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American Apparel, American Able: What does the girl next door really look like?

May 11, 2010
American Apparel

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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.

And this is the starting point for a powerful project from photographer Holly Norris working with Jes Sachse.

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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37 Comments
  1. May 11, 2010 10:37 am

    I love Freshly Pressed! So glad to have found your blog. Great article. I am currently writing my dissertation on the ‘Cougar’ phenomena and am thrilled to find well written, feminist, cultural resources.

  2. May 11, 2010 10:41 am

    wow. this is a REALLY powerful campaign. thanks so much for writing about it. do you write or comment regularly on any of the bigger feminist blogs? just wondering if i “know” you via any of them. keep writing!

  3. May 11, 2010 10:57 am

    I can’t stand the American Apparel ads, and how they attempt to claim to “stand for” anything… It’s pathetic, the company should just be right out honest with people instead of all of the bs that they spew about wanting the “girl next door” for their ads. (Then they post “plain” or unattractive women/girls to portray this “girl next door”… So this means that what, if a girl isn’t a model, she’s plain and unattractive?)
    I love the mock ads being done, and displayed on the TTC…
    Great post about this stuff, I was just thinking about all of this the other day!

  4. May 11, 2010 11:49 am

    More power to Amercian Able! I am so tired of most advertising because it does use only one type of person in them. I applaud them for going that extra step not just to use an average woman, but one who is disabled, because, sadly, they are forgotten about.

  5. Erik permalink
    May 11, 2010 12:31 pm

    Yay! I’m glad this made it over here (I thought it might). It’s a really well done campaign – fun, beautiful, subversive and moving. I just have a couple thoughts.

    1) One of the reasons, I think, why the American Able ad works so well is because she *is* sexy, right? It’s her confidence that’s sexy, her boldness, her being ok with who she is – which is something not always absent from American Apparel ads, but at least a little obscured by the “normative” sex appeal of the photos.

    2) I’m actually not all that bothered by the American Apparel ads. Here’s why: they are an improvement on the status quo of females used in advertising. They aren’t major political statements or representations of any sort of major change in the way the female form is used and portrayed in advertising, but I do think they are more honest, have a broader conception of beauty, have more variance than all the shiny magazines at the check-out line. In fact, the men in AA ads are even less representative and adhere to more false social ideals of beauty then the women in many cases. Now, that doesn’t mean that AA is living up to their claims or that they aren’t being a little hypocritical, but it is a step in some sort of right-er direction. So no, maybe the whole ‘girl next door thing*’ is a bit obtuse and kind of, honestly, anachronistic at this point, but compared to something like Cosmo, I think the ads can be a little refreshing.

    *(It’s worth mentioning that the ‘girl next door’ aesthetic has never meant ‘average girl.’ If you look back at its uses in history, it’s used to describe unglamorous and unprepared hotness).

    3) Sexy sells and AA is a business. It doesn’t exist to be only a bastion of morality. Now – it has done a lot to help the ethical standards of the clothing industry – workers paid fair wages and treated fairly, vertical integration, clothes made from quality materials, a business that doesn’t exploit immigrants and children overseas – and heck, their clothes are great, well fitting, comfortable and quality. That’s a helluva lot more than whatever company made the clothes you’re wearing right now can probably say of their own ethics and practices. But AA still needs to advertise, and that means at least a modicum of sexy. And you know what? I’m honestly ok with that, because as a marketing aesthetic it’s brilliant and I don’t mind if they do more cherry picking then they portend because, frankly, their ads are hot and their clothes sell and that means more people at least tacitly engaging in fair commerce practices. And if the models all sleep with Dov Charney? Well, I’m honestly ok with that to, so long as they are choosing to do it. And who wouldn’t? Sleep with a major CEO, get some free clothes, become a model for a bit. For a lot of people, that’s a cool thing to do for a week of your life and I see nothing wrong with it. You’re only young once, right?

    Look – could AA try to be more representative of the entire spectrum of the expression of the human form? Of course. But I don’t think they should be painted as some evil corporation exploiting women. The American Able campaign is awesome – but it shouldn’t be taken as an American Able vs. America Apparel kind of thing. One is politically driven art and one is advertising. Not all people (and let’s not forget how men are portrayed in AA ads, either) are equally attractive. Sure sure, you can do the ‘all humanity is beautiful’ thing – but when it comes to selling your product, you start with the assumption (as do most people when they, say, go on a date…or do their hair in the morning) that not everyone is equally beautiful. And if you’re selling sexy clothing, you want sexy models. And the AA models – in the context of advertising and fashion culture (not real life) – are definitely on the ‘more real’ end of the spectrum.

