The offensive messages implied by this image are numerous. Apparently, according to A&F, the only thing that matters about girls is what's below the neck, and sex is an anonymous act, suitable for public display, that doesn't involve eye contact. Oh, and A&F also suggests that boys should hide who they are during intimate acts.
There are no genitals showing, so I presume this image skirts anti-pornography laws. But pornography is not really about body parts; it's about an attitude of degradation, lurid titillation, and dehumanization. By those criteria, A&F definitely crosses the line.
When my sister-in-law objected to the image, the store manager excused the ads by saying that A&F is aimed at their "more adult clientele." That's hard to fathom when the clothes are sized for stick-thin 10- to 13-year olds. My two older kids, ages 16 and 19, insist disdainfully that A&F is "so middle school."
A sales associate was more honest, admitting sheepishly, "I know. We get a lot of complaints."
That's the point. They're aiming for the shock value. As Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, explains, "controversy—even more than sex—sells." A&F is the same company that brought us a holiday catalog featuring an article about group sex and pictures of naked models, who look like teens, frolicking on horseback or playfully tugging off each other's underwear (2003). They also brought us girls' t-shirts with offensive slogans such as "Who needs brains when you have these?" (2005) and "Show the twins" above a picture of a young women holding her blouse open in front of two men (2009). In 2002, Abercrombie Kids even offered thong underwear with sexy slogans for 10-year-old girls.
Objectionable behavior by A&F is old and oft-repeated news. In fact, it seems to be a cornerstone of their marketing strategy. I suppose that by routinely horrifying parents, they hope to give their products an allure of the forbidden that will appeal to tweens and young teens.
In a 2006 Salon.com interview, Mike Jeffries, the CEO of A&F says that they want to create a "sexy and emotional experience" for customers in his stores. He comments, "I think that what we represent sexually is healthy." I disagree. A&F's ad isn't about sexuality, which is a healthy and enjoyable part of every human being, it's about sexualization, which means seeing people as depersonalized things for sexual use. It says to kids, "Being sexual is about buying expensive clothes, having an unusually thin/muscular body, and engaging in intimate acts in public." I see nothing healthy about that message.
Every time there's an A&F controversy, parental outrage is countered by comments from other people who insist that the parents are just being uptight and A&F's vulgar clothing and sordid ads are "no big deal." However, an in-depth report by the American Psychological Association on the sexualization of girls concludes that messages that portray girls and women as sexualized objects can have very negative consequences. Here are some low-lights from the report:
- "Research...links exposure to sexualized female ideals with lower self-esteem, negative mood, and depressive symptoms among adolescent girls and young women. These associations have been examined in at least five correlational studies and in multiple experiments, demonstrating causal connections." (p. 24)
- "...Strong empirical evidence indicates that exposure to ideals of sexual attractiveness in the media is associated with greater body dissatisfaction among girls and young women." (p. 22)
- "...From 2002 to 2003, the number of girls 18 years old and younger who got breast implants nearly tripled, from 3,872 to 11,326." (p. 23)
- "... Adolescent girls with a more objectified view of their bodies had diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness." (p. 25)
- "...Exposure to pornography leads men...to indicate less satisfaction with their intimate partners' attractiveness...and to express greater desire for sex without emotional involvement." (p. 28)
So what can parents do?
In the past, people have organized boycotts that have gotten particularly offensive products removed from the shelves at A&F. For example, in 2005, a group of girls worked with the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania to organize a "girlcott" protesting degrading A&F t-shirts. The company eventually pulled some of the shirts and issued an apology.
However, like a hydra, the mythical multi-headed serpent who grows a new head every time one is cut off, A&F seems to have an unlimited capacity to come up with new ways to offend. We can't stop them, but here are some ways we can try to limit their damage to our children.
1) Teach children to think critically about media messages. My niece reacted to the graphic image in the A&F store by astutely observing, "Well, they're not selling jeans!" She's right. They're selling an "edgy," sexually precocious image.
In the Salon.com interview, Mike Jeffries explains, "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." In other words, he's capitalizing on middle schoolers' personal insecurity, anxiety about social status, and desire to be included.
Around age 8, children develop the ability to recognize ads. That's the time to begin teaching your children that a lot of advertisers try to trick people. Explain this common advertising formula: 1) Make people feel bad about themselves; 2) Offer a product that will supposedly instantly solve the problem. Go over some ads to help your child see this formula in action. For example, looking at a clothing ad might make a child think, "I'm not as beautiful or popular as that model appears to be, but if I buy those clothes, I will be!" See if your child can explain why that's not true.
Because eating disorders are on the rise among both boys and girls, it's also important to talk with children about how photos in ads are altered to create skinny, poreless "perfection." Go through a magazine together and try to pick out real versus altered photos. The website for Beauty Redefined has some revealing before and after images. http://www.beautyredefined.net/photoshopping-altering-images-and-...
It's tempting to lecture, but your children will learn more if you can ask questions to help them think through the issues for themselves. For instance, you could ask, "What does this photo say the advertiser believes about kids?" "What is the advertiser trying to convince you of?" and most importantly, "What do you think of that?"
2) Fight images with images. I have to admit that my first attempt to talk to my younger daughters (ages 10 and 13) about the A&F image my sister-in-law sent me didn't go so well. I certainly wasn't going to show them the image, so my comments were abstract and pretty much went over their heads.
