"Gender: To Be Determined" is collaborative, interactive blog brought to you by University of Denver students in Lindsey Feitz's "Introduction to Gender and Women's Studies" class.

If you are interested in gender, sexuality, and popular culture, this is the blog for you.

There's some incredibly smart, sassy, and saavy analyses that cover a range of topics we're discussing in class. Please feel free peruse our archive and join the conversation.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beauty Ideals, Cosmetic Surgery, American Apparel, and Challenging the System

“In contemporary U.S. society we are surrounded by images of beautiful, thin (although fit and sculpted, large breasted, and sometimes full bottomed), young, abled, smiling women. Most of these bodies are White, and when women of color are depicted, they tend to show models with more typically White features or hair. These images set standards for appearance and beauty that are internalized - standards that affect how we feel about our own bodies” (Shaw). In “Inscribing Gender on the Body,” Susan Shaw and Janet Lee illustrate a looming and unfortunate fact that permeates American culture today, and has for countless years – people, especially women, are continually comparing themselves to flawless body ideals and becoming discouraged as they “come up short.” I place this in quotation marks because “fashion models today weigh more than 20 percent less than the average woman; only about 5 percent of the female population in our society weighs the average fashion model’s weight given her height” (Shaw). Therefore, the ideal that so many women tirelessly measure themselves against is unattainable for 95% of women. Ridiculous? Yes. Still, as long as “…groups with more power and influence…set the trends…”, this scrutiny and lack of satisfaction will likely continue. Even if one realizes that comparing oneself to a twenty-something, 100-pound model is preposterous, our “male-dominated culture and…multi-billion-dollar industries that serve to maintain both corporate profits and patriarchal social relations” (Shaw) have entrenched this practice so deeply that it is almost impossible to escape. If one requires an example of how deeply entrenched these ideals are, one needs only to look at the prevalence of eating disorders, among them, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, compulsive eating, and muscle dysmorphia. Cultural expectations and the prevalence of these disorders are directly aligned, as in the event that society did not enforce one specific body type that it believes everyone should conform to, people likely would not be starving themselves, binging, purging, or taking steroids in order to attain these ideals.

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.




  1. This article hit home for me.. my best friend suffered a lot with her body image. She suffered from Bulimia-nervosa and would constantly be throwing up her food and using laxatives. It was really sad watching her go down this path all because pressures that men and society had put on her. I don't think a lot of people really take the time to contemplate about how messing with one part of a persons life can literally destroy their whole life. Who cares if someone is super skinny or overweight.. that doesn't matter. There is so much more to each individual in this world besides outward appearance and it sickens me that people go to the extremes just to be accepted. Great blog!

  2. I think you did a terrific job on this article. I saw the pictures Nancy Upton posted and I remember thinking "Thank God someone is make a mockery out of that joke of a company." (No offense to those who just so happen to like American Apparel, but I for one think their clothes are poorly made and ridiculously expensive. The CEO's remarks didn't help to better my opinion). I think your choice of topic was a perfect choice--the clothing market is being incredibly exclusive when it comes to people of different sizes and I think that this isn't just a feminist issue, it's also a humanitarian issue. Companies need to learn that it isn't okay to exempt and exclude people based on their sizes. It isn't a clothing company's job to make a person feel worse about themselves. I too have encountered eating disorders due to the fact that I was in a ballet company for years and the pressure to stay thin in that environment is sometimes, arguably, even worse than in the modeling industry. I think you make excellent claims and your evidence is right on spot. Awesome work!

  3. First off, props on this blog entry. It was very well written and you did a really nice job of intertwining American Apparel with third-wave feminism, body image issues, and the readings from class. Particularly I enjoyed your discussion of third-wave feminism and how it functions on an ever-changing spectrum. I have a question pertaining to the section in which you discuss the CEO of American Apparel, specifically his remarks on the meaning behind the word "slut." Could his response be taken as a third-wave feminist response? I do not want to sound like I am defending him, because overall he sounds like an asshole. But his suggestion that "slut" could act as an "endearing term," and that many of us "love sluts," seems to be an empowering feminist statement from my perspective. I doubt this was his intention, but in a way he is suggesting that diverse approaches to sexuality, perhaps being more "promiscuous" sexually (based on social norms of course), is an acceptable/respectable way of living. What are your thoughts? I've always found it fascinating that the word "slut" assumes female sexuality - we do not hold men to the same sexual standards. Would it be a good strategy for women to embrace and boast a more "promiscuous" sexual identity in the hopes of moving towards gender equality?

