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American Apparel’s Plus-Sized Contest Sparks Controversy

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Nancy Upton poses in one of her entry photos for American Apparel's recent modeling contest.

CREDIT: Shannon Skloss

American Apparel wanted plus-sized models—so, the company threw a contest recently, with the top prize being a modeling contract with the clothing company.

The text of the contest’s advertisement read:

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!

There’s a lot to be offended by here.

There’s the word “BIG” in all caps, the word “thing” being used to describe women, and it just goes on from there.

So 24-year-old actor and student Nancy Upton decided to enter the contest to problematize, and ultimately, subvert it.

American Apparel has something of a history of diminishing the plus-sized consumer base. Many, including Upton, suspect that American Apparel only made this gesture towards inclusivity because the company has been hurtling towards bankruptcy for some time.

In 2010, adult film star and model April Flores visited an American Apparel showroom to find pieces for a plus-sized clothing line she was developing. But Flores was told that the company didn’t carry many options for plus-sized women because “plus sizes are not their demographic.”

Nancy Upton took this quote as inspiration for the title of her Tumblr-based account of her contest entry titled “That’s Not Our Demographic.”

In her fantastic essay, Upton explains that she was infuriated by how the contest was “co-opting the mantra of plus-size empowerment and glazing it with its unmistakable brand of female objectification.”

American Apparel regularly uses highly sexualized (and nearly naked) models to sell their clothes, and Upton argues that the company regularly sends “the message that a subservient, nearly naked woman has always earned a place in American Apparel’s advertising with no trouble, but that larger women need to vote each other down and compete against one another to even deserve a chance.”

So Upton and a friend conceived of and staged photographs and entered them into the contest. The photos are fantastic—they’re interesting, thoughtful, funny, cheeky, and beautifully shot and staged. While her entry into the contest wasn’t serious—and she fundamentally disagreed with the aims of the contest itself—to her surprise, Upton garnered the most votes and won.

But American Apparel isn’t going to recognize Upton’s win.

Iris Alonzo, creative director of American Apparel, wrote a letter discussing Upton’s win and sent it to Upton and several media outlets.

In the letter, after quite a bit of apologizing for offending Upton and stating that “that’s not our demographic” is not an opinion endorsed by the company, Alonzo explains that Upton will not be awarded the prize of being an “XL brand ambassador.” Why? Because American Apparel decided to award the prize “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.”

Alonzo also accuses Upton of taking the contest advertisement too seriously: “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,” Alonzo writes. “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.”

Recently, Alonzo invited Upton to visit American Apparel headquarters, along with the friend who photographed her. Upton agreed to the visit and was told she can write about what transpires.

Perhaps American Apparel will back down from the uproar and apologize more honestly.

Regardless, hopefully company executives will take the opportunity to listen to Upton and hear her very real critique about how American Apparel has consistently ignored women who aren’t their “demographic”–half-naked and size XS.

Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.

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