The “abstract inevitable” of plastic surgery is a relatively recent phenomenon that has developed in resounding response to the quest for the perfect body, as Andi Zeisler illustrates in “Plastic Passion: Tori Spelling’s Breasts and Other Results of Cosmetic Darwinism.” An entity that was once the privilege of the wealthy, it has become considerably more affordable. The combination of these has led to a tripled rate of breast augmentation and a doubled rate of liposuction, in addition to a fifty percent increase of cosmetic surgery since 1992. Zeisler specifically cites the article “Calf Masters” in an issue of Vogue, which evaluates the procedures that one can undergo in order to look one’s best in capri pants. She highlights the fact that cosmetic surgery has become so common that in today’s world that “spendy [operations] for the sake of a fleeting trend” (Miya-Jervis) are encouraged, and the dangers are significantly downplayed. However, other forms of media, including Beverly Hills, 90210, have begun to advocate the idea that “…cosmetic surgery = oppression,” (Miya-Jervis) introducing the idea that this phenomenon which is currently spreading like wildfire may in fact be detrimental. However, Ziesler argues that “feminism these days is about defining our own terms, being able to adapt former defintions and shift them around to suit us” (Miya-Jervis), a sentiment characteristic of the increasingly hard-to-pin-down set of ideas and actions that is third-wave feminism. After all, “it’s hard to condemn someone whose insecurity about having small breasts poisons the rest of her life; for her, that amounts to a feminist issue” (Miya-Jervis). Further still, “…we probably wouldn’t even be thinking about what life would be like with a new nose or perkier breasts or shapelier inner thighs if it weren’t for a long-standing cultural ideal that rewards those who adhere to it with power that often doesn’t speak its name…” (Miya-Jervis). Thus, the enormous pressure that society places upon women to conform to its preposterously lofty ideals rears its ugly head yet again, and it does not show any signs of stopping. What can be done?
American Apparel is a company that is not particularly known for its tolerant or accepting practices. In late August, however, they decided to debut plus size clothing by adding a size XL to their repertoire. (Information about this contest can be found here.) One should note that this particular size XL is designed for a size 12/14 woman. One should also note that the average American woman’s dress size is 14, or the starting point of plus-size clothing (Piepkorn). To find the face of this new endeavor, they elected to launch a contest called “The Next Big Thing,” in which “curvy” women were encouraged to submit a photo accompanied by a blurb explaining what makes them “booty-ful.”
Most would agree that the mere idea of American Apparel referring to size 12 women, who are actually smaller than the average American woman, as “big” is utterly preposterous. Most would also agree that although this is undoubtedly an effort to appear more inclusive, it is a rather pathetic effort at best. It is my opinion that by relegating women with “full-size fannies” to a separate, insensitively titled “XL” group, this image-obsessed company should be filed under exclusive rather than inclusive. Nancy Upton, a 24-year old Texan woman who is a size 12, apparently agrees. She submitted several photos of herself, but they had a twist: the photos feature Upton either covered in or eating high calorie food and appearing to enjoy it immensely. (To see some of these photos, go to Upton's personal blog or this Huffington post article WARNING: partial nudity.) She has since clarified that she intends these photos as a sharp critique of American Apparel, especially its negative-masquerading-as-positive attitude toward plus-size women. She won the contest, an outcome with which the company was not happy. However, American Apparel soon reconsidered, inviting Upton to visit their factory and meet with the creative directors who created this condescending contest.