Then I remembered that images tend to speak to kids more than words. So, I showed them this picture of Mike Jeffries, 66-year old CEO of A&F:
I explained that he looks strange because he has had a lot of plastic surgery. I said, "He has gotten very, very rich by using pictures of naked young people to make his stores seem exciting and cool, but really, he's just trying to turn kids into plastic people, like him."
My ten-year olds' reaction: "Ewwww..." My thirteen-year old said Mike Jeffries definitely doesn't look like "a cool kid" or even "a nice grown-up" she'd like to hang out with.
With my older teens, I shared a hilarious video series about A&F from MadTV. The sales associates are portrayed as vapid and vain people who wander around with their underwear showing. They take off their clothes and climb on top of each other at the slightest provocation. They also enjoy gazing into the distance while reminiscing about unlikely risqué activities that embody the Abercrombie spirit, such as "nude duck hunting" or "playing rugby in a fresh, green field with your best buddy, but you both forgot your clothes." My favorite line is from a female sales associate who insists that Abercrombie is not just for boys; it's also for "girls with sun-kissed skin and medium-sized breasts, who get together at dawn to play topless flag football." Parody can sometimes get through to teens in a way that parental lectures can't. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3-WzqfbVHU
3) Encourage a genuine sense of identity. Middle schoolers are just starting to figure out who they are, which is one reason why they're so vulnerable to unhealthy advertising images. Helping children discover interests that are meaningful to them allows them see that there's more to them than their appearance. If your children are athletically inclined, sports can be a great way to help them view their bodies as strong and capable, rather than merely decorative. Genuine self-esteem can be fostered by activities in which children work hard to become more skilled. These encompass a broad range of options, including art, music, dance, computers, and academics, as well as sports.
4) Find or build a community that supports your values. There's power in numbers. It's easier to resist negative messages when we feel we have allies. Talk about these issues with your friends, neighbors, and family members. Involve your children and their children in the discussion, if appropriate. Talking about the harm caused by sexualization in a scout group or a religious youth group could also help your child take comfort in the fact that not "everybody" thinks it's okay.
You may want to come up with ways to take action collectively. For instance, a colleague told me that complaining to a store manager about objectionable images won't help, because they don't have the authority to change displays, but talking to the mall management could help, and there's an office in every mall. What if lots of concerned parents and kids visited those offices?
Mike Jeffries probably feels gleeful about the "free advertising" his company gets when he does something that offends parents. But I wonder if the members of the board of directors for A&F, who include a former ambassador and the head of a girls' school, would be as indifferent to parental outrage. Their names and bios are listed here: http://www.dailyfinance.com/quote/nyse/abercrombie-fitch-co/anf/key-executives It probably wouldn't be hard to find their contact information on the web, if you want to write to them and let them know how you feel about A&F's use of sexualized images.
You may also want to sign my sister-in-law's petition, asking Abercrombie & Fitch executives to stop using sex to sell clothes to children.
5) Don't be afraid to say no. Middle schoolers don't have cars or credit cards, so it's absolutely possible for parents to decide not to let their kids shop there. There are plenty of "cool" stores that don't resort to pornography to sell their clothes. If you decide to go this route, be sure to explain to your child why you've made that decision. Explain about voting with your wallet.
Mike Jeffries, himself, says it well in the Salon.com interview: "There's so much craziness about sex in this country. It's nuts! I can see getting upset about letting your girl hang out with a bunch of old pervs, but why would you let your girl hang out with a bunch of old pervs?" Exactly. Mr. Jeffries, you're an old pervert. You've crossed the line. I'm not going to let my children hang out in your company, and I've told them why.
Sexualized images are everywhere. What (if anything) have you done to try to address this issue with your children? What does it mean if we get "used to" seeing these images?
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. You're welcome to link to this post, but please don't reproduce it without written permission. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com Growing Friendships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation
Check out Dr. Kennedy-Moore's books about Helping Children Get AlongTM:
-- Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential || Chapters include: Tempering Perfectionism; Building Connection; Developing Motivation; Finding Joy.
-- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends || Chapters include: The Shy Child; The Little Adult; The Short-Fused Child; The Different Drummer.
-- What About Me? 12 Ways To Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister
photo credits: girl: D. Sharon Pruitt http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinkstockphotos/5261328171/, hydra: http://www.eaudrey.com/myth/hydra.htm, Jeffries: http://www.thestreet.com/gallery/tsc-highest-paid-retail-ceos/2/photo-michael-jeffries.html
For further reading:
American Psychological Association (2010). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualizationrep.pdf
Denizet-Lewis, B. (Jan. 24, 2006). The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch. http://www.salon.com/2006/01/24/jeffries/
Lindstrom, M. (2010). Buyology: Truth and lies about why we buy. Crown Business.
Eating disorders on the rise in children (Nov. 28, 2010). http://children.webmd.com/news/20101128/eating-disorders-on-the-rise-in-children
Snopes report on nude and sexually suggestive photos of young models in 2003 A&F catalog. http://www/snopes.com/politics/christmas/abercrombie.asp
McDonell-Parry, A. (2009). Abercombie & Fitch T-Shirts Shock and Offend–Again! http://www.thefrisky.com/2009-09-11/abercrombie-fitch-t-shirts-shock-and-offend-again/
Abercrombie's sexy undies 'slip.' http://money.cnn.com/2002/05/22/news/companies/abercrombie/