American Apparel finds itself in hairy situation over new mannequins

Earlier this week, clothing manufacturer American Apparel stopped New York pedestrians in their tracks as they caught sight of the store’s new window mannequins, who now feature fully grown out pubic hair.

Among the immediate gut reactions, I’ll ask the question we’re all thinking: Whose job is it to do this now?

Last October, I wrote a column in response to the controversy surrounding Canadian photographer Petra Collins and the unfair censorship of her individual depictions of the female body.

At the time, I applauded Collins for showing unadulterated pictures of women and condemned the practice of society to mandate what constitutes a “feminine” woman.

This isn’t the first time American Apparel has preferred to market its clothing to the “au natural” audience; advertisements for products on their site often feature models sporting pubic hair.

This imagery seems to keep in line with the company’s overall branding strategy.

“American Apparel has always been a company that celebrates natural beauty,” American Apparel visual merchandiser Dee Myles said of the mannequins. “I think it’s to spark conversation rather than controversy over what we deem beautiful and sexy.”

If this new move by American Apparel can be seen as embracing the very sentiments I advocated for in my previous column, why was I still alarmed by it?

With a bevy of scandals running the gamut from harassment suits to the sexualization of its young models, it is surprising to me that this same company would now take up the mantle of social responsibility to change the way we view what is attractive about women.

Clearly, the outcry against the mannequins is indicative of years of brainwashed consumption of pristine and ultra-sleek women. I have to wonder if part of the reason for the backlash is because many women simply don’t personally identify with the look themselves.

It seems to me that if American Apparel really wanted to challenge the status quo and change the conversation on media’s impact on our perception of beauty, it could do something as simple as proportioning its mannequins to fit a variety of body types that are relatable to women.

This reasoning then begs this question, is this an advertising ploy simply meant to shock and garner more attention? Does American Apparel merely thrive on the shock value of its products?

From all I know about American Apparel as a company and as a retailer, these attempts to showcase the female body in a “natural” and “unfettered” light as possible merely comes across as disingenuous.

My initial support of Collins and the deconstruction of false portrayals of women in the media still stand, but I think it is equally important to be conscious and wary of advertising constructs as they comprise a company’s public relations plan. What a company wants its consumers to believe about it can be misleading.

To be smart consumers of media, it’s important to keep an open mind about the images we’re seeing and their effects on society, as well as ourselves. But it is equally important to be wary about any marketing strategy that simply seeks to pander to what it thinks its audience wants.

Reach the columnist at llonghi@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @lolonghi