American Apparel Marketing and the Objectification of Women

Published December 4, 2010 by Fat Heffalump

*Heads up:  This post is going to have several photographs of women in little to no clothing, in poses that may represent sexual acts.  If you feel you may find these photographs offensive, triggering or upsetting, please do not continue reading this post.  This post also may not be considered safe for work, children or your Grandma.  Come back and have a look when you’re at home/they’re not watching.

I need to write the post that others failed when they wrote about American Apparel’s marketing and promotions.  It’s been a big week for me, with another big week coming, and I wasn’t sure I would have the spoons to blog about this topic yet, but I can’t leave it alone.

I won’t link to other posts.  You really don’t need to read them, they’re full of slut shaming (the misogynistic  judgement of women for having/displaying any sexuality), denial of female sexuality and general loathing towards women who they deem outside the “nice girl” box.  There is the use of words like slutification, pornification and sexualisation.  All of which conflate female sexuality with objectification, which is not helpful at all in taking on the negative stereotypes of women that are perpetuated in marketing and media.  Plus there is a rather massive dose of bullying and mean girl behaviour going on with most of them too.

Instead, I want to talk about American Apparel and the objectification of women that they perpetuate with their marketing.

I don’t know if any of you have seen any of American Apparel’s marketing.  Here’s an example:


Now American Apparel make a whole bunch of Lycra/Spandex/Elastane stuff that you would consider as dance wear, gym wear, sports wear etc.  So yeah, it’s the kind of thing you expect to see dancers in, and it’s body fitting, because that’s what those kinds of garments are meant to do.  Tights, leotards, socks and similar things aren’t meant to be baggy and body hiding.

However, American Apparel seem to really think that women should always be presented in sexual positions in their marketing.  Legs open, bent over with bared buttocks, sexually available and open.  Often you won’t see the woman’s face, but if you do, she’s expressionless, vacant, compliant, submissive.  There is often alcohol involved which to me implies a removal of control from the women depicted as well.  Often the female models are splayed out in beds, sometimes with other clothing partially removed or yanked down to expose buttocks and genital areas.  Here are a few more examples:





Very provocative stuff, as you can see.  Women in American Apparel marketing are treated as objects, laid out and available for the viewer to have whatever they like of them.

I’m not sure who this is marketing too.  Is it the women who would wear these items of clothing?  Would they respond favourably to this kind of imagery and go out and buy these products?  Or are the marketing images aimed at someone else?  Are they designed to create buzz in their controversy?

If you do a Google Image search for American Apparel, you will find they also sell men’s garments too, as well as some children’s pieces.  I noticed that the imagery for men and children are far, far less objectified than those for women.  The male models chosen always seem to be older looking than the women they use for their marketing too.  And they seem to opt for white men and children yet with a lot of the marketing images of women, they choose a high proportion of very young looking Asian and Latin American women.





Personally I find the objectification of women in American Apparel’s marketing highly offensive.  Women are almost always shown in their images with either their legs spread or on all fours, regularly headless or at least expressionless.  Cameras are focused on genitals or the buttocks, even when the model’s face appears in the photograph.  The models are presented like sex dolls, completely devoid of any humanity in most cases.  Women are treated as objects for the gratification of others, rather than as human beings or of having emotions, thoughts, or intelligence of their own.  This is not about the sexualisation of women, it’s actually about a woman’s sexuality being removed from her, and her being nothing more than an object to be used.

In fact, American Apparel make it very clear that they don’t want a whole person when it comes to women.  They only want body parts:


As you can see – they only want your backside, or there’s some breast there that they are willing to accept as well.

American Apparel’s marketing is very much aimed at young people.  It sends the message to the young people who view these marketing images that women are nothing more than parts to be used, ogled, spread out.  It’s not about the women in the ads being “slutty” or pornographic, it’s about the removal of humanity from the female subjects in the marketing.

Don’t buy from American Apparel.  Tell your friends and family not to buy from American Apparel.  Tell American Apparel that their marketing is offensive and unacceptable.  But don’t attach terms like slut, porn or sexuality to these marketing images.  They are dehumanised and objectified, not sexualised/slutified/pornified.

