Open letter to Critical Shoppers

August 23, 2009

J. C. Penney has always trafficked in knockoffs that aren’t quite up to Canal Street’s illegal standards. It was never “get the look for less” so much as “get something vaguely shaped like the designer thing you want, but cut much more conservatively, made in all-petroleum materials, and with a too-similar wannabe logo that announces your inferiority to evil classmates as surely as if you were cursed to be followed around by a tuba section.”
Cintra Wilson, Critical Shopper: Playing to the Middle. NYTimes, 11 Aug 2009

This isn’t, may I remind you, The Daily Mail. It’s the New York Times, the alleged Paper of Record. Is this an attempt to be relevant? To draw on the snark of the blogosphere that the kids are supposedly so crazy about? Well, let me give you a little internet home-brew: FAIL. EPIC FAIL, even. I could add “compassion fail” and “humanity fail,” if I so chose. I’d say “journalism fail,” but if you keep this up, I won’t need to.
Times Writer Finds J.C. Penney’s Focus On Fat People Clever, Amusing. Jezebel Online Mag, 14 Aug 2009

Dear Clark Hoyt and Angry New York Times Readers,

I missed Cintra Wilson’s column last week (and always), and the ensuing fracas, and therefore encountered today’s Official Apology with an unsuspecting mind. The line-up of outrageous quotes from her column read as a darkly amusing mix of bitchy and self-mocking. If an article of criticism does not brush against the nerves, then what the hell is the point? Is it not the point of Fashion to be elitist? But the reader reactions made the article sound bad, bad, bad, so I had to check out the original- and my reaction did not change. Her outrageous statements are self-consciously outrageous. The piece struck me as a cynically ironic fluff review, in summary: “although I am a fashion snob and believed JC Penny to be middle-brow and dowdy and extra lame, I discovered that it serves it’s neglected middle-brow constituency well and surprisingly offers some acceptable fashion in big sizes. Furthermore, middle-brow tourists may like to shop there”. She laughing with you, but mostly she is laughing at you, and a little bit at herself. And that is how I feel about the article: I’m laughing with you Wilson, but mostly at your sense of fashion importance, a little at myself, and a lot at the resulting Outrage.

Rather than question her premise, most of the reactions scream “how rude, how mean, and how dare you imply that chubby is not cool, just like all of popular culture does!” an attitude in complete denial of any complicity with popular cultural attitudes. Wilson is unappologetically snotty, and cynical about her snottiness. But the exceptionally sensitive response to her casual snottiness only supports her assumptions of fashionable superiority. Her observation that  “It took me a long time to find a size 2 among the racks. There are, however, abundant size 10’s, 12’s and 16’s” is not inherently judgmental; it seemed an effort to contrast the department store with Manhattan’s snotty boutiques (which may be invalid; I admit ignorance). But I suppose I might read it as offensive if I were already offended.

I would like to pause and note my street cred as a 155lb size 12 American woman. Sometimes I even wear petroleum-based clothing- like when I’m climbing mountains! Haha fatty-baiters! Yet, when hauling ass + pack up a steep slope, I do reflect, overly frequently, on the easier time of it I had at 140lbs and sigh for lost days and pounds gained. I see skinny dolls decked in something stylish and think “that would look lumpy on me” and feel bad. I think, I hope, I know that I am not actually unattractive. I reckon some of the bad feeling is payment for the sins of of past vanity, but a lot of it is the overwhelming force of cultural approval for muscly sexy fitness. I other words, I too am vulnerable to marketing and self-doubt. I like to see clothing designed to look good on me, draped on a nice, fat mannequin.

However, the surge of love for JC Penny’s (which is getting great publicity out of the debacle) feels a lot like rallying around Walmart shouting “I am a Real American”. Identifying with a brand, whether mass market or boutique,  does not make me more Real.

I have to agree that the NYTimes‘ official apology was lame. Either stand behind your words or demonstrate some genuine f@*&ing chagrin.



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