Laughing Matter?

Nancy Upton on Her American Apparel Plus-Size Photo Spoof

How I entered American Apparel’s 'plus-size model' contest as a joke—and won.

Shannon Skloss

UPDATE: On September 14, American Apparel's creative director announced that Upton will be excluded from the list of contest winners due to mocking "the positive intentions of the campaign."

Someday, I’ll look back on all of this and have a hard time remembering how my project really came into being. But I firmly believe no amount of distance will ever make me forget the anxiety I experienced the first time I saw the phrase “Booty-Ful.”

“American Apparel Introduces Size XL, Holds Search For ‘Booty-Ful’ Models.” That was the title of the first article I read about the American Apparel plus-sized campaign. Then, I read this:

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!

I believe my initial reaction, once I understood the contest, was “eeesh.” Which is why what would happen next – that a friend would photograph me bathing in salad dressing, chugging down chocolate sauce, and Hoovering friend chicken, and that those photos would ultimately be accepted by American Apparel, voted on by the public, and win the contest – shocked me nearly as much as the crudity of the whole campaign itself.

I had been super ooged out by American Apparel in the past—its sexy-nymphs-in-tube-socks ad campaigns, the skeevy stare of its hipster-hero CEO (the Jane article still haunts me). I just couldn’t get this new stunt out of my head. The company was co-opting the mantra of plus-size empowerment and glazing it with its unmistakable brand of female objectification.

So after I first heard about the “contest,” I couldn’t help but get it out of my mind. (I write “contest” in quotes because the legal mumbo jumbo in the waiver states that American Apparel reserves the right to choose any or none of the applicants for any or none of the prizes.)

The puns, the insulting, giggly tones, and the over-used euphemisms for fat that were scattered throughout the campaign’s solicitation began to crystalize an opinion in my mind. How offensive the campaign was. How it spoke to plus-sized women like they were starry-eyed 16 year olds from Kansas whose dream, obviously, was to hop a bus to L.A. to make it big in fashion. How apparently there were no words in existence to accurately describe the way American Apparel felt about a sexy, large woman, and so phrases like “booty-ful” and “XLent” would need to be invented for us—not only to fill this void in American vocabulary, but also make the company seem like a relatable, sassy friend to fat chicks.

A relatable, sassy friend who was looking to broaden its customer base after warning it might need to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. And a relatable, sassy friend who wanted as much free press as possible. That’s when I finally put my finger on why I couldn’t get this “contest” out of my head: American Apparel was going to try to use one fat girl as a symbol of apology and acceptance to a demographic it had long insisted on ignoring, while simultaneously having that girl (and a thousand other girls) shill their products.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Of course, not everyone was going to see it this way. I received a particularly vitriolic piece of hate-mail from one of my fellow contestants —a girl who, as far as I can tell, already has a pretty successful modeling career. She shamed me for hurting the world of plus-sized modeling and turning something she took very seriously into a big joke. This was unexpected. Sure, I thought I might be made fun of for what I was doing, but it was never my intention to hurt other plus-sized women. It wasn’t until I got that email that I realized American Apparel had actually convinced a lot of women that the company was being earnest, and that this “contest” could actually be a good opportunity for one’s career.

I was recently asked, “Why are you making a statement about American Apparel? Why not Dove, or another company that has made a famous plus-sized campaign push?”

Here’s why.

The blatant, sloppy attempt to lazily win over the hearts of women who, because of their size, already face daily struggles to defend their looks and physical behavior.

The insinuation that the only way a fat girl could win a “beauty contest” was if a company with American Apparel’s street cred deemed it hip or fashionable.

The idea that someone must be a “fan of full-sized fannies” to even recognize a redeeming quality in women size 12 or above.

The unstated yet apparent belief that fat women can’t be noticed on their own merits.

And 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.

THAT is why American Apparel.

I decided that instead of rolling my eyes and saying “ick” as I’d done in the past, I’d get off my “full-sized fanny” and craft a response. A new level of my mind had been offended by their actions, so a new level of reaction was required.

I emailed my very talented photographer friend Shannon Skloss and described what I saw in my head. Within minutes, she was on board. A few days later, we laughed and joked while I posed my way through one hour of the silliest things I’ve ever done in my life. Once Shannon had the photos ready, I went to the “contest” website to submit my profile and was immediately disappointed. You see, American Apparel had set up a review period for each entry, as opposed to an instant posting function. Basically, I would be submitting what were obviously two spoof photos and my sarcastic two-line profile to an actual human, who would see them, recognize them as a joke, and turn them down.

How wrong I was. My pictures were accepted, the contest gained steam, and with that my tumblr blog was bombarded with hits because American Apparel was hosting a link to it on their website.

I’m shocked at how quickly this has all escalated. The voting portion of the contest ended yesterday, and I swept the number-one spot. Will I wake up to an email from the company in the next month offering me my first (and quite potentially only) professional modeling opportunity? Or will I get a phone call from someone who will explain they decided to go in a “different direction”?

I don’t really think either of those things will happen. I doubt that I will ever hear a response from American Apparel. And that’s just fine. I’m too “XLent” for them anyway.