Amy Lambert used to tell herself what Urban Outfitters is telling millions of other young women: Eat Less.
It wasn't unusual for Lambert, who had an eating disorder for more than eight years, to consume little more than one 80-calorie container of yogurt in a day. Now recovering, Lambert led a protest last week outside of Urban Outfitters at Southpoint mall in Durham.
Last week, Urban Outfitters placed in their online catalogue a gray V-neck T-shirt worn by a rail-like young woman. On the front, in script, the words "Eat Less."
"Urban Outfitters targets a young demographic, and they are reinforcing the idea that eating disorders are a choice, not an illness," she said.
Four other women from a Durham Eating Disorder Support Group joined the peaceful protest, brandishing signs that read, "Messages Can Re-Enforce Deadly Beliefs" and distributing fliers titled "Messages in Media: 'Eat Less' is Humor That's Not Funny."
Mall security shut down the protest 30 minutes later.
"We want to make it a friendly family environment," said Public Safety Officer Sellers, who refused to disclose her first name. "We can't just have people here doing that [protesting and handing out literature]."
Urban Outfitters did not return the Indy's calls or e-mails regarding the ad campaign, but after national outcry the T-shirt was removed from the chain's website, though the shirts that have already been shipped will be in stores. When the Indy visited the store and asked for the T-shirt, it was not on the sales floor. An employee who didn't want to be named called the slogan "harsh."
At least 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Twenty percent of people with an eating disorder will die prematurely from complications related to their disease. Telling an individual with an eating disorder to "eat less" aggravates emotional, psychological and physical issues. And for those still stuck in dangerous patterns, it is a message of validation, says Chase Bannister, clinical director for Carolina House.
In fact, the T-shirt has been posted on "pro-anorexia" sites as a source of "thinspiration."
"The banner-statement 'Eat Less' can be a stinging trigger for women and men with anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder," Bannister added, "ultimately providing reinforcement for the distorted belief our patients work so hard to stamp out: 'I will never be okay unless I'm thin.'
The women said by holding the protest, they sought to empower themselves and spread a message of acceptance for a healthy body. Sandy Yarnall had anorexia for more than half of her life. She finally received treatment in 2008. "I struggle every day with wanting to go back to a very unhealthy size, and where I was before recovery, and seeing that message did distress me."
Rebecca Clemins has had an eating disorder for 25 years. "Urban Outfitters put this tee on a waif-like model, which enforces the idea that being waif-like is preferred, and they are encouraging a lifestyle that is killing young women," she said.
"I can't imagine endorsing something that creates so much misery," said Carson Hadley, who developed her eating disorder in eighth grade. She had to drop out of high school during her senior year to get in-patient treatment at Carolina House. "That shirt reminded of what I can't be if I want to live."