American Apparel, Meet American Able

Oh, American Apparel. For those of you lucky enough to evade their reach, AA is a good company with a lot of problems. They started out selling themselves as the sweatshop-free, made in the USA, source for cotton basics like t-shirts, primarily wholesaling to people who would print and resell the clothes. In 2003, AA got into the retail business and started aggressively developing their brand, largely through their … controversial advertising style and campaigns.

The ads feature “ordinary girls” who tend to be young and thin (they’ve been described as “pre-pubescent“), are mostly white, and are often nude and/or in sexually suggestive poses. It is heavily featured on their website and in their stores, and the store employees are selected to resemble the ad models. I don’t want to post any of the images here, but you can see some examples here, here, and here (NSFW? Potentially? I wasn’t even looking for bad ones – those were the first ones in the Google search.). I live in Los Angeles – where AA is based – and I can walk to at least two AA retail stores from my house. There are billboards and store displays and newspaper ads and posters of AA ads seemingly everywhere I look, and beyond that, I see the same style replicated in other magazines and videos and tv shows and …

So when I saw the photo exhibit “American Able” float across my tumblr dashboard this afternoon, I was really excited. The photographer, Holly Norris, explains the project:

‘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.

The photos are amazing! They are spot-on emulations of the AA ad style, but feature Jes Sachse as a model. Sache, who in another amazing photo project explains that her spine was fused as a child, looks enthusiastic, playful, sexy as hell, and very different from AA’s usual TAB models. The photos are all copyrighted so I can’t embed any of them here, but I really strongly encourage you to click through and look at the whole series!

There has been some discussion of whether this art project “works”, in terms of making the intended point of mocking the original ads and portraying a woman with disabilities in a positive and sexualized context. I’m not sure that’s a concern for me – I can’t see these photos gaining enough exposure or distribution to cause any serious harm to PWDs, even if people do feel disgusted or upset at the images. For me, their true power is how they both quickly and precisely underlining the narrowness of the American Apparel view of beauty, while demonstrating that PWDs can be enthusiastically sexual. Ms. Sachse looks like she is having a blast, which also makes me happy.

What do you think?

6 Comments

  1. What amazing photos! Thank you for sharing these — and a transitive thank you to Ms. Sasche for sharing as well.

  2. I love it! I checked out some of Jes’s other work and it is simply beautiful. It’s so refreshing to see marginalised bodies presented sexually.

    A part of mr wonders, though, about why they are sexy? I fully get the project, and I love it, I just wonder about the pressure to be sexual. It’s like, yes, marginalised bodies can be and are sexy, but it often seem like a requirement for “womanness” or something…
    Sorry, I’m not being very clear. Feel free to deleat if it’s too derailing.

    But I do love the project, not least of which because it’s not remotely mocking the PWDs, which I’ve sadly come to expect from a lot of people.
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..What’s the same about all these covers? =-.

  3. I really enjoyed these photos, and, like abby jean, I don’t find the sexualization problematic at all. Jes obviously volunteered to be part of this project, so it’s not like she’s lacking agency.

    As far as the “pressure” for PWD’s to appear sexual/sexy, I think it’s just another example of how we, like most other people, contain multitudes. We choose to fight for access to (and representation in) education, healthy diets, housing, employment, medical care, and transportation because we deserve equal access to those things as humans. Why not choose to own and express our sexuality in whatever way we see fit, just like many other (TAB) humans do?

  4. Ok, I slept on it and… Well… I was thinking about this from a CND perspective. Sure, *abled* women are told to be sexy, but women with disabilities are told “Your body is something you should be ashamed of, hidden, ugly. You are worthless because your body is worthless”. And you know what? Fuck that! Fuck hiding, fuck denying sexuality because it makes CND people uncomfortable!

    More of Jes’s work is here btw: http://crooked.zenfolio.com/about.html
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..What’s the same about all these covers? =-.

  5. PharoahKatt – I agree that “women must be sexy” is a really complex and difficult trope, but I think this project works with it really well. The artist and model are directly referencing modes of “sexiness” in advertising which are meant to be the sole domain of the young, very thin, apparently able-bodied and, in these ads, white. It’s particularly important in this case because American Apparel presents their models as “normal girls”, their employees who just so happen to be very thin, very young, able-bodied white women. Jes Sachse is also thin, young and looks white…and is yet visibly different from their regular models.

  6. Awesome photos! Thanks for bringing this to our attention.