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Just In Case You Didn’t Have Enough Reasons to Avoid Abercrombie & Fitch

September 12, 2009

In June, GAB covered the story of a young employee in London who was told that neither her artificial limb nor the long-sleeved cardigan she wore in an attempt to hide it fit “the Abercrombie look”. It turns out that this was not an isolated incident of ableism at Abercrombie and Fitch. Minnesota Public Radio reports that an administrative law judge has imposed a $115,264 fine on the retailer after employees at the Mall of America refused to allow the 17-year old sister of an autistic girl to accompany her in a dressing room. They persisted in this refusal despite the sister informing them of the girl’s disability and the girls’ mother speaking with them at length about the situation.

They claimed that, though there is a policy of allowing more than one person into a dressing room in cases of disability, they could not follow that policy unless the disability was visible. It is, of course, ridiculous for retail employees who have seen someone for just a few minutes to set themselves up as competent judges of someone’s ability. It is especially ridiculous given that the policy of one-person-was-dressing-room was written for the purpose of loss prevention: the last thing people who want to shoplift are going to do is draw attention to themselves by asking for exceptions to rules and giving detailed explanations for the reasons why.

What this was really about, however, was maintaining the normativity of the Abercrombie image. The fourteen-year old girl who was denied the exception she needed said,

I am a misfit at Abercrombie.

That is intentional. Abercrombie sells itself as a source for people who want to fit conventional beauty and other social standards. Employees who work outside the backroom must be normatively pretty “models”. Sizes are notoriously small. The ads and outfits encourage the sort of hypersexualization of young women that has nothing to do with female pleasure or sensuality and that is portrayed so often in TV, movies, and other media and is ultimately heteronormative. Racist slogans on shirts have only been the most explicitly racist manifestation of A&F’s use of Whiteness to sell itself. In 2005, the company even settled a lawsuit over racially discriminatory employment practices out of court.

Given all this normativity, it’s easy to see why, at the very least, Abercrombie failed to provide adequate training on the needs of customers with disabilities. Disabilities, especially when like autism they inspire more fear than pity, don’t fit the image of a store that sells itself as “normal” (which really means selling itself as the province of members of unmarked, privileged groups).

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