American Apparel joins countless other companies in the relentless quest to market perfection, as they clearly strive to tout the body described at the beginning of “Inscribing Gender on the Body” as the ideal. Their use of thin models in borderline pornographic poses furthers this image, instilling a feeling in consumers that if they purchase these clothes and act in the promiscuous way that the ads seem to suggest, they too will be thin, desirable, and the direct opposite of an “XL.” (A gallery of photos, described as “some of the best and most evocative images captured by our staff,” can be found here.) The company describes itself as “…a vertically integrated manufacturer, distributor and retailer, based in downtown Los Angeles, California…within our business model, knitting, dyeing, cutting, sewing, photography, marketing, distribution and design all happen in the company's facilities in Los Angeles...[operating] the largest garment factory in the United States, at a time when most apparel production has moved offshore…[we leverage] art, design and technology to advance the business process, while continuing to pioneer industry standards of social and environmental responsibility in the workplace” (Company). Few could argue with the fact that this is an admirable business model. Still, their hyper-sexualized marketing, combined with many questionable actions on the part of Dov Charney, the company’s CEO, crafts a picture of an exceedingly patriarchal company. For example, when asked if he considers “slut” to be a derogatory term, Charney responded rather glibly: “You know, there are some of us that love sluts…it could be…an endearing term” (Mankiewicz). He also “freely admits using a number of explicit terms for female body parts—including the “C” word” (Mankiewicz). A former employee stated that “…his language was constantly inappropriate, talking about sex, talking about—his own genitalia, talking about—other people’s” (Mankiewicz), and that Charney constantly searched for intimate relations with employees, in addition to facing sexual harassment lawsuits. It appears to be a company that works to maintain women’s’ status as objects through marketing, while actions from higher level management only serve to corroborate this. Whether or not American Apparel is acutely conscious of the messages they are sending, they are nonetheless a cog in the proverbial machine – the machine that is controlled by men, who ultimately possess the power, while women merely sit on the sidelines as sexualized objects. In addition, the unrelenting image of the ideal body that is perpetuated in our society, as illustrated in “Inscribing Gender on the Body,” is accompanied by stereotypes about certain body types. If one is fat, one must be a lazy slob who cannot control oneself around food. If one is thin, and therefore actively embodying the preferred archetype, then one is clearly the epitome of self-control, discipline, and ordered eating. Although most people with any form of common sense know these ideas to be both unfair and untrue, they are spread – and engrained – as much and as effectively as the image of the wafer-thin, large-chested, delicate-boned, statuesque woman. The visual design and content of Nancy Upton’s photographs are a clearly barbed attack on this stereotype, as in several of them she appears slathered in food or sauces, including ranch dressing, chocolate syrup, ice cream, chicken, and chips, as well as consuming them. She is not enforcing the stereotype; in fact, she actively seeks to do quite the opposite – debunking this unfortunate myth using sarcastic, irreverent, and attention-grabbing tactics. With the media bombardment in our society, tactics such as these are often most effective, and Upton has obviously discovered this. She also stated that she found particular issue with the use of “cutesy” words such as “booty-ful,” wondering why they simply did not refer to the potential models as “beautiful,” and that this idea was the primary inspiration behind her photo shoot.
A second-wave feminist would likely not be a fan of Upton’s strategies, as this group would probably object to the lingerie and partial nudity she exhibits, saying that she must fight against the notion of woman as object by refusing to conform to a contrived idea of “sexy.” However, using Andi Zeisler’s logic from “Plastic Passion” as framework as well as the tenets of third-wave feminism, one could also approach from the perspective that Nancy Upton has defined her own terms regarding exactly how she will make this powerful statement regarding acceptance of plus-size women in the clothing market. Culturally, feminism has shifted from being rigidly defined, as it was in the second wave; instead, it has become more fluid. Zeisler’s application of adjusting feminism to fit one’s personal definitions regarding such ideas as plastic surgery can just as easily be applied to Upton’s situation. The idea of one woman choosing not to undergo cosmetic surgery because she believes that it is contrary not only to her beliefs, but to feminism, while another is so dissatisfied with her breast size that it becomes a feminist issue serves as a direct parallel to this circumstance. While one feminist may find the nature of Upton’s photographs contrary to all that women have fought for, as she is essentially sexualizing herself, another feminist, or Upton herself, would declare that it is all in the name of awareness and possible plus-size acceptance and that if such tactics are required for the cause, then they will be used.
Gender is one of the most prevalent, if not THE most prevalent, defining entities in society today. Maintaining it requires strict conformity to ideals, one of the most noticeable being the idea of the “perfect” body – women should be thin and large-chested, while men are expected to be strong and muscular. These ideals can be traced directly to historical and current roles of women and men, as women are thought of as a delicate and frail sex that must be sheltered and protected while men are considered protectors with authority. Numerous people will attempt to alter their bodies in order to achieve these pinnacles with methods that include, but are not limited to, cosmetic surgery, extreme dieting, and eating disorders. Ideals are primarily perpetuated by corporations, as they have the considerable money and influence required to do so, and the successful marketing and adaptation of a specific ideal by the population will lead to still more money and influence. Through her controversial photographs, Nancy Upton sent an extremely clear message to these corporations, particularly American Apparel, by directly insulting their condescending tone toward plus-size customers. When viewing these photos, one is reminded of the ludicrous ideals pushed on women as well as the equally absurd stereotypes accompanying them, specifically the idea that all overweight people cannot stop eating. Ms. Upton’s innovative and effective photos not only turned this insulting contest on its head; they also remind us that the many stereotypes accompanying gender must be recognized, and that a dialogue must begin before it’s too late.
"Company Profile." americanapparel.net. American Apparel Inc., 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.
Miya-Jervis, Lisa, and Andi Zeisler. BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Mankiewicz, Josh. "Sexy Marketing or Sexual Harassment?" msnbc.msn.com. Msnbc.com, 28 July 2006. 28 Sept. 2011.
Piepkorn, Jodi. "Is Plus-Size the Average Clothing Size?" AOL.com. AOL Inc., 30 Oct. 2008. 28 Sept. 2011.
Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee. Women's Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009.