Overweight? Homely? Unpopular? Hip clothing magnate Mike Jeffries doesn’t want you wearing his lines.

Which is a pretty cruel thing to say. But Jeffries takes it to the next level by essentially saying that if you’re overweight, you are homely . . . and/or unpopular.

Jeffries, CEO of teen clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, has never shied away from his feelings on “uncool” kids wearing his clothing. But an interview by an author to Business Insider a couple of weeks ago shed light on Jeffries’ attitude. That interview, in turn, prompted a blog post by the website Elite Daily — which bills itself as “the voice of Generation Y” — which was in turn posted on the social network Reddit and thereafter “went viral,” which is Internet slang for “pretty darned near everybody read it.”

There are plenty of things wrong with Jeffries’ attitude, but let’s start with the most obvious one. Step into just about any public school in America and it won’t take long to realize that bullying — and the prevention thereof — is a prevalent topic amongst educators. (Ann Sexton, director of the Oneida Special School District, recently said that bullying is visible in schools as early as first grade.) And much of that bullying revolves around two things: clothing and looks.

With stories of schoolchildren who were bullied into taking their own lives making headlines, most of adult America has made a conscious decision to take a stand against bullying. Jeffries is promoting it.

“He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people,” retail author Robin Lewis told Business Insider in the interview that turned attention on A&F’s marketing tactics earlier this month. “He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.’”

In other words, if you aren’t wearing A&F, you aren’t one of the cool kids. If you aren’t “thin and beautiful,” you aren’t worthy of A&F. Therefore, if you aren’t “thin and beautiful,” you aren’t one of the cool kids.

This is the exact mentality that is driving bullying in our schools, and the CEO of the brand our kids revere perhaps more than any other is fostering it.

Lest anyone think Lewis was speaking out of turn, here is Jeffries’ opinion on the subject in his own words:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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.”

Those words were from a 2006 interview Jeffries gave Salon.com, an interview that went largely unnoticed until the Daily Review’s post went viral.
Again, what Jeffries is saying is that you can’t be cool and popular if you’re deemed to be overweight. You can’t have a lot of friends if you’re deemed physically unattractive. And if you aren’t cool and popular you “don’t belong.” You deserve to be outcast.

That is the exact same attitude that our bullied children deal with at school day-in and day-out. When it comes from a 12-year-old, we don’t think much of it, except that we need to work on the perception and tolerance of our youth. Our youth, after all, operate with the naive thought processes and attitudes of youth.

The problem is that Mike Jeffries isn’t 12. He’s 68.

So what excuse does a guy pushing 70 years old have for selling such a childish and cruel mentality to our youth?

Our grandmothers had a saying that they applied to people like Jeffries. They would’ve said that he “needs a little more Jesus in his life.” And perhaps he does. But one thing he absolutely needs a little more of is what most of us realized by the time we had graduated high school — and certainly by the time we had begun to raise kids of our own: true beauty begins on the inside. What’s popular isn’t always what’s best. It’s attitude, not physical appearance, that matters. And, above all else, it’s okay to be different.

Jeffries has long since qualified for the senior citizen rate on a cup of coffee at McDonald’s (except he probably only buys his coffee at Starbucks, where only the cool and popular people sip lattes) and he still hasn’t figured any of this out.

And while our educators are trying to instill in our children the attitude that our true worth is not determined by the clothes we wear, and the kids who can only afford second-hand Wranglers at Goodwill are just as important as those wearing top-of-the-line torn jeans from Abercrombie & Fitch, here’s a misguided old man telling them just the opposite — that the kid wearing the Faded Glory t-shirt and Lee’s jeans isn’t as cool as they are.

Let’s be honest: A&F is not the only retailer to apply exclusionary marketing tactics. Far from it. Rolex doesn’t market to factory workers. You’ll never see a Lamborghini dealership in a middle class community like Scott County, Tennessee. And some resorts go so far as to refuse to rent rooms to unwed couples.

But A&F and its CEO may be the only American retailer heartless and naive enough to promote the idea that if you can’t squeeze into skinny jeans you aren’t really cool.

Worse still, A&F is sexist in its approach. If you’re a guy, you can find Abercrombie in plus sizes. But don’t even try if you’re a girl. The biggest size A&F carries in women’s jeans, for example, is 10. The underlying message, whether intended or not, is that it’s okay for men to pack around a few extra pounds but women aren’t worthy if they’re overweight . . . which just happens to be the very long-held mentality that American pop culture is trying to shed itself of.

The bottom line is that two-thirds of us are now considered obese. It is nothing for us to be proud of as a society and as generations of poor decision-making when it comes to our health and eating habits increasingly taxes our health care system, it’s going to be something that we struggle with. But while we try to make health-conscious decisions for our children, from making sure they get the exercise they need to choosing more nutritious meals for them, we also don’t point fingers at them or shun them.

It is a bit ironic, though, that the man who is so obsessed with beauty and popularity is such an ugly man. And I’m not even talking about his mug shot. Jeffries is ugly because, as most adults with a third of his world experience figured out long ago, true beauty really does begin on the inside. And Jeffries’ innermost thoughts, exhibited everytime he spouts off about who he doesn’t want to buy his clothes, reveal that, deep inside, he is truly an unattractive person.

■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.