*Dr Samantha Thomas has also posted a great piece about the concept of “slutification”.  It’s well worth reading, go here to read it.

26 comments on “American Apparel Marketing and the Objectification of Women

  • Well said, Kath! I hadn’t seen this amount of their imagery thus far, but I’m aghast by it now. You’re quite right, their sexuality has been taken, I feel, to show they are nothing more than mere playthings or orifices. I cannot imagine posing for something like this (and they certainly wouldn’t want my deathfatty ass anyhow). I can’t help but wonder what the models thought after dressing and then being told to pose this way. Thank you, too, for pointing out the lack of diversity for their other clothing lines, yet somehow they prefer to show non-white ethnicities when it’s a young woman splayed for all to see.

    • Well, young women are sold a whole lot of lies about themselves, so I’m not surprised that there are a number of them that would pose for these. They’re told their worth is in their looks, their fuckability and in celebrity. In a way, they’re rewarded for participating in that, with attention from males and their peers, sometimes money, a sense of “prestige” for being the girl in the American Apparel ad. Being sold as “hot” in this kind of passive fuckability is social currency for them. If you’re being told that there is value in that, why wouldn’t you participate as a young woman?

      Of course it’s only temporary value, and in the long term, costs more than it earns, because as the value as young, hot and fuckable in that sense wanes, which it does for every single human being, the options are to try desperately to stay young hot and fuckable in that sense, or to be cast aside by the marketers that use you in this way.

  • Actually I respectfully disagree about the use of “pornified”. I feel it’s quite appropriate in this context – since a good deal of porn made by and aimed at hetrosexual men presents women just like these ads do – passive sex-toys whose only desire is to gratify the desires – no matter how debasing or dubious – of the men involved. In a similar vein I remember a billboard campaign for a lap-dancing chain; the slogan read: “a gentleman’s club with female entertainment”. The men are “gentlemen” no less, (whatever that term may mean to those who frequent lap dancing clubs – presumably sophisticated, worldly and discerning). They get to have a personality. The women, meanwhile, have none. Hell, they’re not even women and couldn’t possibly be described as “ladies” to this crowd – so they’re simply reduced to their sex.

    This doesn’t, incidentally, mean I think all porn is terrible or that women in the porn industry never enjoy what they do. That’s a whole other convo. I do, however, think these ads, like an awful lot of porn, conflate female sexuality with objectification, so “pornified” would seem to fit the bill pretty well. The ads also look cheap in the way porn often does and I’m inclined to think that’s deliberate. Presumably some, if not most, of these girls actually enjoy being photographed this way.They certainly get the kudos of appearing in a controversial advertising campaign that the adults in their lives most probably disapprove of; maybe that makes them feel empowered? Maybe being portrayed as passive sex objects makes them feel empowered? They are, after all, mostly quite young.

    I hate these ads. I think they’re seedy and disturbing. But I also think they’re part of a bigger picture – the incessant sexualisation, not just of children, but of every damned thing. One of my best friends has two daughters barely into their teens and she constantly despairs of the pressure on young girls to look “sexy”.

    • Pornography and objectification are not the same thing. Yes, I agree, a lot of porn does indeed objectify women, I have no dispute with that fact at all. And yes, I hate the objectification of women in any context. But I do not believe that we have to deny our sexuality to fight objectification, nor do we have to eradicate pornography to fight objectification.

      So long as we’re treating them all as interchangeable terms, we’re telling girls and women that they have no right to sexuality, shames them for sexuality in a way that boys and men do not suffer shaming, and tells them they no right to choose just what they do with their sexuality. So long as we’re putting shame on young women for sexuality of any kind, even if they are playing up to this objectification, we’re blaming them for something they’re having their control removed from.

      As I said in my response to notblueatall, girls and young women are sold the lie of their worth being their fuckability. That they are more valuable as sex objects than they are as human beings. They’re told that if they present themselves as fuckable objects, they’ll get attention, love, money, power, fame and so on. It’s human nature to try to do the things that earn us these “rewards”. Even though they are false rewards.

