help or harm? power, intent, & objectification #FitchTheHomeless

I tried not to click the link, the one about sticking it to the elitists at Abercrombie & Fitch by outfitting the homeless in their branded gear. It reeked of gimmick and exploitation, so I didn't watch. Until I did.

I'm not gonna link to it. It's findable. The premise is that Abercrombie is terrible (and they are) because they don't want anyone bigger than size ten in their clothes. #FitchtheHomeless' solution? Buy up thrifted Abercrombie stuff, and give it to the homeless! That'll show those sexier-than-thou tools at corporate!

(I'm breaking my first rule of Fight Club Twitter by acknowledging Twitter in this space, but it is what is is.)

Abercrombie & Fitch is intentionally branded for fit, white, middle class cool kids. Imagine a similar gotcha! campaign in which A&F clothes were given to bigger-bodied people, underprivileged black kids, or hurting, bullied students, and we were encouraged to photograph them to show their CEO what's what.

That would feel pretty gross, right?

A non-degrading zinger campaign could have outfitted the elderly in Abercrombie. A&F wants their brand to stay youthful, and recreating their hallmark sexy black and white poses with seniors on Hoverrounds would have made a similar point without the ancillary exploitation. Something like that would have been playful and even provocative, but since Grandma and Grandpa are not generally suffering marginalization or social ostracism, their appearing onscreen would have had a wholly different feel.

Changing the power dynamic changes everything.

I've been writing online for over five years. I occasionally poke sacred cows but have never gotten as much blowback as I did yesterday. It got a little out of control up in my mentions for several hours.

A lot of folks were adamant that meaning well is all that matters. If we succeed in pissing off Abercrombie's jerk CEO, and a few homeless folks got some wrong-sized pants in the bargain, what exactly is the problem?

Is it really? This kind of drive-by "charity" looks a lot like degradation to me, and I can think of a few things homeless people need more than an Abercrombie tee shirt shoved at them by a stranger with a video camera. Did they get permission to film? Did they even ask their sizes? I didn't see much human kindness in clips casting homeless men and women as little more than voiceless human props.

One of my critics told me, "Sounds like you don't want homeless to have nice things." I guess that depends: nice things like Abercrombie clothes or nice things like dignity, respect, need-based services, homes? There are ways of helping that honor the image of God in human beings, and #FitchTheHomeless isn't that.

You got me! I am an Abercrombie-wearing Queen Bee hot girl. I am in this to protect the brand.

Abercrombie is an ugly company. They sexualize young people, rely on cheap overseas labor, and are known for discriminatory hiring practices on top of every hateful thing their CEO said. But it's a false choice to suggest that we can either support Abercrombie or #FitchTheHomeless. There are a million ways to damn The Man that don't throw marginalized people under the bus.

Helping well starts with honoring people and upholding their dignity. Treating people as projects or points to be made is behavior every bit as objectifying and dehumanizing as the kind Abercrombie is known for. We can't oppose Abercrombie's body snark and bad ethics by turning homeless people into one-dimensional branded billboards for something we loathe. That's careless slacktivism, not altruism.

If you want to help the homeless, do it! Get involved with an on-the-ground agency like the L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry on Pittsburgh's North Side. Find out what specific kinds of donations they need. (It might not be clothes.) Volunteer. Show up. Meet real people. Find out what housing insecurity looks like in your area. Learn.

I could say so much more about misguided top-down charity, magical intent, or humor that attempts to punch up by punching down, but I need to wrap this up. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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