American Apparel, American Able: What does the girl next door really look like?
American Apparel sells clothes by selling the sexuality of the girl next door“. The company has claimed that the models in its ads are regular employees or friends, and while that story has been shown to be false, it still reveals the sort of aesthetic message for which their ads strive. They try to sell a concept of beauty that is at once everyday and hypersexual. You too can be objectified. Just buy our clothes.
As you might imagine, I don’t entirely understand the appeal. But the need to be seen as sexual, even at the price of being hypersexualized, in a society saturated with depictions of sexuality is something I can understand: often, the alternative is invisibility. Women with disabilities are one of the groups typically covered by this invisibility, though it does not protect us from sexual assault and abuse.
You can see the full series of faux-ads in the American Able series at Holly Norris’s website along with a statement describing the purpose of the series, part of which appears below:
‘American Able’ intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are invisibilized in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women who are employees, friends and fans of the company. However, these women fit particular body types. Their campaigns are highly sexualized and feature women who are generally thin, and who appear to be able-bodied. Women with disabilities go unrepresented, not only in American Apparel advertising, but also in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for ‘disabled’ bodies are largely perceived as ‘undesirable.’ In a society where sexuality is created and performed over and over within popular culture, the invisibility of women with disabilities in many ways denies them the right to sexuality, particularly within a public context.
American Apparel’s claim to represent everyday beauty is particularly pernicious when it comes to this invisibilization. Like the concept of the girl next door itself, it perpetuates the idea that normal and normative are identical: that those who are not slim and able-bodied are monstrous exceptions.
But this aspect of American Apparel’s use of the “girl next door” is not the only one challenged by the American Able series. The “girl next door” has no particular sexual aim or independence; she is a sweet-tempered erotic fantasy. By using poses meant to emulate this type in order to challenge its boundaries, Holly Norris and Jes Sachse reverse that. This girl woman who could live next door has own her sexuality and sensuality, and she is using and displaying it to her own ends. Plus, as abby jean at FWD points out, she “looks like she is having a blast”.
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