Food Selling Sex: As American Apparel as apple pie

Satire has always been sticky.

When Dallasite Nancy Upton heard about American Apparel’s tacky pitch for a plus-size modeling contest, she was pissed. She writes on the Daily Beast:

The message [was] 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.

If you’re not familiar with American Apparel’s advertising style, it looks something like this:

Size-2 women, usually not more than 24 years of age, wearing next to nothing. Unstyled hair, no makeup, ruffled sheets. You can almost smell the sex.

American Apparel hasn’t been very “plus-size friendly” in recent years, so Upton wasn’t the only person who felt their attempt to court slightly larger consumers was more than a little disingenuous.  (And what of the plus-size men who want to shop at hipster heaven? I’d like to see a similar “Booty-full” campaign targeted at them, American Apparel.)

So she hooked up with her talented photographer friend Shannon Skloss to create a series of images that circled the Internet at Mach speed.

Food — from a well-placed apple pie to a bathtub full of ranch dressing and a rotisserie chicken — is in every frame.

She submitted the photos to the American Apparel contest and, no surprise, she got the most votes by a landslide, but once the L.A.-based company realized they’d been had, they refused to name her the winner. (She has said she wouldn’t take the prize even if they did offer it to her.)

You can imagine the frenzy this has inspired. Upton was smart enough to start blogging about the controversy, so you can essentially read a play-by-play if you’re interested. (The latest news: American Apparel reached out to Upton and invited her to tour the facility, and she’s accepted.)

There’s been a lot of discussion about the thin line between “sexy” and “satirical,” and Upton’s photos are clearly both. Bloggers have pointed to a photo spread in French Vogue last year with a “plus-size” model posing graphically with food.

“Upton’s collection resembles what American Apparel might very well do in a plus-size photo shoot if left to their own devices,” writes blogger Autumn of The Beheld. “I’ve no doubt that if Upton had submitted the exact same photos but had sincere, not subversive, intent, her photos would be featured in their advertisements.”

Filmmaker Keeley Steenson gets props for tipping me off to this American Apparel photo contest thing, and a few months ago, she had also sent me a link to this video, which is weirdly appropriate for this post.

In the first few seconds of the video, it almost looks as if you’re watching an American Apparel ad. Then suddenly, the women clad in sweat bands, ’80s tank tops and high-cut leotards start gorging themselves on everything from marshmallows to pinto beans. The creepy pimp-like guy giving them the food might as well be the equally creepy American Apparel CEO, who has been known to masturbate in front of reporters.


Sincerity, subversion, sex, satire. If the food is supposed to be selling the clothes, and the clothes are selling sex, is the food therefore selling sex? (Usually, it’s sex selling food.) It’s almost 2012, so is glamorizing gluttony still really all that provocative? What if a group of three women who were ex-American Apparel workers made that music video instead of three self-proclaimed “grand Southern gentlemen”? The meaning would change completely.

Upton clearly had something to say, she used her physical beauty to help say it, and American Apparel heard her loud and clear.

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