Leaning Ugly?


Author in seventh grade.

Talk around the water cooler all spring buzzed about the pronouncement by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries about beautiful people. Combine Jeffries’ comments with ongoing discussions surrounding the looks and size of today’s female CEOs, and anyone with a mole on her face–except for Cindy Crawford–might feel somewhat insecure. According to one Salon article:

“As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. ‘In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,’ he says. ‘Candidly, we go after the cool kids. 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. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.'”  

Of course, Abercrombie & Fitch is a brand designed for young people.  Alfred Dunner, proprietor of clothes for women of a certain age, wouldn’t be having this discussion. What bothers me about this is the message to very young women.

Jeffries says, “We go after the cool kids.”

But what is cool?  Do you perceive yourself as cool?  What measures do you use? What messages do you give your daughters, and sons, for that matter about cool?

I was a first child, born to married parents who loved me unreasonably and blessed me every day of their lives.  Remember the glow that a new parent has upon first seeing her child?  One looks at the newborn and sees an angelic aura around her–most new mothers are surprised that others don’t recognize the special beauty of this child. Because we are mostly gracious, we also fawn over a baby even if, as I did, resemble a cross between a raccoon and an opossum.

Never once in my childhood did I feel unloved.  But from an early age on, I knew that I wasn’t pretty.  Two of my cousins had beautiful blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes, and I was aware that was good.  My nose got bigger — in the tradition of the family males — and I needed glasses and braces early.  Had I paid attention to the genetics of my father’s three sisters when I was a kid, I would have realized I didn’t inherit a Betty Grable body. Rather, I ended up with a propensity for several chins and turkey waddle under my arms.

Fast forward to adulthood. With two college degrees in my portfolio, I pursued a successful career.  With that face for radio, I worked behind the scenes in healthcare marketing and public relations.  In my late twenties, I married the love of my life and we’re still married.  At age 42, I was hired by one of the world’s largest companies as a pharmaceutical sales rep.  This company is noted for hiring gorgeous people with a high-profile college career as an athlete.  You know — the “cool” kids.  Why in the world did they hire me?

Never in my life have I been a cool kid.  Maybe where you went to high school things were different, but at my school the members of the newspaper staff and the library club weren’t exactly the Brat Pack.  I looked much more like Dudley Moore than Demi Moore.

Aye, here’s the rub.  My parents instilled in me a confidence that still remains.  I have my doubts, as others do but I didn’t let my looks get in the way of my career or my life.  While I don’t have a daughter, I’ve tried to instill the same encouraging confidence in our son (who by the way resembles his father and didn’t get the family proboscis.)  My parents also taught me that when the horse throws you off, get right back up and do what you need to do.  Focus on self, not on the other guy.  Someone will always be prettier than you, or cooler than you.  Focus on your strengths, and be grateful for them.  And everyone has strengths.

Teach your children what is important, and if they are lucky enough to boast external beauty, it will magnified by the light of  inner beauty. And then there’s no need to worry about “cool.” And that’s probably bad news for A&F’s Jeffries.

Amy McVay Abbott is the author of “The Luxury of Daydreams” (2011), a collection of essays available on all book sites.  Her forthcoming is called “A Piece of Her Mind” (2013).  She is a health writer by profession, but writes a bi-weekly newspaper column called “The Raven Lunatic” that runs in multiple Midwestern newspapers.  Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth or visit her website at www.amyabbottwrites.com.

  • Anne Born

    I think you are beautiful, as the song says, just the way you are. And I could not agree more! I bet you could guess, I was not a cool kid either.

  • Leysa Lowery

    I remember being 13: big front teeth, short red hair, freckles, and glasses. Honestly I didn’t think too much about it until my older sister, the pretty one, the cheerleader, Homecoming royalty, beauty pageant girl with lovely, long hair, said to mother, right in front of me, “Mother, what are we going to do about Leysa. She’s so ugly.”

    I can’t remember what Mother said back, but my sister’s words haunted me for years. My revenge is that she’s six years older … and looks it!

    I focused on my schoolwork, and competed for grades. I was never cool. And it’s OK. Mostly. (Great article, Amy!!)

  • Tina

    What a great article, Amy! Like you, I was a geek in high school. The band kids and the honor society dorks didn’t exactly set the school on fire socially. Even worse, my brother was the Popular Guy with a cheerleader for a girlfriend. But I survived. I love your attitude and your spirit, and your willingness to forge ahead. Thanks for a breath of fresh air. And I think you look great.

