Many moons ago, as a refined young lady freshly sprung from higher education with a B.A. in Theatre, I wound up working in retail. To be a little more specific, I worked for a popular apparel chain, as a “Visual Coordinator,” which was essentially a fancy title for “Window Dresser.” I spent most of my days sequestered in the back, with an ironing board, a can of spray starch, and boxes of upholstery pins, which I used to hold the twists and folds of size 2 clothing so that they would fit nice and snug and tight on the size 0 mannequins. I was to present that season’s styles in an idealized manner, which is to say, skinny.
I was painfully aware of the irony of my situation. I was 21 years old, and had spent a good deal of my life up to that point “subverting the dominant paradigm,” doing weird things with my hair and clothes and generally being crassly unapologetic for carrying a few extra pounds in the age of “heroin chic.” Yet here I was, ritualistically torturing V-Necks and khakis with long sharp T-pins to ensure that nothing on these ridiculously tiny forms looked “baggy” or “lumpy.” But I needed the paycheck, and the publishing houses and theatre companies were not exactly welcoming me with open arms.
Clothing, you see, “hangs better” when there are no pesky curves getting in the way of the drape. Everybody knows this.
I had not thought about that job, so many years ago, until just today, as I was reading the story of Nancy Upton, an activist who is challenging American Apparel’s search for a “plus-sized” model. Upton’s issue?
“I don’t believe that beauty should be qualified as BECAUSE of someone’s size or IN SPITE of someone’s size. Beauty is beauty, it’s fluid, it’s objective and it doesn’t need to be justified to or by anyone.”
The photos she submitted of herself are hilarious, skewering the absurdities of the average fashion spread while having some fun with the whole “plus size” category. Upton received the most votes in American Apparel’s contest (called – amazingly – the “Next BIG Thing” Campaign), but was not offered the job (to be fair, she never expected them to offer it to her). In a testy little letter to Upton, American Apparel’s Creative Director sniffs: “It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge.”
Positive intentions. Uh huh.
I love when these companies suddenly grow a conscience after continually and methodically promoting one kind of body type. Problem is, this new-found admiration for the rest of the population almost always smacks of condescension (and let’s not forget the ridiculous campaign name). And you have to give the ol’ side-eye to a company that, as recently as last summer, had a hiring/firing policy based entirely on looks. With the economy continuing to scramble like a beetle in a toilet bowl, what’s a company to do? Why – start selling to the fatties, of course!
I’m sure plenty of you are reading this and thinking, “Well, at least they’re doing something to promote acceptance.” Listen – apparel manufacturers should have been doing this ALL ALONG, instead of adding a few “plus” sizes to their lines and patting themselves on the back for what is basically a publicity scheme. Because the fact of the matter is, they’ll give the “winning” model a month or so of print, while continuing to pin and tuck Size 2 clothes onto Size 0 mannequins in the front windows. Trust me on that.