Fat women could trim down if only they weren’t so addicted to junk food. Fat women use food as a love/sex substitute. Fat women pig out on ice cream every night. Find attitudes like those offensive? So does Nancy Upton (and, uh, for the record, so do I). She deliberately set out to skewer those notions in a series of photographs she submitted to American Apparel’s ‘The Next Big Thing’ plus-sized model search. “I immediately thought, based on the way (the model search ad) was written, ‘Wow, they really have zero respect for plus-sized women,’” Upton told Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart. “‘They’re going to line them up like cattle and make puns about them until they’re blue in the face.’
And then, as corny as it sounds, it just occurred to me that based on their ‘Hey, come on, fatties, we want you to play, too’ tone, wouldn’t it be kind of brilliant to respond in a, ‘Thanks for letting me play, just let me try put down the pizza, first’ similar mocking tone.”
In the photos she submitted, Upton, 24, appears looking pretty and sexy —and scarfing down chicken wings (or bathing in ranch dressing, or holding a pie in front of her crotch). She won the contest. Her pictures were accepted as entries by American Apparel, and she then won the popular vote.
I didn’t find the original ad terribly offensive—you can say that’s only because I’m not part of the XL demographic, and maybe that’s fair. I don’t mean to diminish Upton or anyone’s else finding it offensive; it was certainly cheesy and patronizing, but to me it seemed pretty standard in terms of the way advertisers speak to women of all sizes. But the snarky, passive-agressive open letter American Apparel creative director Iris Alonzo wrote to Upton when they realized she was satirizing the contest is inexcusable. Alonzo reacts like a popular girl in high school who just realized OMG the fat girl was making fun of her, and the other kids were actually laughing! ”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,” Alonzo starts out. Oh—and they would be awarding the prizes to other contestants, ones who “truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out.”
But after lots of blogosphere outrage, American Apparel is now flying Upton out to their Los Angeles office to advise the company on how not to alienate bigger women. Is this a happy ending?
“As far as saying American Apparel and I are ‘kissing and making up’ … I think it’s a good estimation to say I’ll do no kissing while in LA,” Upton wrote yesterday on her blog. But regardless of what action American Apparel ultimately takes (and I’m not holding my breath it’ll be terribly inspiring), Upton has succeeded in making a lot of people write, talk and think about her project—and, in turn, the way plus-size women are represented in the media and by clothing companies. If it’s not a happy ending, it’s a happy start, at least.