Monday, September 12, 2011

Too Close for Comfort: Plus-Size Satire


Nancy Upton and Shannon Skloss knew something not-so-inclusive was going on when American Apparel suddenly decided to create clothes for a larger size range and launched it with a “model search” contest. The Dallas duo was bothered by the pandering language used in the ad (the headline: “Think You Are the Next BIG Thing?”) and also knew that after years of refuting the need to include larger women among their clientele, chances were the company was only reversing its position because it was teetering on the edge of bankrupcy. Upton, a performer, staged a shoot with friend and photographer Skloss in which Upton posed with food: submerged in a bathtub of ranch dressing; holding a cherry pie between her legs; kneeling on hands and knees with an apple in her mouth, suckling-pig-style. And, of course, she won the contest.

Now, once you know that Upton was intending this as a subversion of both American Apparel and our culture’s ideas about fat women (as a size 12 Upton qualifies as “fat” in the eyes of the fashion world), it certainly seems a whole lot cooler than it does when you see it as a straight-up representation of AA. But I have to wonder how subversive something can be when it meets every criteria of the very thing that it’s mocking. The photos are beautifully, suggestively styled (a credit to Skloss); her makeup and hair look fantastic; she’s doing weirdo things just like in any other weirdo fashion shoot. And then the point of the whole thing: Upton is gorging on or surrounded by food in every shot, the idea being that women of size “just can’t stop eating” (Upton’s tagline on the AA contest site).

Upton and Skloss’s intent was subversive, but in fact it looks pretty much exactly like a straight-up plus-size photo shoot—specifically, this Crystal Renn shoot in French Vogue, in which she’s dipping her hands into spaghetti and wielding a carving knife over a slab of meat that just happens to be placed at her crotch.

It’s particularly questionable when linked to American Apparel, even if the entire idea is to mock the company. AA’s advertising ethos appears to be non-models who look like they’re exploiting themselves. (Emphasis on “appears to be” and “look like”—the disturbing stories of questionable circumstances surrounding these photo shoots taints all of their ads, not that much more is needed to taint the AA name.) The people in American Apparel ads are store employees, not professional models; they’re shot and presumably doctored in a way that makes them seem like the outcome of a druggy evening during which some dude gets all, “Hey, I’ve got a camera, baby”; and the models are often splayed out in positions even more awkward than your average haute couture shoot.

In short: Upton’s collection resembles what American Apparel might very well do in a plus-size photo shoot if left to their own devices. I’ve no doubt that if Upton had submitted the exact same photos but had sincere, not subversive, intent, her photos would be featured in their advertisements. When I first saw the shots, I recognized the nod to performance art but since it was presumably aimed toward getting a contract with American Apparel, I didn’t consider the notion that it was satire. (Thanks to reader Anna, who pointed me toward Jezebel’s interview with Upton and better informed me on the matter than when I mentioned it in my roundup last week.)

These provocative photos beg questions larger than I’m qualified to tackle: How much does the creator’s intent matter in art? If you have to know the background in order to spot the subversion, can it be effective? If the goal is to raise awareness of an issue and the only people who get the joke are already informed, have you succeeded in your goal?

Upton and Skloss have gotten a good amount of press on this—including broad audience sites like The Daily Beast and Yahoo News, cluing more people into the joke, and perhaps presenting the question in the first place to readers of the general interest publications. (Presumably Jezebel readers are already pretty aware that plus-size women get the short end of the stick.) In interviews Upton is clear-minded, acknowledging both her detractors and supporters with grace, repeatedly insisting that she’s just aiming to be a part of the conversation—and she’s succeeding. (For the record, Upton seems pretty kick-ass, and has made it clear that even if American Apparel does actually approach her to model for them since she did, after all, win the contest, she'll refuse.) But the method being used here too closely mimics the very thing that’s being critiqued. That’s how satire works, but in order for satire to be effective there needs to be an element of the ludicrous. The trouble Upton and Skloss ran into was that both American Apparel and the treatment of plus-size women are both already so ludicrous that nothing they could do could out-outrage their target.


