“Naked Guy” Sells More Than Just Blue Jeans

“Oh my gosh, Mom, look at that.” Betsy nearly shoved my appendix into my spine with her elbow as she nudged me into the glass wall outside the Abercrombie and Fitch store inside our suburban shopping mall.

I started to ask why she was breaking my ribs to get my attention, when suddenly the image that startled her nearly knocked me into the kiosk that sells “Dippin' Dots,” the 21st century “ice cream product.”

“Yikes,” I said.

“Yuck,” Betsy answered.

We maneuvered quickly to keep 8-year-old Amy from noticing the larger-than-life poster leaning against the wall at the entrance to the Abercrombie store, since I figured she might ask why the body (no face) of a mostly-naked guy was covering the wall of a clothing store.

Fortunately, Amy was easily distracted by the gumballs just beyond the offending in-store display. But I couldn't get my mind off the rude photograph and the larger issue it represents. The more we walked and talked and shopped, the madder I got.

Just what was so offensive in the Abercrombie window? A black-and-white “glamour” shot of a shirtless, male torso, wearing only unzipped blue jeans with the belt hanging open. The jeans are worn so low as to reveal a good portion of his physique, and the implication about what's going on inside the jeans is clear.

I'm not sure if this photo sells jeans to teens, but I do know it's selling them something.

If you don't know, Abercrombie and Fitch is a national chain that bills itself as a “lifestyle” retailer (whatever that means), and is part of a corporate family that includes three other similar brands. They sell clothes for preteens, teens and young adults — trendy styles that look good only on people whose bodies have yet to form hips — and their retail locations are notable for their loud, thumping music and racy window photographs.

The store was actually founded in 1892 as a sporting goods retailer for wealthy hunters and outdoorsmen. Teddy Roosevelt was a big Abercrombie customer, as were most presidents through Gerald Ford, which was about the time the business started to flounder.

But no longer. It's been reinvented to respond to young consumers with a taste for low-rise denim jeans, body-hugging tops for gals, and the studied casual look for guys that says “I paid a lot for a shirt that wrinkles easily.” Abercrombie clothes are expensive, too, but admittedly that may be just the opinion of a mom who won't pay $49 for a t-shirt.

Back at the mall. Betsy, Amy and I manage to traverse the shopping center without another face-to-torso encounter, but I'm so irked by the audacity of this display I can't let it go. “Bets,” I say quietly, “take Amy toward the exit and wait for me. I'm going to make a fuss.”

Betsy has seen me make a fuss once or twice before and she knows it won't be pretty, so she gladly grabs Amy by the hand and walks the other way.

For the record, I had no intention of ranting; I just wanted to tell someone associated with the company that I thought their display poster was inappropriate, especially in a store that sells to youngsters.

I headed back to the Abercrombie entrance, passing “naked boy” as I looked for the manager, who listened attentively as I expressed my concerns. Long story short — she gave me the toll-free number for Customer Service and said my complaint would go unheeded unless I went on record as objecting to the store display. My “fuss” would have to wait a day.

By now I had committed myself to take a stand, so the next day I called the company and got an automated menu, “Press 1 to place a catalog order; press 2 if you have an issue with a retail store.” Hmmm. An “issue”? Seems like they may get these calls a lot.

At last, someone named Ryan took my call and I articulated my concerns:

A. Abercrombie markets to teens and preteens;

B. Their in-store photo displays use nudity to send strong sexual messages to youngsters — namely, that buying Abercrombie products will make them sexy and will promote their sex lives;

C. It's morally abhorrent to corrupt the innocence of children to make a buck selling blue jeans; and,

D. Assuming there even is a line to cross in our culture when it comes to marketing, they crossed it.

Ryan — who let me know he isn't authorized to speak for the company — told me the goal of the display photos is “to draw attention to the store, good or bad.” Then he gave me the name and number of the store's Director of Customer Service/Vice President of Public Relations, Tom Goulet. (I left several voice-mail messages for Mr. Goulet informing him I'd be writing a column on this topic and asking for his comment; he never responded.)

So I guess that's it, then. My complaint has been duly noted by the efficient and respectful Ryan, who I hope was fully clothed while we spoke, but since it's Abercrombie we're talking about, who knows?

According to the only person from Abercrombie I could get to comment, albeit unofficially, the photos are intended to get attention of any sort — a goal I clearly have accomplished for the “lifestyle retailer” — and still “naked boy” graces the main intersection of my shopping mall.

I guess they got the best of me.

Then again, parents like me can always speak up by closing our wallets to the “lifestyle” they're selling at Abercrombie.

It's only money, of course, but it might be enough to get their attention.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 19 years and mother of four children from fourth grade to senior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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