  • rebecca pelley

    Our parents must have been made of similar stock! No one can deliver the truth with a laugh the way you can! I SO enjoy reading you!

  • Give ’em hell, Amy. you sexy thing!

  • Good post Amy. Like you and the other commenters I too was not one of the cool kids.

    I have a question. Although I didn’t like what A & F said, would we be having this same reaction to the stores/businesses who gear their clothes and marketing to customers who are overweight. They’re specializing too.

    I guess the difference is saying A & F is for the cool kids, when in fact it’s for the thin kids. Aren’t their uncool kids that could fit into A & F clothes.?

    Of course as you pointed out what is the definition of cool? Sadly, I think most kids today and when I was growing up wanted to be a cool kid. I did, believing somehow that was the benchmark for a teenager.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      You make a good point. I think there’s some arrogance in the implications of the A/F advertising which really isn’t present in your basic Lane Bryant ad. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Ann

    Just goes to show what I’ve always said: If you want to be successful in life, you must choose your parents very, very wisely. They make a world of difference.

  • alison

    Nicely said Amy!

  • I think Cherry’s right; the A&F thing wasn’t really about “cool” vs. “uncool”–those were code words for “skinny” and “overweight.” It goes without saying that if you are a teenager whose rear end cannot be squeezed into a pair of A&F jeans, you are, by definition, uncool. Or at least uncool by a very narrow, WASPy kind of standard. If you are a Hispanic or African American teenager, where cultural norms are more accepting of curviness, you have a chance of seeing your booty as quite bodacious and beautiful, and A&F won’t be on your radar.

    In any case, being a textbook uncool nerd in high school who had not a prayer of ever being considered “cool” had the virtue at least of impressing on me quite early what a cosmic time suck it is to worry about such things.

    • Amy McVay Abbott


  • This sentiment has been around a long time. A friend who was a Chicago store manager at a clothing chain you’ve heard of once mentioned to someone in the corporate office that she could sell more in her store if she could carry more in sizes 10-14. The guy’s response? “You Midwestern women need to know when to push away from the table!”

    Forgetting size for a moment, Jeffries is right about one thing. We can’t all be the cool kids. But the rest of us grow up and start to realize that the cool kids were too often a**holes. We tend to want something less shallow for ourselves AND our kids.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      I’m one of those Midwestern women! Thanks for reading.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    While it is sad that overweight people are subject to discrimination the other sad fact is that they are far more susceptible to a host of medical complications. If you are not blessed with good looks that does not lead to heart disease, diabetes and other serious diseases. Let’s have compassion on the overweight but view obesity as a health issue that, with the right help, can be averted.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Absolutely agree, Beverly. While some people have genetics against them, there is always improvement (come watch me lift weights! I’m a bruiser! It’s grew for the post-menopausal woman!!!)

  • I really enjoyed this. So much great advice. I’ve always found Abercrombie & Fitch’s clothes boring. I laughed when I read that they don’t want to be “vanilla” – to me, there is nothing more “vanilla” than someone wearing Abercrombie. I think your seventh grade picture is INTERESTING – lots of character, which is what has gotten you ahead. We totally would have hung out in school, and steered clear of Abercrombie when we went to the mall.

  • greenheron

    Sorry, I’m late!

    Cool is subjective. Nobody in the art world thinks A & F is cool. I have never seen one of their T shirts on an art school fashion major, (or any major) which says a lot. The cool kids, the ones who start the trends aren’t wearing A & F. Also, the thing about cool is if you think you are, you probably aren’t.

    Personally, I feel grateful to have not lived my life under the burden of beauty. This is not sour grapesing. It has allowed me to get out of the house in under ten minutes in the morning, and given me extra spending money to buy garden perennials and small hand tools instead of make-up and clothes. Now that I am older, I’m not wasting time grieving my lost looks. I also know that people have taken me more seriously throughout my life, because they have been listening to my words and observing my actions, rather than staring at my breasts.

    P.S. I think you are adorable now, and that picture of you in seventh grade….we would have created some intelligent mischief in the lunch room.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    Amy, I am just getting around to reading this. I have one thing to say to you. You know that beloved alcoholic grandfather of mine I have written about? He was aware that I, his favorite granddaughter, was constantly being told how cute/pretty/beautiful I was and he knew that could have been as damaging to my psyche as the other way around. Whenever he heard someone compliment my looks, he’d call me over and whisper in my ear “Beauty is as beauty does.” Then he’d wink and release me back into the superficial world. Based on Grandpa’s thinking, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever met.

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