  1. "How much does the creator’s intent matter in art?" A ton, which is why in order to subvert one must move beyond now. It seems that while her intentions were clear (to us and to her) that if AA is already one step ahead, then all you are going to do is play right into their advertising hands. I think she would have to get even more grotesque or perverse or provokative in order to make a statement. If she won the contest then her intent was not as powerful as she thought it was.
    "If you have to know the background in order to spot the subversion, can it be effective?" I don't believe so. I think that's the point. Most subjective art makes no sense to 'the masses'.
    "If the goal is to raise awareness of an issue and the only people who get the joke are already informed, have you succeeded in your goal?" Sadly, no, I don't believe so.

    I think this is very interesting...great post.

  2. I think that you miss an important point - she landslided the VOTING part of the competition, in large part because not only are they really gorgeous photos, but I imagine that the folks voting were people who *got* it. I will be very, VERY curious to see how American Apparel handles this -- because although not every artist has this opportunity, SHE has had some media focus & has had the opportunity to voice exactly how and why she chose to do what she did. Now, not only are the people who voted in the contest aware of the intent behind the images, but probably so are the folks at American Apparel, yk? So now what? If they make her an offer, she will surely refuse. If they refuse her, they will be humiliated as well.

    Meanwhile, all that gorgeous gal in the Vogue spread got was some tasty mouthfuls of spaghetti & probably a nice, fat paycheck.

  3. Satire can be tricky. I teach Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and every year there is a literalist student or two who believe he is advocating the eating of babies.

  4. The recent cover of Vogue Italia with Robyn Lawley and 2 other plus models had them eating food in their undies too!

  5. Verging on Serious, great point about subversion needing to stay a step ahead of the target. It's tricky when you're satirizing something that's already offensive, because if the target is already doing offensive stuff it's not illogical to think that they'd up the game right along with you.

    Kathy, I would love to know the proportion of people who got it and voted for her versus those who didn't. I'm guessing that most voters did know, but not because it was obvious--rather because this got a good amount of press and clicked through directly from her site. But more important is your point about how she took the opportunity to make her point, which is so admirable. (As of last update from Nancy, AA had indeed not reached out to her. They said in the initial "contest" that they reserved the right not to choose the winner--a point that Nancy seized upon as indicative of AA's overall attitude toward plus-size women.)

    Terri, HA! Of course there's always that student. I wrote a very poorly done homage to "A Modest Proposal" and while it was indeed poorly done, it was also clearly (in my mind) satire, and sure enough some took it as literal. But in any case, satire is indeed tricky, and I had to question myself while writing this post--did I have this reaction because I didn't "get it" at first?

    Anonymous, OMG, I just looked it up, and the open-crotch shot on the cover is a bit much too! Aiaiai.

  6. Autumn, this piece is so great. Truthfully, it had never occurred to me that this could be anything other than satire until I saw those Crystal Renn shots! OMG! And I think you're right that "Upton’s collection resembles what American Apparel might very well do in a plus-size photo shoot if left to their own devices."

    I'm really excited about this whole controversy, because I think Nancy is calling AA out on its crap in such an engaging and subversive way.

  7. Golda, thank you! It's sort of frightening when you see those Crystal Renn shots, which I actually didn't know existed when I started drafting the post...I just suspected. Ugh! But in any case, Nancy has been great about staying on point and I do think this is a positive thing.

  8. Autumn, did you see that your piece here made it to Nancy's blog? She wrote: "Excellent, EXCELLENT story over at The Beheld about beauty, satire and whether or not our photos hit the mark. Really fantastic reading. Had to hop up from my history studies and post it immediately."

  9. Kathy, thanks for the link! I did actually see it and sent Nancy a note thanking her, both for the link and for getting what I was going at--she continues to impress.

