If you’re familiar with American Apparel ad campaigns, you can probably call to mind images of scantily clad models, salacious poses, and oh-so-hip clothes. What probably doesn’t come to mind is “plus-sized.”
This is something the retailer has decided to change with their search for “The Next Big Thing”— a contest looking for plus-sized women to model the new XL size in their “Disco Pant,” among a small selection of other pieces. The contest runs from August 19-September 8 and asks for submissions from “booty-ful” women for this “XLent new campaign.” Over the years, American Apparel has taken a lot of flak for their stance on plus-sized customers—and given a lot back.
In 2010, adult film star and model April Flores was told by an American Apparel showroom rep that plus-sizes were “not our demographic.”
One has to wonder if the company’s change of heart has to do with their recent financial problems. American Apparel hasn’t seen a quarter without falling same-store sales since January 2009. After receiving an emergency influx of cash when they were on the brink of bankruptcy, sales have slightly improved. Very slightly. In those circumstances, catering to the plus-sized market suddenly doesn’t look so unappealing. Especially as long as it’s ONLY extended to an XL.
After all, in addition to the “not our demographic” remark, this is a company with a head-to-toe hiring policy. A company that won’t tolerate anyone above a size 6 trying to look like a sexy schoolgirl. Despite this, hundreds of women submitted photos, many of the photos accompanied by earnest biographies hoping to show another view of what beauty could look like.
But one woman didn’t take kindly to the campaign. On August 30, Nancy Upton posted on Facebook: “I think I’m going to photograph myself eating a turkey leg in my underwear and pouring ranch dressing in my hair for this super offensive ‘plus size model search’ American Apparel is doing.”
So began Extra Wiggle Room (http://extrawiggleroom.tumblr.com/), a Tumblr account lampooning the model search. Photographed by Shannon Skloss, Upton, a size 12, poses in various states of undress with bottles of ranch dressing, pieces of chicken, pies, and tubs of ice cream. Upton submitted her photos to the contest with a bio that simply stated, “I’m a size 12. I just can’t stop eating.”
Upton’s submission shot to the #1 spot in the contest and quickly caused an uproar. Blogs like Reddit and the Huffington Post have featured Extra Wiggle Room and spawned discussions about Upton’s intentions in entering the contest, American Apparel’s policies and some heated arguments about the beauty of plus sized women. For her part, Upton puts it like this: “American Apparel [is] saying, ‘Hey fatties, you can be cute, too!’ I don’t believe that beauty should be qualified as BECAUSE of someone’s size or IN SPITE of someone’s size. (…) Had American Apparel simply said, ‘We’re looking for size 12 and up models,’ that would have been great, it would have shown they actually believe big women can be beautiful and fashionable. Instead, they utilized immature butt puns and horrible, overused euphemisms for fat. “
There has been some criticism of Upton’s photographs—some are decrying what they view as shaming other plus sized women, while others question why plus sized women feel they should be included in the beauty industry. To the former, Upton states: “I have nothing but the utmost respect for anyone who chooses to display their body to other people, be they plus-sized, petite or anywhere in between. I believe the women who entered the American Apparel ‘contest’ are beautiful, brave people, and my attempt here to respond to the company’s course of action is JUST that — it is in no way a comment or critique of the women who have submitted photos.”
To the latter, the question we should be asking is, ” Why shouldn’t plus sized women be included in the fashion industry?” Plus sized women are still women and they are customers. It is not a bad thing that they are refusing to be ashamed because some suits decided that their bodies don’t sell clothing. The only way beauty standards change is by showing more plus sized women in the modeling world. That happens when plus sized women make their voices heard and their bodies seen. Companies like American Apparel aren’t helping. Instead of trying to normalize the use of plus sized models, the campaign has the effect of setting off anyone larger than a size 8 as being an anomaly, needing her own descriptors, like “booty-ful” because normal adjectives just won’t do.
In the words of Nancy Upton: “I wanted to be sexy for you America, I REALLY did, but I just COULDN’T stop stuffing my face. You know, because I’m plus-sized.”
This article has been written by Mandi Cambre.