Forever 21 Apologized for Sending Atkins Diet Bars to Customers—But They Can Do Better

The fast-fashion retail giant has come under fire for including Atkins diet bars in customers' online orders and we have feelings about that

(Photo: iStock}

Looks like it might be time to find a new fast-fashion fave. On July 23, retail giant Forever 21 made a serious marketing misstep, when it was revealed that the brand—beloved by tweens and the young at heart alike—was shipping diet bars to customers in their online clothing orders.

In a now viral tweet, Twitter user @MissGirlGames shared an image of the Atkins diet bar she received, writing: “I went from a size 24 to 18, still a plus size girl, so I ordered jeans from @Forever21 Opened the package, when I looked inside I see this Atkins bar. What are you trying to Tell me Forever 21, I’m FAT, LOSE WEIGHT? do you give these to NON-PLUS SIZE WOMEN as well?”

ICYMI, Atkins refers to the Atkins diet, a low-carb diet and weight-loss empire. You know that whole “carbs make you fat” epitaph—that’s thanks to Dr. Robert Atkins, founder of the fad that *almost* killed pizza for us. While the Atkins lemon bars that were shipped to Forever 21 customers aren’t explicitly labelled as a diet product, the Atkins website describes them as “packed with protein and fibre to satisfy your hunger.” The Atkins products, which the lemon bars fall under, promise to help people stay on “a low carb track.” So, diet bars.

While initial furor arose around the fact that it appeared the diet bars were targeted specifically to customers who’d ordered from the brand’s plus-size line, non-plus-size customers on Twitter confirmed that they too had received diet bars in their orders.

And all we have to say is: Seriously?

Because not only is this practice problematic AF, but it contributes (intentionally or not) to diet culture, and that’s super dangerous.

In response to the outcry, Forever 21 issued an apology to multiple media outlets, but a blanket one at that, stating: “From time to time, Forever 21 surprises our customers with free test products from third parties in their e-commerce orders. The freebie items in question were included in all online orders, across all sizes and categories, for a limited time and have since been removed. This was an oversight on our part and we sincerely apologize for any offense this may have caused to our customers, as this was not our intention in any way.” (FLARE reached out to the company with a request for comment, but hasn’t heard back as of publication.)

The company has always had iffy practices

But TBH, we can’t say we’re super surprised that Forever 21 is in hot water. The company has a history of some questionable practices—especially when it comes to artistic license. The brand has become legit notorious for ripping off designs from both smaller, lesser-known artists and designers as well as big name fashion houses like Gucci and Diane Von Furstenberg. And when we say notorious, we mean notorious. Forever 21 seems to be forever embroiled lawsuits, with the brand sued more than 5o times for allegedly stealing the work of other designers, according to Jezebel.

And that includes stealing designs meant to benefit non-profits. In September 2017, the brand was accused of copying the design of a T-shirt that was created to raise money for Planned Parenthood. The design of the shirt was the work of Word Agency, a female-owned marketing and PR firm in Los Angeles—which is pretty much a double whammy on the gross factor.

This is pretty serious

And while we’re not just here for ripping off the artistic integrity (and by extension the livelihood) of smaller artists, with their latest stunt, Forever 21 has seriously crossed the line—because they’re targeting people’s bodies, and making customers feel like they need to be on a diet.

Buzzfeed journalist Alex Berg hit the nail on the head when she weighed in on the controversy, sharing on Twitter that her wife also received the diet bar after ordering from the men’s section. “No matter how you square it, it’s shaming—clothing that automatically comes with an implicit suggestion to go on a diet; a message that you are not Good Enough as you are.”

And, according to Meaghan Wray, a FLARE contributor and Toronto-based body positivity advocate, this kind of thinking is pretty par for the course in diet culture—a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue. “It’s this idea that we have to control our body size in order to be considered ‘healthy,’  beautiful [and] attractive by society’s standards,” Wray says. “And in order to achieve that, it means controlling what we put in our bodies.”

But, the problem with this pervasive idea of what an “acceptable” body is, is that it’s always changing. From Marilyn Monroe’s enviable curves in the 1960s to Kate Moss’s protruding hipbones of the ’90s, what’s been considered the “perfect” body type is constantly changing.

“When I was young, ‘heroin chic,’  like Kate Moss skinny was what was in and now it’s ‘skinny fat’ where you have a small waist and a big butt and boobs,” Wray says. “It’s hard to keep up.” And, why should we?

“[These brands and diets] are contributing to this idea that we have to control the way we look in order to be accepted, and be thin, basically.”