  10. Hmm. I see your point, for sure, but on the other hand, if Upton and Skloss had veered further along the ludicrous scale, their shoot likely (hopefully!) wouldn't have been chosen by American Apparel. If they hadn't been chosen, we wouldn't be aware of this. So if part of their goal was to be part of the conversation and shine a light on the topic for a broader audience, perhaps it was wise to play their cards a little closer to the vest, if you will?

  11. It is obvious satire because you would never see someone of that size in a fashion magazine eating food. The aesthetic values most high fashion houses and AA have are such that a non-skeletal woman shoving cake in her mouth is instantly unappealing.

  12. Craftosaurus, the broader audience factor has made me wonder about the point of satire overall. Because while I don't think that the photos in and of themselves are successful satire (and note that American Apparel didn't choose Upton's photos--they were open for public voting, and though Upton won they're not having her model for them because of her intent), it got the conversation going. So it started as iffy satire (IMHO) but wound up being successful in its larger point--I guess I'm stuck as to whether that makes it successful satire or not, but that's really just an intellectual question at this point.

    Anonymous, did you look at the photographs of Crystal Renn that were in this post? Renn wasn't a size 12 when those photos were taken, but she still qualifies as a "plus-size" model. The point is that plus-size models aren't always treated the same as straight-size models. They're seen eating, or lying around in bed, or at restaurants--things that have connotations specific to being above a size 4 in the fashion world.

  13. Those Crystal Renn images really made me angry! It's like the Blackface version of fat. I mean really, talk about stereotyping! Well what can be said, they're also the same magazine that had that photo spread of a young girl made over to look like a 20 year old. Clearly there aren't many brains in French Vogue's business.

  14. Jackie, heh, "the Blackface version of fat"--love! And yes, French Vogue certainly has some questionable photo shoots, oi...

  15. "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist" of course the devil is also in the details, so let's discourse.
    you put forth "But I have to wonder how subversive something can be when it meets every criteria of the very thing that it’s mocking."
    and I would argue that is in fact subversion in its most perfect form.
    I don't want to be mistaken, because I do believe that "passing" is generally dis-empowering. To pretend to be a thing until one can no longer tell the difference between one's original self and the self that now pretends to be another is not a way in which one successfully subverts a group, concept or paradigm. However, when an individual is subtle in a manner that resembles thievery more than it does mimicry, I would call it a fait acomplis. To have one's appropriation of an identity go unnoticed by a viewer does not denude the value of that theft, it has still been stolen. Indeed the revelation of this theft only imparts what we already knew, the object or identity that was taken had no value to begin with. Those who had anything to loose by these events were them that desired to profit on the value they had contrived and the poor souls who had reinvested this false value back into themselves through their work to convince others of its merit and in which they now based their own self esteem. Our thief had nothing to gain if the act were discovered and nothing to loose if it were not. Nancy Upland, master thief, stole their lie.
    And this company writhed like a storybook monster in response, burning under the multitude of truths unleashed in the lie's absence. The thrilling truth of eating the last chip in the bag, the bold truth of loving one's own naked body, the unspoken truth of buying a great pair of pants in both the size below and the size above the one's current waistline, the secret truth of a man admitting sexual desire for a large woman, the naughty truth of shoes, the truth of self esteem, of self love of transfat of high fructose cornsyrup, the truth of greed and selfishness and spite, of cross fit and hydroxycut of bullying and perversity and the stock market, area 51, beauty pageants, seamonkies, rubix cubes, string theory, life, the universe, everything. And of course the most terrifying truth of all, nobody, and I mean nobody, looks good in shoulder pads.
    Which is of course why this story even made it on to most people's radar, because a fashion brand can't stand the idea that people have their own individual truths, their own opinions; taking it as a personal affront that one woman had the audacity to air hers in a witty and playful manner, leaving them with a pair of over priced trousers around their ankles.
    And if the story hadn't made it out? If no one had been aware of the trick? Would it have impacted your ability to see through the lie yourself?
    Nancy Upland made it more fun, but we all knew the modeling contest, the "plus size" line, the press release / rejection letter were all a farce. Wasn't that the real subversion? The dissenting thoughts we already possessed?
    If art requires recognition of its intended purpose to be effective, does subversion then require a figurehead?