      As for the “sexualisation” of children, this denies the human nature of sexuality. Even children have sexuality, though they are not ready to perform or participate, by focusing on how any sexuality is “shameful”, we are sending them dangerous messages that will come back to be bigger issues later in life. You’re right, it’s awful that young children are focusing on being “sexy” but this isn’t their sexuality they’re focusing on, it’s their worth as sexual objects, rather than human beings. Instead of teaching girls that they’re being “pornified and sexualised”, we need to educate them on objectification, so that they understand where their real value lies as human beings, and how they have no obligation to make themselves “fuckable”. We need to teach them that sexiness isn’t something others bestow on us, but is something that we find within ourselves as we grow into adulthood and WE control, not others.

      What we need to do is not focus on female sexuality (by rejecting shame terms like sexualisation/pornification/slutification) and instead focus on those who are truly at fault here – the media, the marketers, the money makers who objectify women and girls to line their pockets and keep women under control.

      • This is such a grey area for so many reasons. Not least because, with the best will in the world, sex itself isn’t a politically correct act and often involves some element of objectification.

        .. it’s awful that young children are focusing on being “sexy” but this isn’t their sexuality they’re focusing on, it’s their worth as sexual objects, rather than human beings

        I totally agree. But my point regarding sexualisation is that pubescent kids aren’t generally worldly enough to distinguish a difference. And that goes for boys as well as girls, (speaking from a cis perspective, which is the only one I feel qualified to speak from). They’re sold a prescribed, clichéd, one-size-fits-all definition of “sexy” that takes its precedent from porn and prostitution – industries that commodify and trivialise sex and objectify women. I don’t believe these are honest representations or expressions of female sexuality and I don’t think it’s healthy or desirable for young girls to to be emulating them – or for young boys to grow up thinking that’s what sex is all about. Am I shaming sex workers by saying that? I don’t think so, though I’m definitely casting slurs on those industries because I believe they’re morally questionable. But there are other professions widely considered to be morally questionable – lawyers, bankers, estate agents and cosmetic surgeons attract their share of righteous disapproval too.

        Sex can be an emotional minefield whatever age you are and I believe there’s a moral component to educating children responsibly about it. I don’t think buying your ten year old a thong with “naughty” embroidered on it; or buying your twelve year old a magazine that tell her how to give her boyfriend a blow job is a responsible way to nurture her burgeoning sexuality, and that’s the kind of thing reactionary types are reacting to to when they talk about the sexualisation of children. They’re talking about young schoolgirls watching or Britney Spears acting out some skeevy letch’s porno schoolgirl fantasy and thinking that what they should be doing to attract boys. (One of my friends, incidentally, was sexually abused by a neighbour who had a penchant for her school uniform. She was 15 and that was the first sexual experience she had). I think young girls who want to appear more grown up and sophisticated than their years will definitely respond to the American Apparel ads in the current climate.

        To be honest I’m not totally sure where I’m going with all this other than to say I understand why some use the kind of words you’re objecting to and I don’t think it’s necessarily about wanting to stomp on female sexuality.

  • These women are also retail employees of American Apparel, so they don’t get paid what a regular model would, either. And then, of course, they have an excuse to only hire people who fit their “image”. I’m glad you’re focusing on the company rather than the individual women, though.

    Did you see the amazing American Able series by Holly Norris and Jes Saches? It’s a brilliant commentary on who can be “sexy” in their clothes and ads, and also who gets labelled “slut” and who doesn’t.

    • I haven’t seen that but I will go look now. Thanks for the link.

      It SUCKS that they use their own employees and only employ women who fit the marketing brief. FUCK American Apparel.

  • They are so horrific. It’s satisfying to note that the owner who wants these images is tanking because of his terrible financial decisions, which is probably not limited to this horrific advertising and making things in tiny styles only.

    Aside from the lack of slave labour, everything about this company is disgusting. What creeps me out most about the ads is the vacant expressions of the models. They’re compliant and submissive, as you said. It’s so creepy.

    • Actually partly why the company bombed financially and shareholders filed that class-action suit is BECAUSE that assclown Dov Charney was disobeying labor and immigration laws in addition to accounting misstatements…so AA may not even be as sweatshop-free as we were all led to believe.

