Teacher campaigns against clothing line Lululemon, and for positive images

No brand to die for

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Amy Yam is an avid runner, a yogi, a mother of two boys, a mathematics teacher.

She's also a feminist who works at The Ellis School, an all-girls institution in Shadyside that has at its core the idea that girls and young women should embrace self-confidence.

What then, to make of the recent hubbub involving Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon Athletica? Mr. Wilson, a former surfer, was doing a video interview with Bloomberg TV in early November when a reporter asked him about a company public relations crisis earlier in the year.

Women were complaining that the Canadian company's popular yoga pants were noticeably see-through, and that there was some "pilling" of material. Mr. Wilson responded by saying that perhaps it was the wearers' fault.

"Quite frankly, some women's bodies just actually don't work. It's about the rubbing through the thighs ... how much pressure is there."

In other words, perhaps the women were too fat to fit.

"My sister sent [the news item] to me," said Ms. Yam, 41, of Highland Park. "We were raised by a single father and told very early on in our lives that you don't ever want to lead with your looks."

At the same time, one of Ms. Yam's friends, a new mother, was lamenting the fact that she wasn't going to be rivaling Kate Middleton any time soon.

"It was a culmination of thoughts: that this is just outrageous," said Ms. Yam, who decided to do something with her anger. "I was reaching my limit here. I thought 'I am getting really tired of it and would love for a company, someone that has fame and popularity, to respond in a healthy way.' "

She created an 11-foot scroll and invited students and faculty to add their thoughts and images, which she mailed to Lululemon's corporate offices in Toronto. The next step was to create a post on the school Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/EllisSchool), which has garnered almost 9,000 page views.

She said she was surprised when she received a personalized letter several days later from what she presumed to be "a relatively low-level customer service rep."

Still, she said, it was gratifying. The letter pointed her toward reaching out to one of the local Lululemon retailers -- there are stores in Ross Park Mall and on Walnut Street in Shadyside -- as well as mentioning that the company has "ambassadors" of all shapes and sizes she could contact.

Adding insult to insult after the Bloomberg interview, Mr. Wilson posted a video on Lululemon's YouTube site -- apparently since removed. In it, he appears teary and states how very "sad" he is "for the repercussions of my actions."

But he does not appear to be apologizing to Lululemon customers, just his sales staff for having to deal with those customers' anger.

Lululemon did not respond to a request for comment from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ms. Yam said she is "thankful" this has sparked conversation, and she realizes there are some who will view the women's anger as "slight over-reacting."

"In isolation, it's no big deal, but when you consider the aggregate of media, constantly telling young women this is how they should think about their bodies, that was the last straw."

One day when Ms. Yam was teaching an Upper School calculus class, a student asked her opinion of a South Korean beauty pageant video. All of the finalists looked identical, and all had had plastic surgery to give them "Caucasian" eyes.

"In that moment, I just canned calculus class," she said. "We had this conversation, and it was one the girls needed to have. It's moments like that that have the most profound impact, how shackled women can be by these conventions."

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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