When reading Lydia Bailey’s September 2013 essay “My summer at Abercrombie & Fitch” I found myself somehow simultaneously engrossed, laughing nervously and wishing I could meet this mystery writer who somehow was so similar to me. As someone who has also experienced the odd social culture of the Abercrombie & Fitch/Hollister Co. mass corporation, I too could empathize with her experience of feeling like “James Bond trying to blend in with a bunch of terrorists.”
Unlike Bailey, I’d known that I was going to work at Hollister Co. since I was approximately sixteen. As a teenager, I’d always tried to conform to the social norms of southern California and had loved the idea of working at one of my favorite stores. Little did I know that working at Hollister would only strengthen the “otherness” that both Bailey and I felt while working at these image-obsessed, fetishized institutions.
I found Queen’s response and interpretation of Bailey’s essay incredibly mystifying. Bailey wrote this essay as a humorous social critique on her personal experience working at one of the most controversial brands in America. And yet her every word and casual remark is dissected and placed on display by Philip Queen, who decidedly has determined that Bailey is a perpetually shallow individual. I believe that it is ridiculous that Queen, who so adamantly argues that Bailey is “perpetuating the need to value oneself primarily on his or her physical qualities” is in complete contradiction to the true message of her personal essay, which in fact is that she came to understand how the people around her who seemed to promote this view were actually just as alienated from it as she was.
Making assumptions about people based on how they dress is the complete opposite point that Bailey is in fact making in her essay. It baffles me that Queen could actually conceive his argument through her comedic, personal writing. Bailey scrupulously observes her co-workers clothing and lifestyle, which are so different than her own, while simultaneously fearing that they are reciprocating the judgment. She says, “My first day greeting, I was terrified that my inner nerdiness would be discovered. They know, I thought to myself. They know I don’t belong here.” She feels out of place, which I and many others have felt working in such an image-based, shallow environment.
When Queen sarcastically says, “Were they not humans before? Do double chins and crossed eyes make you more human? Do symmetrical features make you less? Since when can we judge someone’s worth based on their physical attractiveness?” when referring to Bailey’s discovery of Polaroid pictures of her fellow floor models, I had to stop reading for a moment, for his arguments are so weak. I am not sure about Queen, but I believe that imperfection is what makes us human, and therefore revealing imperfections makes people seem more human. It is simply a visceral reaction, which Bailey very obviously expresses. Bailey is surprised by their willingness to not be perfect and its revelation of their humanity, not their ugliness. How he misconstrued that, I do not know.
When Bailey’s manager says, “Oh you go to Swarthmore? I don’t really see you there…,” I don’t see Queen making personal judgments about the manager’s personality and character based on a simple, honest observation, as he is so quick to do with Bailey’s personal reflections about her co-workers. Queen also misconstrues Bailey’s argument around the symbol of the flannel. He says that she identifies the flannel as “cool” in one instance and “hippie” in the other. But Bailey’s subtly expressed symbolic point is that through wearing the same styles, groups of people who view each other as separate actually are not so different.
Bailey argues that in such a superficial and fetishized institution it is hard to fight against the social pressure to conform and to judge others on their appearance. As she points out, the irony of this is that all of the employees of Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are normal, awkward, unique people who ALL conform to the job and to the environment.
I believe that Queen was thoroughly confounded by Bailey’s message, and therefore decided to take it out on her “chunky hipster glasses” and flannels, which ironically he wears on a daily basis. In fact, Bailey once pointed out to me that they own the same LL Bean men’s flannel.