  4. First of all, thanks everyone! :)
    @Jess.Marie and @AlexisRobbins - I completely agree. I have so many issues with the fact that certain institutions in our society have a way of controlling body image and perception. Whatever their logic is, whether it's unconscious or simply a method by which to market to an "exclusive" segment of the population (i.e., the uber-thin), it's completely wrong. It's staggering to think of the many lives that messages like this have destroyed, as they permeate the media so heavily!
    @Zach Munson - Interesting point! I must say that I didn't consider this while writing this entry. While I doubt Mr. Charney was approaching this issue from a third-wave feminist standpoint, your response raised an incredibly valid idea. It's my estimation that there are many women out there who are "promiscuous" and view this as a form of expression and a mode by which they wholeheartedly embrace their sexuality. After all, greeting sexuality with open arms seems to be a key tenet of third-wave feminism, at least for some third-wave feminists (this reminds me of the Ke$ha video we watched in class!). A term for males that comes to mind is "stud," although this obviously has positive connotations whereas "slut" has negative ones. Could there be a movement of positive use of the word "slut" in our future?

  5. Great blog entry! I actually had stumbled across Nancy Upton's photos from the contest a few weeks ago and had read about the American Apparel contest and I think you did a great job relating it to our readings. I love Nancy Upton for making fool of a company that is so delusional. But its sad to think that American Apparel is actually one of many clothing companies that excludes so many women through the sizing of their clothes. You noted that the American Apparel size XL is a 12/14 and the average American women is a size 14, meaning most women in America are then labeled as XTRA LARGE. Companies need to think about who they are making clothes for...real people, not the 'ideal' image that is so hard to obtain, especially without any plastic surgery.

  6. Great job Amy! I thought that this was a very relatable blog post. I thought it was disgusting how the CEO of American Apparel treated his female employees. I also think that it is sad that a size 12 is considered plus size. It makes me think of the movie Mean Girls when Regina gains weight and isn't able to shop at the fictional 1,3,5 store where they only carry sizes 1,3,5. It isn't a wonder why so many girls develop eating disorders. I have noticed this size trend with other retailers as well including Forever 21 who's plus line sizes span from size 12-20. This is an important issue and I am glad you brought it up!

  7. Really great job! My comment may be a little off topic of your blog but it’s an interesting observation that goes along with your theme. I went to a boarding school for all four year of high school and eating disorders were extraordinarily popular. I knew of many girls who were usually bulimic or anorexic, and even a few of my closer friends went through an eating disorder phase. My sister goes to Colorado College and she knows many people there who went to boarding school who also commented on how eating disorders were very common. I have heard the reason for this is because there is a sense of competition to look best in the required uniform that all students are required to wear everyday. In a way it is kind of similar to the effect the media has on women’s body image. In our society it is hard to ignore the media because it is always in your face with the skinny models and celebrities getting plastic surgery, just as at boarding school everyday you are comparing how your body looks in the uniform with all the other students who are wearing the same thing. It’s astounding how many different ways women can be influenced by the media but also apart from the media!

  8. LOVE IT! I have really been struggling with the ideas from Nomy Lamm's article and this blog helped me with that. I have been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages to using words like "curvy" and "bootyfull" and things of that sort. I really loved the outside sources you used to contribute to these ideas. Those photographs were really interesting. They weren't particularly objectifying her, but in a way they were playing on her sexuality. It makes me wonder were we supposed to see the photographs as being more sarcastic? or more beautiful for who she was?

  9. @Elise Capiesh - I think we're meant to see the photos as a combination of sarcastic and a celebration of beauty. She is making a mockery out of American Apparel and their discrimination, yet she's showing that "big" (i.e., not model-thin) can be beautiful.

  10. @LeaStaadt - that is interesting! I think it reveals that schools can act as very influential institutional sites where ideals, among them heteronormative and beauty ideals, are learned. And because these ideals are so prominent, there is a very real sense of competition, as you said, as to see who can embody them the most.