Discover: The American Apparel Plus Size Model Spectacle

Hey, this isn't entertainment media! Yes it is. It is when it gets blown up this huge and crosses over multiple art forms to get any sense of resolution. I won't cover advertising campaigns too often, but they're here to stay at Sketchy Details. A few weeks ago, clothing company American Apparel decided to hold a plus size model search. They will be expanding their line for women to include size XL in some popular designs. A website was set up (already stripped down to nothing) where hopeful models could submit their photos and answer why they wanted to be the next face of American Apparel. Sounds like a great opportunity, right?

This is American Apparel we're talking about. Two years ago, company CEO Dov Charney made every store manager photograph their employees so they could be evaluated on whether or not they fit the American Apparel aesthetic. This was in response to a slower than average selling period. Charney blamed the employees for not being the right look for the store. Law suits were filed. Charney replied that ugly people could be hired if they were fashionable. Right. A year later, there were reports that starting pay and store position were determined by aesthetics rather than qualifications, also not fully denied.

Now the winner of the plus size model search has been informed via a publicly distributed press release letter that she will not be receiving a prize for winning the contest.

It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that “bootylicous” was too much for you to handle. While we may be a bit TOO inspired by Beyoncé, and do have a tendency to occasionally go pun-crazy, we try not to take ourselves too seriously around here. I wonder if you had taken just a moment to imagine that this campaign could actually be well intentioned, and that my team and I are not out to offend and insult women, would you have still behaved in the same way, mocking the confident and excited participants who put themselves out there?

That's a strange response because controversial contestant Nancy Upton never said that at all. Her photos, their text, and her response after the jump.

First, here's the exact contest text that set more than just Nancy off.

Think you are the Next BIG Thing? Calling curvy ladies everywhere! Our best-selling Disco Pant (and around 10 other sexy styles) are now available in size XL, for those of us who need a little extra wiggle room where it counts. We're looking for fresh faces (and curvaceous bods) to fill these babies out. If you think you've got what it takes to be the next XLent model, send us photos of you and your junk to back it up.

Just send us two recent photographs of yourself, one that clearly shows your face and one of your body. We'll select a winner to be flown out to our Los Angeles headquarters to star in your own bootylicious photoshoot. Runners up will win an enviable assortment of our favorite new styles in XL!

Show us what you're workin' with!

"The Next BIG Thing," "curvy," "extra wiggle room," "curvaceous bods," "XLent," "your junk," and "bootylicious." That's not sensationalized at all, right? It's a plus size modeling search. The contest page also ranked contestants on a scale of "Not Quite" to "XLent." American Apparel was aiming for cute and wound up at creepy and kind of dismissive. This is especially true when you find out that XL at American Apparel is a size 10-12 and is cut significantly smaller than most modern clothing brands in America.

Did Nancy Upton only object to the use of the word "bootylicious?" No. She never said that. That's American Apparel trying to play the victim in a bad marketing move they were called out on. In Nancy Upton's own words,

Wow, they really have zero respect for plus-sized women. They're going to line them up like cattle and make puns about them until they're blue in the face.

Obviously her only objection is using "bootylicious," right?

American Apparel goes on to talk down to Nancy Upton, as if she's a five year old child with no understanding how the business world works.

Maybe you’ll find it interesting that in addition to simply responding to customer demand and feedback, when you’re a vertically-integrated company, actual jobs are created from new size additions. In this case, for the XL women who will model them, industrial workers that make them, retail employees that sell them and beyond. That’s the amazing reality of American Apparel’s business.

The store isn't creating that many jobs by hiring one model and adding ten new sizes to their already existing line. This is called spin, and I love taking it apart like this. These are designs that already exist for all their regular sizes than need a couple inches of extra fabric to go to their idea of XL. The winner of this contest's prize is modeling for the company; no compensation is mentioned. They're also not going to start hiring size 10 employees who can wiggle into their ten new outfits just to sell to larger customers. They're lying, plain and simple.

The "woe is me" response gets much better. Did you know that Nancy Upton was trying to body shame other plus size women into not shopping at American Apparel? That criticizing a company sets back manufacturing standards and makes them think twice about capitalizing on a larger market share? It's all true. The letter says so.

For as long as I can remember, we have offered sizes up to 3XL in our basic styles, and as far as adding larger sizes to the rest of our line is concerned, if there is the demand and manufacturing power to support it, we’re always game. There are thousands of brands in the market who have no intention of supporting natural - and completely normal - full-figured women, and American Apparel is making a conscious effort to change that, both with our models and our line. If every brand that tried to do this was met with such negative press, we may have to wait another decade for the mainstream to embrace something so simple.

That's...not how business works. They know that. They're just spinning the story.

It's not worth hashing out the whole letter here. Those were the highlights. You can read the whole thing at Nancy's Tumblr.

So what are these photos that have so many people jumping to arms (myself included)? They're pretty darn incredible. Nancy Upton decides to confront deep held stereotypes of larger people by mocking the overly sexualized ads of American Apparel. In one series of photographs, she bathes herself in a tub filled with ranch dressing. In another set, she poses, fully clothed, in a swimming pool while eating fried chicken. And in the boldest set of all, she photographs herself in series of underwear with a big cherry pie, placing it between her legs and eating it handful by handful. Because that's what fat people do, right? Eat nonstop like their lives depended on it?

Nancy Upton Goes After American Apparel, Stereotypes

You should visit Nancy's Tumblr, go to the archives, and view all the images full size. It's worth it.

The photography is an excellent recreation of the moody and perplexing ads of American Apparel. Frankly, if the company had embraced Upton as the winner, they could have worked out a deal with her and her photographer to start running some of these photos as part of the XL launch campaign. Then they could have done their preferred shots as well with new clothes from the line. They're a great match for what American Apparel normally does.

So what can be taken from this whole nutty experience? Companies need to develop a professional voice when they're dealing with the public. It's so strange that big names like American Apparel and Etsy can get so successful while behaving like whiny little children. "But Mom, she said we weren't perfect. Do we have to share our toys with her and award her the prize?" If you act like a fool, you'll be treated like a fool. It goes for people and brands alike.

Also, people really need to get over the fat-shaming culture in America. Yes, there can be health issues linked to being overweight. Does every story that involves someone larger than a toothpick need to turn into Body Shaming 101? The comments sections on some sites that covered this story are absolutely absurd. If this was a model search for their regular line, most of these people wouldn't have even opened their mouths to comment on the models. Most damaging is the "can't you just shop anywhere else?" line of reasoning. If you think that was the point of Upton's entry here, you're as clueless as American Apparel's PR department.

Thoughts? Sound off.

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