      In addition to the vacant expressions of those models, what creeps me out is how child-like some of them look. After all, it adds to the whole submission thing. *shudders*

  • I did a project about Pornography vs Art and this was one of the main examples I have given for the line that has been erased as people use this kind of approach to sell clothing. AA uses porn stars to sell their clothing on a regular basis and I cannot even look at their website it makes me so angry. I find it to be rather hypocritical of people who will shop there because all of the clothes are made in the US of the backs of objectified women. Get your clothes overseas? Bad. Turn women into a commodity? Good.

    The only other person I can mention is Terry Richardson who has a very similar style and is known to try to get models naked or do sexual acts on camera. Many times this is them servicing him. And yet he has photographed the president, its quite scary.

    • Again, this is not so much about pornography, but the objectification of women IN pornography. Or in AA’s case, the objectification of women in advertising and marketing. I am not familiar with the photographer you mention, but it sounds like he is objectifying women as well.

  • I really like most of the things you’ve said here Kath. I have to say I’m a little bit inclined, like Buttercup Rocks, to hold onto words like pornification and sexualisation of children in certain contexts when applied in particular ways. I agree that there is an undercurrent of slut-shaming that goes on in some spaces that these words are used and I also agree they shouldn’t be used as randomly interchangable with ‘objectification’. But I do think that there are elements of a porn aesthetic if you will (like, for instance, the removal of pubic hair) which have crept into the mainstream for good or ill. And unfortunately some of those elements impact on children and young people in how they learn about, express, develop and explore their sexuality. I think that your choice to say, rather than pornified, objectified (or to distinguish between objectifying porn and other porn) makes sense but I wonder if we’re just splitting hairs here?

    To me, slutification is a different, and more disturbing, word because it is very much a critique of the individual to which it is applied more so or as much so as the cultural influences. Slut is a misogynistic slur (unless reclaimed by someone who identifies in that way) and I really don’t think that using it is defensible.

    I think one of the reasons I object most to the term is that it is linked more to promiscuity than anything else – it implies that promiscuity (or liking sex) is enough to warrant degradation. Unlike objectification or pornification, it is not a comment on the cultural influences upon sexuality or sexual expression but rather a label given to the existence of sexual urges or actions regardless of context and therefore is inherently negative and anti-woman.

    For crying out loud, there isn’t even a male equivalent of the term, and yet we’re supposed to believe that it’s girl or woman-positive to use it?

    (Apologies for the epic rambling comment, I have a jumble of thoughts about this topic :-))

    • I still feel very, very wary of using any of those terms. I feel like they put the focus wrongfully on the subject, be it women or children, and remove it from those who the problem actually lies with – marketers, the media, and so forth. I think to use words like these one is opening Pandora’s box, because we’re already fighting blame and shame for women and children, to open it up to more when there are other ways to approach it is too big a risk.

      Let’s not make sex or porn dirty words in the name of solving another issue.

  • But Kath, that’s impossible. Porn, (which I don’t think should be banned either by the way, even if it might sound like it), is an industry that thrives on being “dirty”! The very word is used to promote it, quite often in conjunction with the word “slut”in point of fact. But that again is a whole other convo which I don’t have time to get my head round before I leave for work.

    My basic point is that it isn’t a morally neutral area and shouldn’t be playing an influential part in the (early) sexualisation of children. I say this having heard a report on the UK radio news not half an hour ago about the possibility of the government stepping in to introduce legislation concerning the hawking of products that do. Our equivalent of Target has been selling a pole dancing kit for “girls of 8 and upwards” with the copy line, “Release the sex kitten within”; (another is selling sequinned hotpants for 6 year olds and a pre-teen tee bearing the slogan “Want me. Need me. Love me”). Yes that’s sexual objectification. It’s also imposing an adult, specifically porn-defined form of sexuality onto the child’s nascent sexuality. These issues are not clear cut by a long chalk.

    • I disagree with you there. It’s not impossible. And you’re suggesting that by rejecting the terms sexualisation and pornification that I’m condoning things like sequin hotpants and pole dancing kits for children. I am not.

      I’m more than happy to talk about the sexual objectification of women and children, I’m more than happy to talk about the issue of projecting sexual imagery/stereotypes on to children, I’m more than happy to talk about the appropriateness of products for children.

      But when it comes down to it, this is my blog and I don’t want to hear these words (sexualisation/pornification) used in these kinds of context in this space.

