocampo says blacks, Asians and Latinos were sometimes hired by Abercrombie, but weren’t given the opportunity to work in sales. “The greeters and the people that worked in the in-season clothing, most of them white, if not all of them, were white,” says Ocampo. “The people that worked in the stock room, where nobody sees them, were mostly Asian-American, Filipino, Mexican, Latino.”

    The lawsuit alleges that Abercrombie hires a disproportionately white sales force, favors white employees for the best positions, and discourages minorities from even applying for jobs.”

  12. Here’s a piece about their labor practices:

    In 2002 Abercrombie & Fitchwas one company that settled a class-action lawsuit which alleged that companies like Target, Gap, J.C. Penney and Abercrombie & Fitch had benefited from sweatshop labour in the U.S. territory of Saipan, an island located in the Pacific which sets its own immigration laws.
    Migrant workers were apparently misled to come to the U.S. territory with false promises of finding a good job on American soil, only to be forced to repay recruitment fees of up to $7,000 by sewing clothes 12 hours per day, seven days a week. Workers were also made to sign contracts that prohibited them from asking for a raise, participating in religious or political activity, having a baby, or getting married — an ironic far cry from A&F;’s signature party slogans emblazoned on their clothing.
    A decade later, the water is still murky: In 2009 Abercrombie & Fitch earned a place on International Labor Rights Forum’s Sweatshop Hall of Shame as well as Corporate Responsibility’s list of zero-transparency corporations

  13. Just because something is legal does not make it morally right nor socially acceptable.

    After all, advertisements that say, in very small print, “Results not typical,” are all legal, but are so misleading and heavy-handed in their fat-shaming as to be highly immoral, in my view.

  14. I have no problem with paying more for larger sizes, simply because there is more cloth involved, and I’ve sewn plenty of clothes, and know the value of cloth, plus thread, buttons, and other notions. In order to keep all sizes at the same price, the retailer would have to figure out the mean, and charge more than the small sizes are worth, and less than the large sizes cost, in order to average it all out.

    What gets me is that you can’t just take an article of clothing designed for a very thin model (which looks good on someone of that size and shape) and then simply “expand” it to the size and shape of someone like me and expect it to look good. The lines are all wrong. It is really much better to find clothes that are actually designed for a plus-size woman, cut to accentuate her bodacious bits, and follow her curves.

    So, I wouldn’t buy Abercrombie and Fitch, anyway, as their clothes, were they made in my size, would not “fit” me, nor would that style look good on me.

    This, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with their hideous business practices and discrimination, in so many areas. Not only do they only want to sell to “cool” people who fit their ideal, they only allow “cool” people of the right coloring to sell the clothes. Ick. As if the beautiful quilt of human coloring, shapes and size is somehow wrong.

    I like variety, darnit! Don’t give me some single-flavor option and tell me it’s “Cool.” It’s boring, is what it is.

    I do not understand the thinking of people who are satisfied with such a boring view of the world. Diversity and variety are the spice of life.

    A&F and people like the people who run that company are really only short-changing themselves.

  15. I just saw this on the internet. It’s from a recent Ellen show and her message is great IMO!

  16. Got the following from my sister-in-law in L.A., whose size acceptance consciousness I’ve been raising slowly but surely. She has always been extremely fat-phobic (has literally been anorexic since her teens–only eats vegetables, is 70 years old and weighs less than 90 lbs at 4’11”) but is otherwise very progressive socially and politically,

    “i was in goodwill today (i’m pretty sure same one in video). didn’t see any a&f shirts–maybe all distributed in skid row. i actually have a plan: when next at grove,i will go into a&f as if a bona fide customer. will contact mgr, and say something like, ‘i understand that since i am old and have flabby thighs & a wrinkled neck, you may find me an unsuitable customer.’ if i can convince my friend to join me (she is 200+ lbs but very timid), i’d love to include her in this ‘less than acceptable customer status’ conspicuous retort. as i am writing/thinking out loud about this, betcha my friend gary (very gay, long hair, 55+) would indeed join me.”

    We’ll see if she starts her own little group protest…

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