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Elizabeth Licorish

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Lululemon's Cult Culture: Get Fit or Die Trying

Posted: 08/02/2013 4:43 pm

The first time I walked into Lululemon, I was high. I'd just finished a seven-mile city run. Endorphins flooded my brain and my fingertips were tingly with excitement. Inside, it was bright and the walls were purple, fuchsia and gold. I saw bamboo and babbling water fountains. And the employees danced around in stretch pants that made their butts look like perfect little bubbles.

I immediately wanted to work there. I'd just finished editing a book about Charles Manson. It was a heavy, psychologically exhausting project that left me needing light-hearted, happy work. I didn't really want to think too hard. I hoped to exercise my love of running, earn an employee discount, and take free fitness classes. But, soon after enduring Lululemon's intensive training program, I realized I'd been indoctrinated into a bottomless pit of groupthink I'd never be able to survive.

The Lululemon culture consists, on the surface, of catchy manifestos. Lululemon wants you to know it's "elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness" and "creating components for people to live long, healthy and fun lives." But, dig deeper, and you'll learn about Landmark Forum, the ultra-secretive, eerily cultish educational series, which Lululemon employees are "strongly encouraged" to attend. Before you're in line for Landmark, you're bombarded with Brian Tracy motivational CDs and a book club that culminates with Atlas Shrugged. Successful Lululemon employees can recite Brian Tracy better than the Pledge of Allegiance. Mention Chip Wilson, Lululemon's founder and former CEO, and their eyes will light up and quickly glaze over. They'll tell you, quite seriously, that he saved their lives by elevating them to greatness.

All this sort of made walking into work feel like time traveling to Salem. Because, with the Lululemon creed and catechism comes a collective mentality that thrives on scapegoats and leaves you feeling worthless if you subsist on anything but spring water and kale. Once, another employee sneered at me from across the floor and said the soda I happened to be enjoying would "rot me from the inside out." Eventually we were all issued reusable acrylic cups and forbidden to drink anything but H2O. We'd be encouraged to give "feedback," a terrible, calculated misnomer for ruthless criticism that could veer from professional to personal in 60 seconds flat. If a customer dismissed your sales pitch because, let's say, he was in a bad mood, one of your fellow team members would pull you aside and say your conversational style lacked genuine authenticity. She'd insinuate that you lack authenticity. That you aren't equipped enough as a human being to sell yoga pants.

In fact, at Lululemon, everything about you is inventoried and measured in terms of "authenticity" and "integrity." Which sounds reasonable, until you realize your yoga mat's on a sweaty, slippery slope. That missing your extracurricular kick boxing class, taking too long to pee during your break, or failing to throw a "kitchen party" (don't ask) in the fitting room means you're deficient in character and devoid of morals. When it comes down to it, according to Lululemon's standards, everyone is a lazy, sociopathic scumbag. Except the girls at the top of the social hierarchy. And those girls just so happen to be older, sportier versions of seriously cutthroat sorority sisters.

I started working at Lululemon in 2011, weeks after Brittany Norwood gruesomely murdered Jayna Murray in Lululemon's Bethesda store. None of my co-workers spoke about what happened. Our store manager was awfully smiley about it. You'd start to think, "These things happen." But they don't. Women rarely bludgeon each other to death. When they do, there's usually more at stake than a pair of allegedly stolen yoga pants. Looking back on the incident, I can't help but remember the hysterical, highly feminized air I breathed at Lululemon, an alternate universe with its own opaque value system and ominous doublespeak. Work was hardly ever about selling running tights; factor in feedback, integrity checks and the incessant pressure to look effortlessly cool, and Lululemon labor is much more akin to a game of Survivor.

It's been over a year since Brittany Norwood received a life sentence without the possibility of parole and I still can't imagine her beautiful young victim bleeding, taking her last breath amongst all those pretty yoga things. So I forced myself to look at the published crime photographs. They're all gore, straight out of a horror scene, but one picture in particular sends shivers down my spine. It's an image that begs, I think, for a better understanding of how Lululemon's culture may have played a role in the terrible, grisly Bethesda tragedy. How brainwashing, bullying and manipulation might be enough to send an already psychologically, emotionally vulnerable person over the edge. Or at least create an environment that's enough of a pressure cooker for one woman to stab another over three hundred times. It's a picture of the Lululemon employee room. On the door, in chalk paint, it says, "May each of us equally enjoy happiness and the root of happiness." Most of the lettering is pastel pink, but the word "equally" is written in red. And there's blood splattered all over the floor.

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