      I am operating on a basis of not attributing shame where I don’t believe there should be any. That is my choice, this is my space and I’ve more than explained my position.

      • I’m sorry if I came over heavy handed; it wasn’t my intention to upset you. And I certainly don’t think you’d condone pole dancing kits for 8 year olds! I’m just passionately interested in both sides of this argument – and also in the meanings of words and how they change depending on who’s using them and in what context they’re being used. Unfortunately it’s sometimes hard to convey tone on the internet.

  • wonderful, Wonderful post.

    i also love that you stand up and discuss the issues with words like ‘pornification’ – i don’t think painting all sexually explicit images of consentual adults with the same brush does anyone any good – it’s sure not moving us any closer to a time where this sort of material can be enjoyed and celebrated, as an ethical, joyous production of sex.

    one day, maybe.

  • Fat Heff, you stated that American Apparel’s ads for men’s and children’s clothing were not as sexualized as their ads featuring women. I think that in order to see AA’s equal-opportunity sexploitation, you have to look from several different angles–it’s there, all right.

    Take men first. (I’ll get to kids later–scary thought, but one should confront it.) I used to shop at AA and noticed that there was a disproportionate emphasis on male erogenous zones in their store decor, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that women initially associate with sex. No heartthrob hunks with strong jaws and hairy chests, or whatever you think women associate with a sexy guy, but pictures of faceless guys’ bare bottoms. It didn’t provoke a “what a hunk” reaction in me; I just thought, “Okay, full moon.” And then you see the stacks of “Butt” magazine offered behind the counter. “Butt” is a Dutch gay magazine that AA claims to sell because they support gay rights. But why “Butt”? Why not “The Advocate” or “Out”? I’m not Dutch, so I don’t know whether the magazine is considered a real gay-issues publication in its homeland or just meaningless porn. Note that “Butt” focuses exclusively on men. Lesbian interests are not represented; is this because Dov Charney does not see them as potential conquests? The face-on photos of hipster guys with their hands casually hooked in their briefs leave the shopper unsure of whether there is a sexual context in the shots or whether the boys just feel like they need a little Lotrimin.

    Speaking of conquests, I think the creep factor is a big motivator behind AA’s ads. I think the whole idea is to feel satisfaction from making both models and consumers feel that someone is after them. I mean, why the hell are there photos of other people in the dressing rooms? You feel like the walls have eyes. I think that voyeurism really is a key component in Charney’s psyche, and he forces it onto the shopper. (Exhibitionism too, since I’ve seen an ad on the web featuring Charney exposing himself.)

    Now for the kids. You probably didn’t want to think about it, no one who’s normal does, but here is the moment that made me swear off American Apparel. Cracked Magazine (don’t ask me what I was doing at their site) featured an article humorously slamming AA’s hypersexualized ads and finished the piece by showing an ad featuring the following four images juxtaposed: Woman in sexualized pose on dissheveled bed, hipster dude looking at camera, close-up of same man with hand stuck down the back of his underwear, two little boys with their fingertips in their mouths giving strange sidelong glances. What is the context of the last shot? Are the kids wondering what the grown-ups are doing? Are they completely disconnected from the situation? Or are they too potential sexual participants? The very possibility made me want to throw up, and though I hadn’t been to American Apparel in a couple of years, I decided right then and there that they were too twisted for me. I think predation is the whole key. Maybe if they go bankrupt, they’ll go away.

    • Well, I have to admit, I don’t go into the stores (they certainly don’t cater to plus sizes and I’m not sure if they’re in Australia anyway), and one sees precious few adverts or images from them with male or child subjects online. If this is true, then it’s just as fucked up in those cases than it is for the images of women.

      Fucked up all ’round!

      • Their website (if you’re interested) has a whole gallery of just about every ad they’ve ever done, so you can see for yourself just how warped they are.

        Also, are you aware that AA actually said point-blank that they did not want to sell clothes for large people? Google “American Apparel turns down plus sizes” and you’ll find a site that reproduces a letter AA sent to a zaftig drag queen who asked whether a plus-size line was planned. The letter pretty much stated that fat people are not now and never will be a part of their target market because they don’t fit with the brand image. Class, right? 😛

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