And, this constant barrage of info, telling us that we should be striving for a perfect goal weight, can be super toxic and have some seriously harmful effects—especially for young women.

According to stats by the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, younger Canadians are increasingly engaging in diet behaviour. Approximately one million Canadians meet the criteria for an eating disorder. And according to research by the Canadian Women’s Health Network, between 80 to 90% of girls and women are unhappy with their bodies, largely influenced by media. This can often lead to unhealthy relationships with food.

“If I were to receive something like that [Atkins bar], I would feel probably pretty triggered and feel like I’m being told that I need to lose weight or that I need to participate in the diet industry in that way,” Wray says. “I think it could be really damaging to a young person to receive something like that in the mail—especially when they’re not expecting it.”

And TBH, it’s not their business

Dangers—of which there are many—aside, the fact remains that no fashion brand has the right to dictate—or heavily imply—how customers should look and what they should be eating. And, it’s kind of a weird combo to begin with.

“Why are you even going into that area?” asks FLARE contributor Lora Grady, a beauty editor and body-positive writer. “To me, food and clothes shopping don’t go hand in hand. Unless I’m buying a pizza T-shirt or an ice-cream phone case, the two don’t intersect.”

The concept of dieting or getting your body “summer ready” is the *last* thing people want to be thinking about when they receive a package from their favourite clothing brand, says Grady—especially when there’s so much insecurity around sizing when ordering online. “So to open it up and the first thing you see is a snack bar from a brand that’s always been aligned with weight loss is just a total slap in the face,” she says. “Like you might as well have a hand come out of the box.”

But, we shouldn’t be too surprised

Because women are constantly being sold diet tips and tricks, via the hottest new workout, food trend or supplement (regardless of whether or not it gives you Keto breath…or crotch). Diet culture is all around us. And if it’s not from coming from brands, it’s from celebrities.

Stars like the KarJenners and Cardi B have been called out for promoting the use of appetite-suppressing lollipops and detox teas to their millions of social media followers—often with no acknowledgement of both the ways these products can be harmful, or the fact that celeb bodies aren’t always achieved via these products. (We’re pretty sure it takes a small army of personal trainers, chefs, assistants and a little ol’ thing called plastic surgery (*ahem* Cardi *ahem*).

Even Beyoncé is guilty of promoting diet culture. Recently, Queen Bey took to YouTube to share the 22-day super strict, plant-based diet she went on in order to get in shape for her epic 2018 Coachella performance.

Beyoncé has also teamed up with trainer and author Marco Borges‚ the man behind her transformation, to promote the 22 Days Nutrition Meal Planner to her fans. While Bey says the plan focuses on nutrition and healthy living, the video has a *strong* emphasis on losing weight. Which TBH, we’re not here for.

It’s indicative of a bigger problem

Fashion brands are monetizing disordered eating and profiting off plus-size bodies–without IRL follow-through.

For Grady, this wasn’t the first time she’s heard of a brand aligning themselves with weight loss—having experienced it firsthand all the way back in 2013, when she received an order from fashion site Beyond the Rack that came with coupons for Special K weight loss bars. Her mom, who had ordered clothing in a smaller size, did not.

“It was a terrible feeling,” Grady says of the experience. Especially for plus-size women, who historically, Grady says, have struggled to find plus-size fashion that’s age appropriate, trendy *and* makes them feel like they’re having their own Hot Girl Summer. Which makes Forever 21’s actions super disappointing—because they present themselves as body-inclusive.

“When you look at the store and the fact that they’ve expanded their offerings, it feels like they’re going in the right direction,” Grady says. “If you have that feeling [that] a retailer is in your corner and they understand you and they get you and they show plus-size models on their websites that are wearing the clothes that you want and they seem to be doing the work, when something like this happens it just feels like a punch in the gut.”

More and more, it’s looking like brands aren’t actually appreciating the bodies that make their clothes look so bomb—just profiting off of the $21-billion market.

“So many fashion companies are slowly extending their sizes, but still clearly, when you look on their social media, have an ideal customer,” Wray says. “I don’t really think these companies give a shit about how their customers feel to be honest.  I think it’s crazy to expect a fashion company to care. It’s capitalism.”

In terms of Forever 21’s apology, Grady’s hoping for more. “Do a campaign with a plus-size woman; show us how much you care,” she says. “If you released an amazing collection or furthered your plus-size section to really show how much you care and how much you’re invested and dedicated…to me, that speaks volumes.”


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