A Plea to End Our Societal Look Policy

The Push to End Societal Restrictions on Religious Appearance

In 2008, at the age of 17, Samantha Elauf interviewed for a job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Elauf was applying for the position of sales model.  Applicants are scored during their interview on their “appearance and sense of style”, whether they are “sophisticated and aspiring”, and if they are “outgoing and promote diversity”. Any applicant who receives a score of less than 2 on “appearance and sense of style” is automatically ruled out as a potential employee. The scores are based on Abercrombie’s “Look Policy,” which governs clothing, jewelry, facial hair, and footwear. The policy bars black clothing and “caps”, although it leaves caps undefined.

Heather Cook, Elauf’s interviewer, had originally given her a score of 6 out of 8, which was enough to get her hired. However, before offering Elauf the position, Cook consulted a regional manager. The manager told Cook that Elauf’s headscarf would violate the look policy, because a headscarf was similar to a cap. Cook informed the manager that she had assumed that the headscarf was for religious reasons, but did not ask about it during the interview, in accordance with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines. However, the manager still insisted that they not hire Elauf; therefore, Cook changed Elauf’s score in “appearance and sense of style” to a 1, disqualifying her from being considered as an employee.

After not hearing back from the store, Elauf asked a friend, who also worked there, why she hadn’t been hired, and her friend told her that the managers believed her headscarf violated the look policy. Elauf went to the EEOC, and together they filed a lawsuit against Abercrombie and Fitch. A lower court sided with Elauf, but Abercrombie won on appeal. The case brought upon many questions, such as: Should prospective employees explicitly inform employers that they require a religious exemption?

Currently, the case is being heard by the Supreme Court. Elauf and the EEOC are arguing that employers cannot deny employment based on an understanding of a religious practice, if that assumption is correct, as it is in this case. Cook understood that Elauf wore the headscarf because she is a practicing Muslim, even though Elauf did not specifically say so. Elauf and the EEOC are also arguing that if employers say that they are not sure about an applicants religious practices, they can get around anti-discrimination laws. Also, Elauf and the EEOC state that employers know their rules better than applicants, so they should know if a rule might conflict with a religious practice.

Abercrombie is arguing that employers cannot know whether an employee would want or need an exemption from their rules due to religious reasons. They note that it is difficult that anti-discrimination laws protect all applicants, whether or not their religions are well known. Abercrombie also stated that employers are not supposed to ask an applicant about their religion.

Elauf’s lawsuit wasn’t the first Abercrombie has faced due to their look policy. In September 2013, Abercrombie payed $71,000 in settlements after EOCC filed two lawsuits against them concerning religious discrimination. In the first case, Hala Banafa was allegedly not given a position after an employer asked her about her hijab. In the second case, Umme-Hani Kahn was allegedly fired after for not removing her scarf after a district manager had ordered her to do so. Along with settling both of these cases, Abercrombie has updated their look policy to allow employees to wear headscarves.

These recent events shine light on a very important issue: discrimination. Denying Samantha Elauf a job, based solely on the fact that she wears a hijab, is discrimination in the utmost sense of the word. By denying her the job, Abercrombie was supporting Islamophobia and discrimination. We cannot sit back and let discrimination become a norm, because it is not okay to deny anybody an opportunity based on how they choose to portray themselves, whether it be religiously or personally. A “look policy” also encourages discrimination because it tells people that they must look a certain way in order to achieve certain goals. Regulating the way people look is beating down individuality. By setting a “look policy”, we define the way someone should look, when it should be up to them. Society should encourage individuality. We should tell our youth that it’s okay to express themselves and their faith without being afraid. A “look policy” incites people to change themselves in order to meet a standard. If the United States is as diverse as it claims to be, we need to rid ourselves of the stigma that people must look a certain way in order to be accepted, or even to obtain a job. The way to do this is to abolish the “look policy”, for Abercrombie as well as the rest of the US. We must end the existing “look policy” which is discriminatory, detrimental, and counterproductive.

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