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Spoof attack on American Apparel makes Upton the biggest name in fashion


Heather Kennedy
WVoN co-editor

Texan art student Nancy Upton made a splash in the fashion world this week with her spoof entry into American Apparel’s “XL” modelling competition. But despite winning the most votes, American Apparel (AA) has made clear she will not be anointed the victor.

The story began when the company launched an “XL” clothing line and a modelling competition to find the ‘next big thing’. The competition advert invited entries from plus size women with “full-size fannies” who needed “a little extra wiggle room where it counts”.

This patronizing language was more than Upton could stomach. Enlisting the help of a photographer friend, she shot and submitted a series of spoof photos.

The shots included her in a bath, smeared suggestively with ranch dressing and standing half submerged in a swimming pool shoving a whole roast chicken into her mouth.

When I spoke to their London press office on Monday, AA had never heard the name Nancy Upton. But yesterday they broke their silence when they announced that despite receiving the most votes, she will not be named the winner.

In a public email to Upton the company said:

“While you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.”

I spoke to Upton about her decision to take on the spandex giants:

“This competition was never about celebrating bigger women. It was about making money and selling more clothes. Plus they got a free model and free publicity”.

In their email to Upton, AA insisted they are a “creative company go[ing] through puberty in the spotlight of modern media”.

In reality, they are in big trouble. Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for years, investors who saved AA in the spring are now considering selling their shares.

“What got me was that they couldn’t bear to use a single real adjective [in the competition advert] about plus size women being pretty”, says Upton.

“They didn’t use any positive adjective to address women, just jokey, made up words like ‘junk’ and ‘XLent’. Nothing that denotes attractiveness without a crude reference to size. Oh, they did mention sexy but they were referring to their own hot pants!”

When it comes to the charge of body fascism it’s hard to give AA the benefit of the doubt. Earlier this year, it transpired that they demand job applicants send in a full body shot for “approval”.

Considering the number of sexual harassment law suits stacked up against their CEO Dov Charney in recent years, (at least six since 2004) the reason for this seems clear (see WVoN coverage).

Upton went on: “I chose to do the photos partly because of [AA’s] shady history and partly because we were being sold something that pretended to be pushing things forwards when actually it was pulling them back”.

The ‘next big thing’ competition has been big news not least because last year AA snubbed plus size women, saying “they are not our demographic”.

So you might think this turnaround is progress until you realise that AA’s definition of “XL” refers to a size 12-14. The average size for a woman in Britain and America is size 14.

So let’s not get too misty eyed about this. The only reason AA are expanding their size range is to stave off financial ruin.

Saying “XL” women are “not our demographic” is absurd because it assumes plus size women are an entirely different breed from their thinner counterparts.

Men and women are going to buy their clothes from different shops. And a senior is unlikely to be tempted by the same alcoholic drink as would entice a teenager. These are meaningful demographic differences.

But how does a difference in weight affect the fashions and brands you follow? It doesn’t. An American woman in her twenties does not gain twenty pounds and suddenly become interested only in adverts for floral muumuus.

Upton blames a lingering aversion towards “XL” women for the sneering tone that drips from the ‘next big thing’ advert.

Whether or not you agree that the AA competition was offensive, Upton’s photos have wider relevance. They critique an entire culture where taking up too much space as a woman is a cardinal sin.

And where, for women, “big” and “sexy” can never appear in the same sentence (unless, of course, we’re talking breast size). Aside from that, they’re really good photos.

What is significant is not that Upton was insulted. It’s that she responded to this insult with creativity and humour, tearing into the vacant, come-to-bed female poses that typify serious fashion photography.

For fear of being cast humorless prudes or delicate flowers, we are often discouraged from speaking up when offended. Indeed, AA told Upton “It’s a shame…that [our language] was too much for you to handle”.

And that’s why Upton’s funny, confrontational response was so delicious. Using humor to frame dissent is not what society expects from women. Women are not supposed to be funny, particularly if it involves covering your face and breasts with cherry pie and starring catatonically into the middle distance.

But if that seems a little daunting, Upton believes we can all make a big difference through small consumer choices:

“People have written to me and said what’s the point, you’ll never beat corporate America, but you can choose not to buy a brand. You can write to editors about ads they feature and say “hey, this is not who I want to be hearing from”.

“We do have power. Big brands take their cues from reality. It’s up to women whether or not they buy into that brand.”

So what’s next for the woman who took on the Goliath of retail?

“I do feel like I’ve been given a platform”, Upton says, “an opportunity to direct people’s attention. So I’ll certainly be considering where next to go from here”.

  1. Heather Kennedy says:

    If you want to read the full response from American Apparel it’s posted here, pretty audacious:

  2. Why aren’t women supposed to be funny?

  3. Alise in VT says:

    Thought you might be interested in Iris’ profile page on AA.

    Is that a handprint on a woman’s ass as a profile pic? Classy.

  4. I meet men and women on a daily basis who don’t think women can be funny. I also meet a lot of very funny women. Now all I need to do is introduce the first group to the second.

    The whole “women aren’t funny” is a common ‘truism’. Here are a couple of links:

    • Huh. I genuinely hadn’t thought about ‘funny’ being a gendered thing. People were either funny or they weren’t, to me. Suppose I’ve been lucky thus far in life. 🙂

      But anyway – I patiently await the day when Dov Charney can’t slime his way out of all those lawsuits. He gives me the heebie jeebies and I’m not even on the same continent as him.

  5. I love Nancy Upton’s photos because she is not only a beautiful curvy woman, she is openly enjoying food! The last taboo for women in this pathological diet culture.

  6. @Alise in VT
    Thanks so much for this! A woman’s bear bum with a red hand mark across it, I mean are they doing it on purpose!

  7. @Halla
    I’m not sure how much longer Dov can keep it together, hopefully something’s got to give.

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