    It will be a LONG time – if it ever happens – that pop culture and fashion and art are in any way representative of the general population. But do we even want it to be? Isn’t being uncommon and unrepresentative and exploiting beauty and talent the very definition of pop culture? Fashion and advertising are not egalitarian pursuits, and American Apparel can hardly be blamed for that. Are they as saintly as they say? Of course not. Are they an improvement on the norm? Yes, I think so. The American Able campaign is much much more than a slight at American Apparel. It’s commentary about how we view disabilities in the broader world of pop culture, fashion, art, the media. It’s about the aesthetic of the disability and why it doesn’t really have one. Now, there are of course evolutionary reasons for this, which I won’t get into because people get all up in arms when you bring basic science into this sort of sociological discourse.

    Beauty is based on trends. Every culture in history has had it’s own unique idea of what sexy is, and they build their art and culture around exemplifying and appreciating that niche. We are no different. It doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable, examinable. I think the very fact that the American Able campaign even EXISTS, let alone how well-done and well received it has been is a testament to the progress we are making as a society.

    In any case, thanks for posting. Sorry about the long comment. And great write-up, Elizabeth.

  6. May 11, 2010 12:42 pm

    wow. this is a good campaign. POWER to A. A!!
    have a nice day togheter!

  7. Erik permalink
    May 11, 2010 12:46 pm

    On more thing:

    If American Apparel actually used *real* women – women with disabilities, women with all sorts of shapes and sizes – I would respect them much more and I would be more apt to buy their clothing (admittance: I do but there clothing sometimes as it is) – and I think most people who read this blog feel similar. Unfortunately, we don’t represent the tendencies of the majority.

    Sorry, I didn’t want to seem like I was defending American Apparel exactly, just saying that they aren’t the worst.

  8. May 11, 2010 12:48 pm

    I am currently working on a new column and American Apparel has been on my mind. I didn’t even know about this fantastic campaign! Good for Holly Norris. The sexual harassment Dov Charney is known to put employees through tells a whole other story about The Girl Next Door in his mind.

  9. May 11, 2010 12:58 pm

    I am so glad that someone did this, I think it is disgraceful how the fashion/beauty industry decides beauty standards. Then people wonder why eating disorders and depression in teens is rampant!

  10. May 11, 2010 1:24 pm

    We discuss this on our blog constantly. What does a real American woman look like and when we see one, why do people protest? I am all for your campaign. You have 2 Gabby Gals behind you!!!

  11. May 11, 2010 2:03 pm

    Last year we ran a feature on our website about ‘skinny models and unhappy women’ – this had a very high response – all from people who agreed with us.
    Women with disabilities are ‘invisible’ across the spectrum – not just ads, but the media in general. Now that I think about it, so are men with disabilities.

  12. May 11, 2010 3:43 pm

    Great blog, thanks for sharing! 🙂

  13. May 11, 2010 3:44 pm

    I get what you’re saying, and the campaign seems wonderful. What would be even better would be to have an ACTUAL CAMPAIGN and an ACTUAL STORE do this sort of thing. It would be awesome having a good brand endorse campaigning of this sort. For the average women and the disabled as well.

    I hate how the media runs our minds. I won’t lie, it’s always had an effect on me. I can’t help but feel fat time to time, who doesn’t? It sucks walking into a store and seeing sizes like 0 and -1 even -2! How is that realistic to the average? Even at between sizes 3-7 won’t be seen in most ads, which is realistically fit and still on the small end.

    What really gets to me is that there’s a large number of people who feel this way and yet there’s no stores giving in. No high end fashion designer giving an inch, let alone a centimeter. I don’t see why they haven’t, the demand for this change has been around for a long time now. Let’s get back to the curvy women, such as the voluptuousness that was the 60’s. The elegance of the 40’s models. The days before twiggy took over the mass media. Where thereafter every model had the twiggy shape(lessness). Let’s also have the disabled, who have just as much a right to be appreciated and noticed as the average women does.

    • May 12, 2010 8:41 am

      What an amazing idea. I wonder if there are any stores out there that would be interested?

  14. May 11, 2010 3:46 pm

    Bring on the campaign and equality for all shapes and sizes!

  15. May 11, 2010 4:58 pm

    Your blog is brilliant, well-written, and important. Thank you so much for your work.

  16. May 11, 2010 7:32 pm

    this is a really great post! that campigain is very powerful and hopefully american apparel will see it and MAYBE think about remodelling their advertisement campaign!

  17. keeskee permalink
    May 11, 2010 8:59 pm

    Wow American Able is amazing!

  18. May 11, 2010 9:21 pm

    The sad thing about companies like AA is they do one thing right (treating factory workers well) then turn around and treat the image of women like crap. Guess we can’t win…

  19. eloquentessentials permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:10 pm

    You know, in the past I have been torn over American Apparel. The only really great thing it has going for itself is the fact that its clothes are made in LA and not in third-world countries. The ads are the things that bother me the most. I feel like the girls in the ads are often objectified. Great article. Loving this blog!

