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Rainbows and Retail: How Corporate Clothing Brands Can Do Better Next Pride Month

Fashion

It’s about more than just the slogans

My partner was looking for that perfect pair of summer shorts: black jeans that cut off at the knees and loose, but not too baggy. We headed to Herald Square in Manhattan, where we were met with a barrage of rainbows. I felt a familiar sensation of dissonance as I passed Pride signage hanging in Levi’s, American Eagle, and the Gap. Major retail brands are not often queer-friendly, as alienating binary gender norms are built into the fabric of how clothing stores operate. My partner, who is gender non-conforming GNC and frequently misgendered in stores, has a particularly frustrating time. Yet here we were, passing a poster of cis and trans people alike wearing shirts that read End Stigma. As they described what they were looking for to an employee, I had hope that maybe this time would be different.

The employee looked my partner up and down, and I surmised her familiar calculation. Men’s or women’s section? Finally, she pointed us to the women’s section, where she recommended the “boyfriend jeans.” We thanked her and moved on. Our experiences at American Eagle and the Gap yielded similar results. We were immediately ushered to the women’s section both times. At the Gap, an employee earnestly persisted in asking what gender the shorts were intended for, despite us specifying our indifference as to which section the article of clothing came from. My partner took it in stride, but it was frustrating all the same. I love my partner, and they deserve to go into a store feeling confident and come out with clothes that make them feel great. I decided to do some digging.

I had to wonder if there was any training that teaches employees how to assist LGBTQ+ customers. The irony felt potent: Brands were adamantly promoting LGBTQ+ people, but they didn’t have the language to communicate with the demographic. The next day, I decided to find out. I called the Levi’s, American Eagle, and Gap corporate lines, customer service lines, and 34th street store lines and asked one question: “During Pride Month, do you offer offered training to your employees to help assist LGBTQ+ beyond the content provided in the Pride signage that is put up in stores?”

“We tell our employees to be friendly and open,” a voice at the 34th street Levi’s store responded. “We try not to make assumptions about people in general.” While this sounded like an honest effort, the answer was ultimately a no. Telling employees to be open is not the same as giving them vocabulary with which to communicate with LGBTQ+ people. I then called the American Eagle corporate line and was told that no extra training exists for educating employees about helping LGBTQ+ customers. In lieu of answering my question, a Gap customer service representative encouraged me to read about their partnership with the United Nations Foundation, as Gap will, to their credit, donate 30 percent of their net sales from Gap brand’s Pride T-shirts to the UN’s Free and Equal organization.

Some basic research into retail pride promotion was similarly encouraging. American Eagle, for example, is stepping up by partnering with and donating proceeds of their campaign to the It Gets Better Project. Across the street, we saw Levi’s, which has contributed more than $70 million to HIV/AIDS organizations over the years, which is nothing to sniff at. Many brands are making strides in supporting the LGBTQ+ community, both ideologically and monetarily, but there is still progress to be made.

Despite the lack of malicious intent, covering a store in rainbow signage while neglecting to make the store queer-friendly is not only painfully ironic—it’s disingenuous. This signage signals to queer people that an establishment is a Safe Space. Safe Spaces have been fundamental to queer organization since the Stonewall era when being LBGTQ+ was criminalized. Markings like rainbows were essential not only to signal that queer people would be physically safe, but that they would find a space of like-minded people. If the employee standing beside the rainbow display doesn’t have the training to assist a person represented on the flag, there’s a problem. Our symbols of safety lose their meanings.

With this obvious dissonance between message and practice, I decided to go to the source and ask queer people working in retail about their experience. Jess Flore*, a sales associate at Marshalls in Austin, Texas, says that when she sees someone who appears “uncomfortable going to the section where they want to look for clothes,” she springs into action. “Especially in pretty binary stores like Marshalls, I love being ‘other’-looking enough to help them feel comfortable being themselves while shopping,” Flore says. “Strength in numbers can be really important, especially in Texas!”

Former Abercrombie manager Sue Owen* explains that institutions themselves need to change. “Giving people of different identities staying power by displaying them both in ads as well as having them work in-store would be a way to affect change,” Owen says. “By normalizing it, they can show that they are accepting of people regardless of gender identity and expression.”

Brooklyn-based sex toy boutique employee Ariel Martinez also says that “the most striking thing about mainstream retail is how aggressively language is often gendered when there’s no need.” Corporate clothing brands could certainly take a page from sex-positive retail spaces, as employees are trained to facilitate an atmosphere where desire can be expressed openly and non-judgmentally. “Although it's polite to greet customers with 'ladies' or 'sir' or 'gentleman,' that's also completely unnecessary,” Martinez adds. “I'm a huge advocate of 'y'all'—I’m from Texas—but know other people use 'folks.'”

There are obviously no easy fixes to the gendered way in which society functions. Making sure employees know how to help customers navigate around these structures during Pride Month, however, is essential if one is going to cover their store in Pride signage. A flyer on respecting people’s non-binary pronoun usage would be a start. Directing visibly non-binary customers, or any customer for that matter, to the men or women’s section without asking what they are looking for is another idea. Corporate Pride efforts must transcend the message that LGBTQ+ people have the right to exist, and a right to be seen.

* some names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.