American Apparel has never been progressive. It has never been pro-woman and it has never made much of an effort to hide its founder, Dov Charney's, pervy ways. Last year, Melanie Klein at Feminist Fatale outlined the myriad of ways in which the company has long been a terrible place for women. Charney has been accused of sexual harassment a number of times and their consistently pornographic advertising speaks for itself.
The imagery is often defending as being "artsy", as though objectification is OK when it is "provocative" (like we've never seen women's bodies represented in this way before, like if the photos are grainy they instantly become "artistic"). It's interesting how badly we want this kind of imagery to be "OK." How badly we want to justify ads that sexualize rape, that sexualize very young women, that do the exact same thing advertising and porn have done for decades; that is, use women's bodies to sell sexism and products, all at once. We are willing to defend misogynist corporations till the end because we have been made afraid, as though true freedom of speech is coming from American Apparel's marketing department.
But I digress. A couple of weeks ago, the company launched The Next Big Thing contest, looking for "curvaceous bods" to sell their new "XL styles." So now, I suppose, we are supposed to cheer them on in their progressive attempts to objectify "big[ger]" women. Wheeee! We can't see your ribs and we will still treat you as fuckable! The future is here, feminists.
So perhaps the company has a history of completely ignoring the fact that women who are above a size 10 exist and now they are oh-so-generously trying to get into the pockets of those women too, but can this move really be viewed as anything near progress?
Apparently the answer is yes! People are indeed making this argument -- that diversity is progress, meaning that if we are including "alternative" bodies in sexist advertising this is a move towards a healthier body image for women. In a wee debate on the topic which took place on Hugo Schwyzer's Facebook page (where all great debates happen), he responded to my argument that "objectifying 'big' women is not progress," particularly within a context of a company that uses a "rape me" kind of aesthetic on a regular basis in their advertising, by saying: ''BUT there is something genuinely progressive (at least potentially) about expanding the diversity of images that we all see."
While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don't think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying "curvaceous bods." I mean, it's not as though bigger women aren't objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It's not as though bigger women aren't raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don't think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it), in fact, I think that we are missing the point entirely if we think that including the token "alternative" body in places where generally the bodies are all very similar (thin, white, flawless) challenges anything substantial in terms of the ways in which our culture views women. Isn't this the same argument made around burlesque? And "alternative" porn? And by the Suicide Girls? "No, no, this kind of objectification is healthy! Look! These ladies have tattoos! This is art. Not porn." And, as Jill Filipovic wrote: "christ on a cracker, it's American Apparel, and it's for a contest where users rate applicants on a scale of 1 – 5, so I'm not sure their audience is thinking through the complexities of fat girls and food and sex any more deeply than 'Look, titties.'" Is it really subversive if no one cares? If people are still viewing you, a human being, as consumable?
What is so progressive about sticking a woman with a big butt into a porny advertisement? As far as I'm concerned, nothing.
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