  20. May 12, 2010 12:05 am

    This is an amazing project! There is an American Apparel close to campus and I can’t help but gag every time I pass by and see semi-naked girls (they look like they could be 13) in kama-sutra posees. And what about the competition they held to find the best butt? The objectification of women that such ad campaigns endorse (and that justify the furthering of this behavior by other stores) is disgusting.

  21. Steven Harris permalink
    May 12, 2010 6:04 am

    All advertising taps into culturally conditioned erotic fantasies within the human mind. It’s a trend that began in the 50s so perhaps we ought to be more innured to it by now.

  22. mochamom04 permalink
    May 12, 2010 6:56 am

    I love what this project is setting out to do, right and inequality. However, I am not so certain if this is the best way to go about it. As a former educator and counselor of students/people with disabilities, I am not certain if this is the form of media “coverage” they would appreciate. This spoof is only going to be appealing and meaningful to very small percentage of the population. People at large have been desensitized by the media’s flooding of a certain type of image, a trend that yes should definitely change, but how? I have concerns that not only do the ads contain women that aren’t representative of special needs “girls next door”, but a multitude of non-traditional model type girls next door-color, shape, height, etc. American Able ad spoof didn’t feel empowering to me, it was more comical, which spoofs are intended to be, but at who’s expense? The majority of the people that see these ads will look twice and think that’s weird or funny, but it won’t necessarily create a soul shaking stir that will unsettle them to stop purchasing clothing from the companies that don’t represent the “average” woman. Companies are about $$, and as long as they make the $$ doing what they have always done, then they won’t change. Keep writing and informing people and over time I pray a change in consciousness will come. A change in all things unequal, not just advertising or stereotypical beauty. Being an African American woman, I can think of many other bridges to cross and battles to fight, other than changing a clothing ads. But that is just me personally. One step at a time ladies, but we will make change!!

  23. mochamom04 permalink
    May 12, 2010 6:58 am

    I love what this project is setting out to do, right an inequality. However, I am not so certain if this is the best way to go about it. As a former educator and counselor of students/people with disabilities, I am not certain if this is the form of media “coverage” they would appreciate. This spoof is only going to be appealing and meaningful to very small percentage of the population. People at large have been desensitized by the media’s flooding of a certain type of image, a trend that yes should definitely change, but how? I have concerns that not only do the ads contain women that aren’t representative of special needs “girls next door”, but a multitude of non-traditional model type girls next door-color, shape, height, etc. American Able ad spoof didn’t feel empowering to me, it was more comical, which spoofs are intended to be, but at who’s expense? The majority of the people that see these ads will look twice and think that’s weird or funny, but it won’t necessarily create a soul shaking stir that will unsettle them to stop purchasing clothing from the companies that don’t represent the “average” woman. Companies are about $$, and as long as they make the $$ doing what they have always done, then they won’t change. Keep writing and informing people and over time I pray a change in consciousness will come. A change in all things unequal, not just advertising or stereotypical beauty. Being an African American woman, I can think of many other bridges to cross and battles to fight, other than changing clothing ads. But that is just me personally. One step at a time ladies, but we will make change!!

    • May 12, 2010 8:48 am

      It’s important to remember that the model, Jes Sachse, is a person with disabilities and had a pretty important role in the creation of these spoof ads. Holly Norris, the photographer has a blog post in which she makes it clear that Jes had input and agency in the creation of this campaign: http://forestfirecity.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/american-able/ (The post also reflects why this is about a little more than changing clothing ads.)

  24. PartTimeVegan permalink
    May 12, 2010 9:37 am

    Excellent article and thank you for sharing, I was not yet aware of this campaign. I love the response from the first Elizabeth who commented, well put. Keep posting~ Thank you!

  25. May 12, 2010 3:14 pm

    Great blog!

  26. Songbird permalink
    May 12, 2010 4:35 pm

    ahh… the girl next door advertising… othe rcompanies in other countries are doing it as well… but wha makes me laugh is the models they choose (whilst claiming they are your “average” office workers or nurses etc., they just happen to be perfectly porpotioned, with big toothy smiles, basically like fashion models but not (maybe) 6ft tall…
    Bravo to American Able!

  27. May 16, 2010 12:56 pm

    This blog is very good. Thanks for this. I will bookmark this page.

  28. May 16, 2010 2:06 pm

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers

  29. May 16, 2010 3:12 pm

    I am the first time on this site and am really enthusiastic about and so many good articles.
    I think it’s just very good.
    Thanks..

  30. Molly Ford permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:06 pm

    I love this campaign. So wonderful.

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  1. The AA Controversy « Chic Stripes
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