Founder Chip Wilson's callous comments reflect a disposition toward retail therapy that won't change until it affects retailers' bottom line.
Lululemon, with its curvy logo that frankly resembles a uterus, has long dominated expensive yoga classes, costly spinning workouts, treadmills in $200-a-month gyms, and the brightly lit streets of upscale neighborhoods. For many well-to-do women, a pair of Lululemon yoga pants is as good as a tribal tattoo.
And, like any tribe, Lululemon defines itself by exclusion: thin women, whose thighs don’t rub, are allowed inside the tent. All others can stay out. The company’s chairman suggested that women whose thighs rubbed together “don’t actually work” and that larger sizes would require more fabric, which made them unattractively expensive for the company.
Was Lululemon boycotted by a furious populace of offended women for bodyshaming them? Not even close. On Thursday, Lululemon revealed that profits jumped 15% and sales rocketed up 20% in just the past three months. In fact, if Lululemon’s sales start falling, it won’t be because – as the company wants you to believe – it’s because of “PR issues”, as it delicately calls its founders’ sizeism; it’s more likely because of more aggressive competition from rivals rather than alienated customers.
The truth is, Lululemon has chanced on one of the enduring principles of retail: there’s probably no better way for some brands to keep women as customers than to shame them. Insecurity is a big money-maker. Happy people don’t buy things. Unhappy people engage in “retail therapy”, and buy clothes, jewelry, electronics or even food that makes them feel as if they have higher status. People supersize their food to feel as if they have higher status; they do the same with their clothes, spending more and buying more garments to feel better.
The conclusion of this is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius of a retailer to figure out that the more insecure they can make women feel, the more they’ll send those in a tailspin looking for the approval of strangers.
Consider the impressively crass public speaking of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, who explained that the company’s cheaply constructed yoga pants chafed and pilled because “some women’s bodies just don’t actually work. It’s about the rubbing of the thighs.” Previously, Wilson had said that larger sizes cost more to produce and other reports had suggested that Lululemon had hidden its larger sizes away from the sanctity of open store shelves.
Wilson had to compete for airtime with Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries, who boasts often that his frat-boy-infested superstores are “exclusionary“. “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,” Jeffries said once. His target customer:
Abercrombie is only interested in people with washboard stomachs who look like they’re about to jump on a surfboard.
It’s quite a trick for an Ohio-based retailer that recently had over 1,000 stores that sell reasonably priced, interchangeably anonymous schoolyard clothes to claim that it’s exclusionary. Abercrombie, “tucked into the empty hallways of aging malls,” is about as exclusionary as a cheap motel, and like all retail brands it faces obsolescence when the new cool brand comes along. It’s already suffering.
Yet, Jeffries and Wilson have made millions – and has guaranteed himself millions more in coming years – by making people believe there is something wrong with them that only mass-produced clothes can fix. The unpopular, the doughy, the outsiders: they have no chance – no right – to be happy with themselves. Jeffries and CEOs like him point out their imperfections publicly and then watch their bank accounts swell as the sartorially disenfranchised file into his stores to buy rags to cover their newly shamed bodies.
It’s a simple equation: clothes confer status, and so it helps to make people feel low-status to encourage them to buy more clothes – and to pay more for those garments – all in an effort to restore their sense of themselves and their place in the social order. Self-loathing women are a godsend for lagging holiday sales. Retailers know those are the droids they’re looking for.
Overall, Lululemon’s good profits close out a bad year for curvy women. From Oprah Winfrey’s alleged rejection at an upscale boutique to Lululemon’s open shaming of its customers, women find that when they speak out about being treated badly by retailers, they open themselves up to criticism: they don’t look the right way, they’re oversensitive, or they’re not the right demographic.
This is a cynical form of brainwashing designed to boost profits, and women too often fall for it. Companies won’t change because people start criticizing them; they’ll only change when they think they will see their profits fall. At this rate, that could be some time.