A funny thing happened at the Houston Street American Apparel early Thursday morning. Exactly a month ahead of Valentine’s Day, America’s favorite source of overpriced, domestically produced basics launched a decidedly on-brand holiday promotion: swapping out its typical mannequins for female figures with nipples and pubic hair, both clearly visible underneath sheer lingerie. After Gothamist reported on the display, which happens to be located just a few blocks from the Flavorwire offices, a sales associate told the Huffington Post that the mannequins were intended to demonstrate “the rawness and realness of sexuality.” And when a national retailer chooses to represent women’s bodies in a way that’s closer to real life than ads that perpetuate the widespread stigma against women’s body hair, that’s a good thing, right?
The Houston Street mannequins come just a few months after another American Apparel initiative designed with body positivity at least partly in mind. October’s “Period Power” T-shirt, designed by 20-year-old artist Petra Collins, tackles a triple threat of frequently demonized aspects of women’s bodies and female sexuality: menstruation, pubic hair, and masturbation. The shirt, still available for purchase on American Apparel’s site for $32, is about as in-your-face a representation of female sexuality as mainstream fashion has ever seen. Collins told Time that she wanted “to put a super-taboo topic right on a T-shirt to make it viewable for everyone,” explaining: “We are always repressing or hiding what is natural to a post-pubescent body. We’re taught to hate our menstrual cycle and even to hide masturbation.”
But what does an embrace of sex and body positivity mean coming from a company like American Apparel? Leaving aside the question of whether we’ll ever see pubic hair on its mannequins again after this marketing gimmick has run its course, the brand’s more notorious for sexualizing women (and young girls) than embracing sexuality on women’s own terms. I’m happy American Apparel is taking some steps in the right direction, but it’s still worth reviewing its history with the kind of #problematic stuff that’d likely send those who agreed with Collins’ statement running for the Jezebel comments section.
No less than five women to date have sued founder Dov Charney for sexual harassment, including addressing and attempting to take photos without a litigant’s consent. At least one accuser was just 17 at the time of the alleged transgressions. And while it’s arguably possible to separate Charney’s actions from those of his company, American Apparel itself has come under fire for sexualizing child models, a practice that got a 2009 ad in Vice magazine banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency. Finally, there’s the particularly grody allegation that employees are hired, fired, and promoted based in large part on their appearance, which is evaluated via photos sent to company higher-ups.
All of this adds up to a company that’s more dedicated to enforcing the status quo when it comes to female bodies in the fashion industry than disrupting it. Wrapped in the guise of boundary-pushing and “edginess” as they may be, American Apparel’s business practices endorse a pretty conservative view of its female models, workers, and customers. Take the last time the company used pubic hair as a promotional tactic: with an extremely young-looking model posed with open legs and an inviting stare, it’s an illustration of the male gaze so archetypal it could have been ripped out of a women’s studies textbook. In the AA ideal, women are submissive, conventionally attractive, and presented for a male viewer. A radical reclamation of female sexuality it’s usually not.
Combine American Apparel’s history with its recent initiatives and you get the twisted version of sex positivity that drives many feminists nuts. The mannequins and T-shirt may be a more candid representation of the female body than the average airbrushed image, but that honesty comes in the context of a brand that regularly uses those bodies as props. And neither the mannequins nor Collins’ T-shirt does anything to alter the overall approach American Apparel takes towards selling an objectified version of women along with its clothes — meaning, at the end of the day, they risk simply playing into it.
I’m a big fan of Collins’ work; her Huffington Post response to Instagram’s removal of a photo that dared to show a sliver of pubic hair is especially fist-pump-worthy. And I’m not going to begrudge her for taking advantage of a platform that increases her audience by several million people. But it’s disingenuous at best for American Apparel to use Collins’ work and stunts like the Houston Street mannequins to attract a certain kind of customer even as it uses barely legal models and a rigidly body-policed sales staff to attract another. Charney’s company can either promote the idea of women as real people with sexuality that’s their own and no one else’s, or it can keep selling that sexuality as a commodity. It shouldn’t be able to have both.