Staying Vigilant: The Urban Outfitters Controversy

Published: July 31, 2014

Over the past few years, popular retailer Urban Outfitters (UO) has incurred the wrath of various activist groups through several poorly considered catalogue items. Among the offending fashions rank a duvet cover depicting Lord Ganesh, which angered Hindu activists; “Ghettopoly,” a Monopoly parody staged in a lampooned “ghetto,” which incensed the NAACP, who deemed it racist; and a t-shirt featuring a Star of David that was criticized for resembling the stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Two of UO’s designs, however, hit slightly closer to home. In 2010, a gray tee printed with the words “Eat Less,” and modeled on UO’s online store by a thin young woman incited public outcry. The shirt was removed from the website but remained available for purchase in stores. More recently, in February of this year, UO introduced a black and white cropped shirt with the word “Depression” printed on it in varying-sized fonts (ironically sported by a smiling woman) was denounced as an insensitive depiction of a serious mood disorder.

The impact of subtle messages like that sent by UO’s “Eat Less” shirt cannot be underestimated. In a society where the media’s portrayal of the “thin ideal” has is associated with eating disorders risk, items such as this shirt simply add to the pressure to adhere to a certain body type. The thin ideal can and does contribute to initiating, continuing, and relapsing eating disorder behaviors.

Pressure to be thin, whether subliminal or not, is ubiquitous in advertisements, yet promotions of indulgent and fatty foods are just as pervasive. In many cases, an ad for a high calorie hamburger or a decadent chocolate bar is only one page flip away from a lingerie ad or new diet pill promotion. This juxtaposition creates conflict within young viewers, and these extremes in promotional messaging can lead to extremes in thinking patterns, such as restricting the consumption of certain food types; feeling a loss of control or guilt when eating; or engaging in extreme compensatory behaviors, such as purging after eating. Furthermore, the pairing of the lingerie model and the chocolate bar suggests that impossible standard is attainable, which may lead to dysfunctional thoughts such as, “If I can’t look like this model, then I might as well heed the advice of the adjacent candy bar advertisement telling me to ‘INDULGE’.” This conflict can eventually lead to depression or binge eating on high calorie foods.

As if the contradicting mass media messaging isn’t disturbing enough, this UO t-shirt that glamorizes starvation clearly crosses a line by overtly encouraging disordered eating and glorifying a serious mental illness.

It’s up to consumers to change the way companies market their goods. If we tell retailers like Urban Outfitters that we will not tolerate such blatant pro-anorexia messages and insensitive references to other mental illnesses, we can compel them to change their ways.

Actress Sophia Bush recently posted a scathing letter on her blog denouncing UO’s dismissive attitude towards eating disorders. Her character in the hit TV show One Tree Hill, fashion designer Brooke Davis, was known for starting a campaign called “Zero is Not a Size,” intended to encourage healthy body image in women. Bush’s project has since garnered an outpouring of support from women all over the world. In her blog post, she maintained her stance against “the pressure to be thin” and publicly scolded UOs’ choice in designs. She compared selling the “pro-anorexia” t-shirts to “handing a suicidal person a loaded gun,” saying that the company “should know better.” The analogy may seem extreme at first, but after analyzing the influence that trending fashions and beauty magazines can have on young adults today, the comparison is entirely justifiable. While young adults may already be indirectly internalizing the messages that the covers of beauty magazines convey, it could only take one simple, direct statement such as “Eat Less” for those internalized messages and thoughts to be validated and for maladaptive behaviors to emerge or persist in vulnerable individuals.

However, you don’t have to be a famous actress to make a difference. Companies market to you. They need your business, so they need you to be happy with their products. If you agree that companies cannot be allowed to promote such unhealthy and disrespectful messages, let them know your thoughts!

Contact Urban Outfitters here or tweet your thoughts on their Twitter feed @UrbanOutfitters. Together, we can make a difference.


photo credit: Casey Hugelfink via Creative Commons