Over a decade ago when lululemon started in Vancouver and quickly took off, I remember a lot of Vancouverites feeling proud. At UBC it was rare to walk between classes and not pass by at least one girl wearing a hoodie or three-quarter-length pants with that iconic omega symbol logo.
I remember going into a lululemon store and feeling good to shop there, like I was doing something good for myself and helping a local, socially-conscious business.
Judging by the success of the business over the years, a lot of customers must have continued to feel that way.
But that goodwill has surely been challenged by the recent lululemon body-shaming through comments made by founder/Ayn Rand fan/company spiritual leader Chip Wilson. The controversy started when Wilson and his wife appeared on Bloomberg TV and Wilson was asked about complaints that some of lululemon’s pants were too sheer. Wilson’s response? Blame women’s bodies:
“Some bodies actually do not work for it,” Wilson replied. When asked to elaborate, he continued, “Even our small size will fit an extra large. It is really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, and how much they use them.”
You’re saying women are paying you up to $130 a pair for yoga pants and they shouldn’t expect them to last if their thighs rub together? News flash: most women’s thighs touch. Do you really think it’s up to your women customers to work to fit your pants rather than the other way around?
Wilson has now sort-of-not-really apologized for his comments, in a YouTube message that lasts less than a minute and appears to be targeted more at staff than customers. He apologizes that he’s “put you all through this” but never says his comments were wrong.
I’m not remotely shocked, because lululemon has a long history of reinforcing gender norms and body ideals.
For one, they don’t sell clothes for women larger than a size 12. In 2005, Wilson said he would never sell larger sizes because they would require more fabric to make, so he’d have to charge even more. He tried to make it seem that just not making the clothes was his way of being “sensitive” to plus-sized customers. Even that sad excuse doens’t explain why staff have reported the size 10 and 12 merchandise is separated out from the smaller sizes and practically hidden in some stores.
Although recently lululemon is trying harder to market to men, their customer base, upon which their success is built, has always been women. Lyndsay at Our Feminist Playschool gave me the heads-up about a 2009 blog post by Wilson that reveals even more about his messed-up beliefs about women, in case you weren’t turned off enough by his fat-shaming. You should hop over to read the whole thing, but it starts out:
In the early 1970′s, “the pill” came into being. The pill immediately transformed the sex lives of anyone under the age of 40, particularly teenagers. Suddenly females had total control over whether they wanted children and if so, when and how many. Females no longer had to “make” relationships work because with birth control came a sense of financial and life control. A sense of equality was established because women no longer had to relinquish their independence to a male provider.
Women’s lives changed immediately. Men’s lives didn’t change however and they continued to search for a stay-at-home wife like their mothers. Men did not know how to relate to the new female. Thus came the era of divorces.
Apparently having access to contraception not only caused divorce but also women smoking, making masculine fashion choices, and getting breast cancer. At the end of his post, tellingly, Wilson talks about how his imagined historical factors positioned lululemon perfectly to cater to the new “Super Girl” market – educated, athletic but non-competitive girls who want to “dress feminine” instead of being like their smoking, three-martinis-a-day-drinking, shoulder-pad-wearing, breast-cancer-ridden “Power Women” mothers.
Please remember this is basically a set of life lessons for lululemon’s mostly women customers (and staff), approved by Chip Wilson, with all his wacky views on how ladies should be.
I would say nearly all of them assume a great deal of privilege on the part of the reader (maybe fair given how much they’re charging). For instance, “Have you woken up two days in a row uninspired? Change your life!” or the ones that laud the power of positive thinking and visualizing achieving your goals. I’ve already written about why that kind of self-help-guru thinking is messed up, so won’t go into it more here.
Then there are ones that are scientifically-questionable, like the one that discourages people from wearing sunscreen or encourages them to drink as much water as they can.
Finally, there’s my personal lowlight:
Children are the orgasm of life. Just like you did not know what an orgasm was before you had one, you won’t know how great children are until you have them.
And I’m sure that would happen a lot more frequently if those darn “Power Women” hadn’t made the pill so damn popular. It’s annoying enough to have parents and friends questioning some women’s decision to remain child-free, but now we have lululemon doing it?
In moonlitmoth’s poem “The Lululemon Bag is Lying to You”, she states:
The Lululemon bag is lying to you/Its encouraging, shallow platitudes/suggest you could be a better person/if only you wore/more flattering pants.
The final problem with lululemon that I want to talk about might seem unrelated but I think it further illustrates the company’s hypocrisy, and that is lululemon’s continued refusal to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The company says it really doesn’t have many workers in Bangladesh – only two factories – and it seems satisfied its self-monitoring is sufficient.
Lululemon has gone from making 100% of its clothes in Canada in 1998 to less than 3% in 2013. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t totally trust them or any company that insists it can monitor itself and put the labour rights and health and safety of their mostly-women garment workers ahead of profit.
Clearly lululemon’s problems are deeper than Wilson’s recent comments, and I suspect it will be a long, long time before we see any kind of feminist ideological shift at the company. But for now, there’s a SumofUs petition you can sign to call on lululemon to join with the other retailers on the Bangladesh accord. There’s also a Change.org petition calling on Chip Wilson to apologize for his body-shaming comments and officially de-segregate the larger size clothing in all lululemon stores.
(photo by Robert Bejil CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)