If you’ve been around the feminist blogosphere in the last two weeks you’ll probably have heard that American Apparel ran a contest to search for an XL model. This raises a question which I’m never sure how to answer, namely, is it a good or bad thing to include larger women in an industry which objectifies women?
On the one hand, American Apparel is noted for (among other things) ignoring anyone bigger than a toothpick, so their XL model search may be a good thing. On the other hand, American Apparel has been widely criticized for their nearly pornographic ads which objectify women and, in some cases, have bordered on being child pornography. So what are the issues? (*Some NSFW images to follow*)
- There are relatively few fat-positive images in mainstream fashion;
- However, mainstream media objectifies women; and
- It’s women-hating American Apparel running the contest.
Media images have been shown over and over again to have an effect on girls’ and women’s self-esteem. An overwhelming number of those images are of girls and women who are white, very thin, and beautiful. Most of those images sell the idea that to be desired you must be all of those things. The fashion and cosmetics industry tells us that being desired is our path to happiness and that, if we’re not thin or beautiful, we better try damn hard to be or we risk having a very lonely life. This obviously has a dramatic impact on self-esteem. If you’re thin and/or beautiful, you live in fear of becoming fat or unattractive, if you’re not thin or beautiful, you spend extraordinary amounts of money, time and effort trying to be. As a result, most girls and women walk around perpetually aware of how they don’t measure up to these very narrow standards.
Any broadening of those standards, then, seems a positive thing. A wider variety of body types represented in media would mean that we wouldn’t feel so much anxiety about not measuring up to one narrow view of what’s attractive.
The problem is that the majority of these images objectify women so who wants to be included in that group? If the world hated thin, beautiful women, it would hardly seem like much of a coup to be included alongside them. This is the part that I struggle with a lot because, on the one hand, to be objectified is bad, but on the other hand to be desired can be good.
To be objectified is bad when your value is almost entirely determined by your appearance. Not all of us are born beautiful and thin but we’re all born with talents, personalities, abilities, etc., which contribute to our value. If the sole focus is on appearance, our other contributions are invisible and that’s damaging to our sense of self-worth.
However, most of us want to be considered desirable. We want other people to think we’re smart, funny, interesting (and other adjectives that aren’t coming to mind right now) as well as attractive. Since the media shapes what’s considered attractive, if the sole focus is on the thin and beautiful we start to see ourselves as undesirable despite our other wonderful traits. And, again, most of us want to be viewed as wonderful and attractive. Including images of large women as well as thin women goes a long way to sending the message that there isn’t one type of body that’s desirable, we’re all conceivably desirable to somebody. In that respect, I can’t help but see a greater number of big models as a good thing.
Unfortunately, the company currently attempting to do this is American Apparel, and American Apparel seems to enjoy dehumanizing and degrading women. For instance,
Since American Apparel hates women, being happy that they’re including big women in their hate-a-thon doesn’t feel like a great achievement, or any achievement at all.
Read about Nancy Upton’s (the winner) subversive entry photos and the reasons she turned them down here.