In a move that comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody, American Apparel has set a new standard for sexually objectifying women everywhere via their “World’s Best Bottom” contest. You’ve probably heard about it: CEO Dov Charney and company encouraged American Apparel customers around the world to send in photos of their butts clad in American Apparel underwear. Visitors to American Apparel’s web site would then vote for their favorite behinds, and the winner would become the new “face” of the company’s latest advertising campaign. The winners were announced recently, which means it’s time to do one of my favorite things: rage against Dov Charney’s machine.
Let’s run through what we already definitely know about American Apparel: their advertising is demeaning, at times straight-up pornographic, and often has undertones of sexual violence. [We linked so we don’t assault you with these ads. Click to see them.-Ed.] Their hipster following and too-cool-for-school aesthetic shroud American Apparel’s objectification of women in a language of sexual choice and freedom: these girls want to take off their clothes, right? So who cares? No one was forced to enter this contest, so whatever, and those of us who have a problem with it are just uber-PC party crashers out to ruin everyone’s fun!
In a pre-emptive response to those objections, I say this: I’m not out to shame anyone who submitted a photo to this contest. I’m not saying women shouldn’t think their butts are fly, or that we shouldn’t find bodies (or even specific body parts) attractive. What I am saying is that objectification is objectification with or without the consent of those being objectified, and that when one woman’s body is objectified in the media at large, it becomes much, much easier for other women’s bodies to be objectified in a similar manner.
When American Apparel invites people to vote on “ideal” bodies, it is contributing to a culture where women constantly evaluate themselves in terms of other people. Not only are we expected to compare our bodies to the bodies of other women, but we’re actually being encouraged to ask others to join us in making that judgment.
Just because the bodily ideal being promoted by American Apparel is more “raw” or “edgy” or “authentic” than other idealized bodies in media—American Apparel ads don’t look anything like Calvin Klein ads, for example—doesn’t mean it’s OK. It’s just a dressed-up version of the same old advertising trickery, where we’re made to feel like we’re just not hot enough or cool enough or sexy enough–and now, not “cool” enough because we’re not ok with being objectified.
And how do we get sexy? How do we get cool? By sending pictures of our butts to Dov Charney? By buying a $12 pair of underpants and walking around in them and only them all day? By “ironically” putting our bodies on display and thinking we’ve outsmarted the system because we’ve chosen to adorn ourselves in this way? By asking people: Hey, am I sexy now?
Those things don’t work. Objectification isn’t cancelled out by irony or intent. If you need proof, just look at the way the voting worked: both men and women entered the contest, but the top 10 winners were all female. In order to “balance” the results, American Apparel (in conjunction with BUTT, a Europe-based magazine for gay males) selected two male winners. If this were a contest about celebrating bodies or celebrating underwear or celebrating bodies in underwear, then there would have been at least one male winner in the top 10, right? But there wasn’t, because men’s bodies are not objects like women’s bodies are–andÂ all the slick pseudo-liberation in the world isn’t going to change that.