Lululemon controversy stokes already toxic media culture

Lululemon Athletica founder issued an apology to workers for fallout from his putting his foot in his mouth on Bloomberg TV this month. However, his comment that women whose thighs rub together "don't work" for Lululemon pants damages more than the company's reputation.

Lululemon has been in the news lately because the brand's founder, Chip Wilson, told Bloomberg News that when his $100 pants wear out more quickly than his cheaper competitors' do, it's women's fault. Women across North America were shocked to hear him claim that when Lululemon pants wear out too quickly, it's because women's bodies aren't built right – specifically, that their thighs are rubbing together.

I've got news for Chip Wilson: thighs that rub together are a physiologically normal trait in adult women. Implying that women's thighs shouldn't actually rub together is irresponsible.

Here's why: We live in a media culture that is toxic to women and girls. As a professor of advertising and media studies, I know firsthand that advertisements and magazines depict women with an idealized, extremely thin body type that is unattainable for the vast majority of people. In fact, most people don't realize that Photoshop isn't just used for retouching wrinkles and acne and for whitening teeth: it's regularly used to make models' waists and limbs dramatically smaller – so small that the proportions are physically impossible. And yet these images are so routine that we now see them as normal.

When we women look in the mirror and compare ourselves to the unattainable ideal, we fall short of the ideal – but we don't understand that the models themselves don't meet this ideal, either! Recently, a lot of young women have begun wishing that they could have a 'thigh gap,' just like that shown on models. There are entire web sites dedicated to this desire. But chasing the thigh gap is actually more likely to cause women to develop an eating disorder than skinny legs.

When I listened to Chip Wilson's interview and heard him say that Lululemon pants wear out quickly because women's thighs rub together, it really got my attention. Most women's thighs rub together – even those of us who are quite thin! Lululemon is supposed to be about women's health and fitness. By blaming women's bodies for a defect with his company's pants, Wilson is implying that a thigh gap is part of a normal, healthy body – and in the current context of our society and media, that's dangerous.

So, my Brave Girls Alliance colleague Marci Warhaft-Nadler and I put our heads together on the subject. Marci is a body image expert and an eating disorder survivor, and she agreed that Wilson's comments are dangerous and irresponsible. Together, we came up with a plan: To speak back to Wilson and Lululemon with a Change.org petition. Wilson is Canada's 10th-richest man, and Lululemon is the 4th most profitable retailer in the U.S. Being wealthy means having power. And there is no excuse for a man as prominent and wealthy as Wilson to body shame his own customers. He must be held accountable for his words.

We want Wilson to apologize to women for blaming their bodies for Lululemon's defective products. Although he posted an apology to YouTube recently, it wasn't to his customers; it was to Lululemon employees. And in that video, he apologized only for the repercussions of his Bloomberg interview – not for his words themselves. A week has gone by, and he has yet to show any understanding that he was body-shaming women or any remorse for doing so.

We also want Lululemon to pledge to manufacture clothing in larger sizes--at a minimum, sizes 14 and 16. The fact that their clothing line tops out at a size 12 is preposterous. First of all, size 12 is the average size among women in the U.S. and Canada. Secondly, it's entirely possible to be healthy while being a size 12 or larger. Weight is not the only marker of health! If Lululemon is a brand for women who want to be or become healthy, why shouldn't women of all sizes have access to it? Perhaps Lululemon is using thinness as a status symbol, but that's not right, either. Attention to our petition is on the rise. We've gathered nearly 1,200 signatures, and counting. Every time the petition is signed, Change.org delivers an email message to Lululemon. Together, our voices will be heard, and we can make a difference in the way business leaders speak about women's bodies. 

Sign the petition today at change.org/lululemon.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Rebecca Hains blogs at rebeccahains.wordpress.com.

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