American Apparel’s Plus-Sized Contest Sparks Controversy


Written by Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, a Campus Progress staff writer

American Apparel wanted plus-sized models — so, the company threw a contest recently, with the top prize being a modeling contract with the clothing company.

The text of the contest’s advertisement read:

Think you are the Next BIG Thing? Calling curvy ladies everywhere! Our best-selling Disco Pant (and around 10 other sexy styles) are now available in size XL, for those of us who need a little extra wiggle room where it counts. We’re looking for fresh faces (and curvaceous bods) to fill these babies out. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be the next XLent model, send us photos of you and your junk to back it up. Just send us two recent photographs of yourself, one that clearly shows your face and one of your body. We’ll select a winner to be flown out to our Los Angeles headquarters to star in your own bootylicious photoshoot. Runners up will win an enviable assortment of our favorite new styles in XL! Show us what you’re workin’ with!

There’s a lot to be offended by here.

There’s the word “BIG” in all caps, the word “thing” being used to describe women, and it just goes on from there.

So 24-year-old actor and student Nancy Upton decided to enter the contest to problematize, and ultimately, subvert it.

American Apparel has something of a history of diminishing the plus-sized consumer base. Many, including Upton, suspect that American Apparel only made this gesture towards inclusivity because the company has been hurtling towards bankruptcy for some time.

In 2010, adult film star and model April Flores visited an American Apparel showroom to find pieces for a plus-sized clothing line she was developing. But Flores was told that the company didn’t carry many options for plus-sized women because “plus sizes are not their demographic.”

Nancy Upton took this quote as inspiration for the title of her Tumblr-based account of her contest entry titled “That’s Not Our Demographic.”

In her fantastic essay, Upton explains that she was infuriated by how the contest was “co-opting the mantra of plus-size empowerment and glazing it with its unmistakable brand of female objectification.”

American Apparel regularly uses highly sexualized (and nearly naked) models to sell their clothes, and Upton argues that the company regularly sends “the message that a subservient, nearly naked woman has always earned a place in American Apparel’s advertising with no trouble, but that larger women need to vote each other down and compete against one another to even deserve a chance.”

So Upton and a friend conceived of and staged photographs and entered them into the contest. The photos are fantastic—they’re interesting, thoughtful, funny, cheeky, and beautifully shot and staged. While her entry into the contest wasn’t serious—and she fundamentally disagreed with the aims of the contest itself—to her surprise, Upton garnered the most votes and won.

But American Apparel isn’t going to recognize Upton’s win.

Iris Alonzo, creative director of American Apparel, wrote a letter discussing Upton’s win and sent it to Upton and several media outlets.

In the letter, after quite a bit of apologizing for offending Upton and stating that “that’s not our demographic” is not an opinion endorsed by the company, Alonzo explains that Upton will not be awarded the prize of being an “XL brand ambassador.” Why? Because American Apparel decided to award the prize “to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.”

Alonzo also accuses Upton of taking the contest advertisement too seriously: “It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that ‘bootylicous’ was too much for you to handle,” Alonzo writes. “While we may be a bit TOO inspired by Beyoncé, and do have a tendency to occasionally go pun-crazy, we try not to take ourselves too seriously around here.”

Recently, Alonzo invited Upton to visit American Apparel headquarters, along with the friend who photographed her. Upton agreed to the visit and was told she can write about what transpires.

Perhaps American Apparel will back down from the uproar and apologize more honestly.

Regardless, hopefully company executives will take the opportunity to listen to Upton and hear her very real critique about how American Apparel has consistently ignored women who aren’t their “demographic”–half-naked and size XS.

This post was originally published by Campus Progress.


Related Stories:

Three Plus-Sized Models Featured in Italian Vogue

Saks Fifth Avenue to Become First Major NYC Retailer to Carry Plus-Sized Designer Clothing

Former Employee Sues American Apparel Founder for Sexual Assault


Photo from anitasarkeesian via flickr creative commons


Maxwell Gregg
Maxwell Gregg3 years ago

As the female of the fuller size increases, the demand for attractive plus size clothing also thrived in the market. Full figure women are now getting confident in showing off their stylishness without feeling inferiority with their size. It is so easy to find such clothes on the shop you have mentioned in your articles and present on the big world of internet. There is large variety of clothes like trendy tops, skirts, pants; swimsuits etc. that are made for larger women that will make them look attractive and slimmer.

Sarah M.
Sarah M6 years ago

That add is SO offensive!

Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago

I love her pics! Very creative...

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

I don't see what the controversy is. So they want to cater to those of us who aren't mini or fun sized shapes. Who says big girls can't be sexy? I'm a size 20/22 (20 is a bit snug, 22 is a bit loose). So about a 2X. And you know, I'm confident, strong inside and out, beautiful and sexy.

The part that is hypocritical on their part, is that they've ignored us for this long, because they thought us big gals weren't worth their time... Now that they need our business, they're begging us to come to them? Why should we help NOW, when they refused us in the past?

Janet G.
Janet G6 years ago

When I read an earlier article about this, I went to their website and posted some not so nice comments about how they have handled this situation. I hope anyone who reads this updated article will take the time to do the same. They need to know that this is no way to get plus sized business.

Christine Stewart

It's just as tacky as any ad you would see for any modeling opportunity!

Paul B.
Paul B.6 years ago

In Australia a size 14 is a very healthy average woman. America is obsessed with skinny, look at the models and movie stars. They are all on the strictest diets otherwise they will not be employed in the fashion and movie industries. I cannot imagine what they are doing to their bodies long term. Eating a healthy diet of 3 meals a day with protein, vegetables is so important for our immune systems to prevent diseases like cancer. Have you noticed how many movie stars die of cancer? Think about it!!!!!

Marcia H.
Marcia H6 years ago

Size 14 Plus....I think we've all determined that is not a plus. I love to tell people I'm a Size 2...and I am, it just has an X behind the 2. It's taken me till my later 50's to not give a damn what people think of me size wise, however a recent heart attack has me re=evaluating my size. I catch myself every once in a while shaking my head at the truly plus size teens who are walking around in very short shorts/skirts and mid driff baring, low cut, sleeveless tank tops. They seem happy to be who they are, although they look a little slutty (as do their skinny friends dressed the same way). I saw an ad for a reality show on truly plus size young women. These girls embraced their bodies and themselves. I think there are more important things to consider in the world right now, rather than whether or not plus sized (ok just say it....fat) girls are being objectified. I'm more concerned with a 10 year old Yemini girl being sold into marriage to some 40 year old guy so her family can eat. Now, that is a women's right cause worth spending time on!

Diana S.
Diana P6 years ago

I loved Upton's pictures. Who takes American Apparel seriously anyway?

Fred H.
Fred H6 years ago

I feel badly for the thousands of past celebrities who felt complimented when some commentator labeled them the "Next Big Thing." They were all unaware of how dehumanized they were by the experience. And, to describe a plus-sized woman as "big," well, that's just intolerable. No self-respecting plus-sized woman would do that...except for just about every plus-sized woman I know.