  16. I apologize, my auto correct substituted Upland for Upton.

  17. Nieren, where's your blog, m'dear? This was awesomely said, and you bring up interesting points, particularly this: "And if the story hadn't made it out? If no one had been aware of the trick? Would it have impacted your ability to see through the lie yourself?" I didn't recognize it as satire when I first saw the photos; I thought it was just the next logical step in a woman attempting to win the modeling game by playing into ideas of what plus-size women do. And I rolled my eyes and gritted my teeth and felt upset at seeing a beautiful non-straight-size woman submerging herself into a tub of ranch dressing. That said: That means I recognized it as fundmentally wrong, even if I was including Upton in where my "wrong" buttons were flying. In that sense, it was absolutely successful, and I'm glad you pointed that out.

  18. I'm going to say first, Upton should have won. She got the votes, whether or not I agree with her methods, so fair is fair.

    I think what disturbed me most about Upton's submission (and indeed the Crystal Renn photos now that I've seen them) is how similar the images are to feederism and fat fetishism images. Upton and Renn are both significantly smaller than the types of bodies present in feederism and fetishism, and the types of bodies that these two (otherwise fine when consensual) expectations are thrust upon.

    Upton has been described by many observers as plump, chubby, and "not that fat". I don't know what size she is, but she fits into the acceptable ideal of plus sized, one that clothing manufacturers begrudgingly cater to only after a great deal of lobbying. I'm not saying that the smaller end of the fat spectrum does not experience marginalization, but the marginalization they do experience is not of a type with the marginalization of much fatter bodies.

    Upton gets to play with feederism images without living with the constant expectation that she would be willing to participate in feederism. Upton gets to use these images to gain access to cultural, social, and actual capital while at the same time mocking bodies much larger than hers that have been shut out of that same access. Upton gets to walk away unscathed from feederism images and live in a body that is not coded as colloquially "obese", that is, too fat to be socially acceptable.

    Meanwhile those images of feederism linger to do real damage to bodies much larger who cannot walk away from the cultural narrative that we do nothing but stuff our faces, that our fatness is so unacceptable that only images of a grotesque nature are suitable to represent us. Those images linger to contribute to a culture that does not value our consent to participate or not participate in actual feederism or fat fetishization, contribute to a narrative that our grotesque natures make us unsuitable to set boundaries if we do not consent to participate.

    These images of grotesqueness, whether made by individuals or made by companies, are ultimately not about bodies like Renn's and Upton's, but about bodies much larger, and much more marginalized by society. The juxtaposition of those images on smaller bodies serves as a visual cue to revile the bodies not present while not transferring that revulsion on the smaller body which would dirty the product being sold by the smaller body. The viewer gains reassurance that, thank God, they are not "that fat", and transfers that reassurance to the thinner model and product on display.

  19. Mrs. Heathen, I'd been wondering if feederism was going to enter this discussion--I didn't bring it up myself because I'm not educated on it, but I'm glad you did. I'm certain Nancy wasn't intentionally echoing feederism or attempting to glamourize what can be some pretty damaging imagery for, as you put it, "people who cannot way away" from fatness--but either way, the point is that feederism plays upon our fascination with food and fatness. These images rather do the same, even though Crystal Renn, as a "mere" size 12 or whatever, isn't saddled with the expectation that she'll never be sexualized in any way *but* that manner.

  20. Plus-size models are models who are hired to represent the plus-size woman. They generally range in size from a missy 8 all the way up to a size 32W and participate in a variety of modeling jobs including print work, runway shows, and fit or informal modeling. I want to be a plus size model