American Apparel: Sexist or Liberating?

Warning: Some of the images in this article, while all real American Apparel ads, contain nudity. Reader discretion is advised.

You know that friend you have that you really want to hate? She’s annoying or offensive or calculating. And just when you’ve had it and you say you’re finally, definitely writing her off for good, she goes and does one thing, maybe puts in just the tiniest effort, for a show of good faith. It’s so out of character and confusing, and throws you so off guard, that you relent and suddenly are not so sure what to think anymore?

Since its formation in 1989, American Apparel has been the brand equivalent of that friend. Right on up there with Abercrombie and Fitch and Urban Outfitters, American Apparel has drawn a lot of fire for its marketing techniques and advertisements.

While there are many controversial aspects to the company, one of the biggest topics is the sexualization and exploitation of women, as well as the pressure the brand places on individuals to conform to normative standards of beauty.

The number one complaint against the company is its ads. Many of the images used by American Apparel to sell women’s clothing portray models in extremely provocative poses, in various stages of undress.

It’s ironic how these ads to sell clothes often times feature so little of it. Sometimes, in fact, these photos cross the line into nudity, or even borderline on pornographic. Is it truly necessary for the woman modeling tights to be topless?

The company’s items marketed as “unisex” are especially telling. It’s the same exact item, a shirt, for example. Yet, the photos chosen of the female model are often hypersexual.

…while the male model in the same exact item is shown as casual and fully clothed.

Obviously, many of these images can be described as degrading to women. Numerous individuals and organizations have called out American Apparel on these ads.

One example is the Advertising Standards Authority, the U.K.’s regulator of advertising banned these ads:

They state, “we considered the images and the model's poses…gratuitous. We considered the images were overtly sexual and that they demeaned women by emphasizing the model's groin, buttocks and breasts and by not including her face,” proving that even if an image doesn’t explicitly show nudity, the ad can still be construed as demeaning.

Plus, Sweden has started a petition condemning the company and its CEO Dov Charney (yes, that is him) for their “sexist marketing.”

On top of the photographs demeaning women, the company also perpetuates unrealistic standards of beauty for girls (much in the style of Abercrombie). American Apparel has various women’s items that that don’t come in sizes larger than 6 (such as this, and this). The average woman is a size 14; what gives?

So with all these strikes against them, American Apparel should most likely be considered one of the most sexist, misogynist clothing companies out there. Yet, the company seems to have an answer for everything, and, some may argue, may even be pushing a feminist agenda.

In regards to the degrading photos, the company asserts that the provocative poses are merely an artistic perspective. In fact, as Marsha Brady, one of American Apparel’s creative directors says: "[when]...there’s a group of people attempting to shame female creativity, female beauty, female pride under the auspices of protecting women, it’s really, really scary." Apparently, there are several lenses through which to view these ads.

Also, the company maintains that models are never photo shopped, stating the brand embraces an “un-airbrushed aesthetic,” leaving freckles, scars, blemishes, body hair, and tattoos untouched. The official website also states that their models aren’t in fact models at all, but “real people” found “all over the world, through online submissions, word of mouth, and in retail stores, where we've been known to do an impromptu test shoot or two.”

It is one thing when all these “real people” are young, thin girls they pluck off the street. But it’s quite another when the model is an elderly woman.

Jacky O’Shaughnessy is a 62-year old lingerie model for American Apparel. In January of 2014, the company released the following shot of O’Shaughnessy captioned with the tagline “Sexy has no expiration date.”

In a world— and especially in an industry—where youth is valued, wrinkles appalling, and women considered worthless past 30, it is refreshing to see an ad that emphasizes age and beauty as not merely mutually exclusive. This move has been widely praised by customers and critics everywhere.

On top of this, American Apparel has recently partnered with feminist photographer and artist Petra Collins, a 20 year old currently attending the Ontario College of Art and Design. Collins designed a variety of t-shirts for the company, two of the most controversial, also portraying women’s bodies in several poses that are raising a few eyebrows:

“Period Power,” shown below, described by the brand as a “screen-printed Power Washed Tee featuring self-pleasing artwork,” has been called everything from “vile,” “icky” and “gross” to “awesome.” The concept behind these shirts was to get people talking about women’s sexuality, and the portrayal of women in the media.

When asked about the uproar surrounding her designs in a recent Vice interview, Collins stated that the controversy simply proved the point that drove her to design them in the first place; “it’s funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently.”

Collins goes on to say that “I’m really interested in what is hidden from our culture. We are always repressing or hiding what is natural to a post-pubescent body. We’re taught to hate our menstrual cycle and even to hide masturbation.”

Sticking true to this, just a few months after the release of Collin’s t-shirts, an American Apparel store in New York added pubic hair to several of its storefront mannequins. A rep for the store stated that they hoped to illustrate the “rawness and realness of sexuality.”

While this stunt has not been replicated at any of the brands other locations, the incident certainly got people to stop, stare, and discuss.

American Apparel certainly has had its moments of glory and of shame when it comes to the objectification of women. Yet does the good outweigh the bad? Is American Apparel perpetuating the sexualization of women in media, or is it liberating women to feel free to exhibit their sexuality as they please? Is it even worth attempting to discern the thought process of a company founded merely to sell us cotton tees and skater skirts?

Okay, so maybe everything a company does is a publicity stunt to get us talking about their brand. Maybe they need to get their ideologies on the same page; don’t degrade women one second then claim to celebrate them the next. But the themes, concepts and values that American Apparel’s products and advertisements raise are real and have real life impacts on our society. Addressing what these values say about our culture and how we treat women is important, because it will affect all of us. What do you think, Collegiettes?