Nancy Upton: The Next BIG Pain in American Apparel’s Sexist Ass

Have you been living under a rock, or something?  No?  Well, then you’ve surely heard about American Apparel vs. Nancy Upton.  On the off-chance that you haven’t, here’s a brief rundown of what happened:

American Apparel, in “celebration” (?) of its inclusion of XL sizes for omg gross fat people launched a contest for fat ladies to have the chance to get a trip to L.A. and be the face of AA’s newest, grossest line of clothing that maybe might save their company (the ship tries to stay afloat on the backs of whales, AMIRITE???).  While the contest is concluded, the language is forever preserved on Jezebel, which includes such awesome and totally non-patronizing or demeaning language, like:

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.

OH MY GOD!  Cutesy puns to disguise the fact that they’re looking for fatty-fats???  Referring to bodies like mine as “junk”????  How could you NOT fall in love with this contest omg wtf!!???!!!1@!!*

In response to the contest, Nancy Upton, a student and awesome lady, decided she was going to make a big fat mockery of this big fat contest, and took a bunch of pictures of herself stuffing her face and bathing in ranch dressing.  She was very vocal about the fact that she was parodying the contest.

And then, guess what happened?  SHE WON!  She won, and then American Apparel sent her a super condescending email that basically said, “Know what, bitch?  YOU DON’T WIN!!”  Which actually seems like a perfect ending to all of this – Nancy had stated that if she was offered the job, she would turn it down anyway.

And that’s what happened.  The fat and feminist blogosphere got solidly behind Nancy and is appropriately outraged where applicable.  But in my opinion, there still remains a lot to unpack about this whole thing.

Autumn of The Beheld points to a very important issue regarding Upton’s photos – namely, that Upton’s satire really, really looks like the real thing.  The only thing distinguishing Upton’s photo set from any number of other plus size fashion shoots in which models are posed with food is that she explicitly tells us that what she’s doing is a farce.

Crystal Renn poses with meat and spaghetti in a shoot for French Vogue

via The Beheld

Says Autumn:

These provocative photos beg questions larger than I’m qualified to tackle: How much does the creator’s intent matter in art? If you have to know the background in order to spot the subversion, can it be effective? If the goal is to raise awareness of an issue and the only people who get the joke are already informed, have you succeeded in your goal?

While that’s a pretty big question fit for anyone who gets a boner for critical analysis (like me!), I think the results of the contest are pretty conclusive.  Oh, if only we could poll everyone who voted for Upton and ask them whether they thought it was a joke or not!  If everyone did, in fact, get that the photos were meant as a commentary (or even if they had just heard about it), it seems like a vote for Nancy Upton was really a referendum on the contest, and on American Apparel itself.

The language in the contest was objectionable, of course.  As April Flores, the one who was informed that fat women are “not [American Apparel’s] demographic,” points out, even the title of the contest – “The Next BIG Thing” – objectifies women by calling the “things.”  The cattle-call nature of the contest, allowing visitors to rate women – all of it is dehumanizing and offensive, and those who voted for Nancy Upton were also agreeing with what she said about the contest – that American Apparel “was co-opting the mantra of plus-size empowerment and glazing it with its unmistakable brand of female objectification.”

Additionally, Upton (among many, many others) has been pretty vocal about American Apparel’s horrible corporate culture, including its discriminatory hiring practices and the litany of sexual harassment allegations leveled against CEO Dov Charney.  I’d guess, then, that a vote for Upton was also a vote against the company’s sexist culture.

And that is what American Apparel failed to recognize when it distributed the same condescending email sent to Upton to several news outlets.  Iris Alonzo, the author of the email, clearly had no problem wagging the proverbial finger:

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?

But clearly, Iris and American Apparel weren’t able to grasp that Nancy wasn’t making fun of the other entrants, or taking the fun out of a totally superfun contest – she was directly calling out the company for its bogus practices (like that Charney apparently attends meetings in nothing but a cock sock), and the reason she won was that nobody likes American Apparel.

So like, rather than whining about how mean and uppity Nancy Upton is, I think American Apparel had better take a hard look at its corporate practices – and its CEO – and make some tough decisions – decisions like ousting Dov Charney and his erm… “unique” brand of sexism.  I mean, really – I don’t think the schilling of t-shirts requires the know-how of a sexist hipster douchebag.  I’m pretty sure the t-shirts sell themselves… maybe with the help of scared girls in tube socks.


About Megan E. King

Supahfat, queerfabulous, feminist, writerly-type. Cat person. Loves dirty bass lines.
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