American Apparel: Buy or Boycott?

I love you, American Apparel. I love your scoop-neck tank tops, your $26 tube dresses, your socks—even your metallic leggings. I love that when I walk through your neon lights and bright white walls I feel as if I'm in a Terry Richardson photo shoot, and that your employees—all clad in tube socks and aviator glasses—stare back at me, vacuous and wide-eyed. I love that I can wear your clothing to work out in the morning, to the office during the day, out for dinner at night and back to bed—no shower necessary.

But somehow, sweet American Apparel, you make me question you, time and time again. I get it: you're edgy, you're hot, no one can resist you. But it seems as though everywhere I turn I see you objectifying girls just like me—except that they're half-naked, in compromising positions. You photograph them on the floor in nothing but a thong, hands down their pants. And I can't decide if I should slap you for exploiting them, or congratulate you for such an innovative ad campaign.

I really got to thinking about our relationship last week, after an anonymous tagger spray-painted the enormous billboard that sits near my apartment in downtown Manhattan. It was hard to miss: a young-looking girl, shirtless but in tights, bent over with her legs spread, dark hair spilling down her back. Even harder to miss when somebody had written, "GEE, I WONDER WHY WOMEN GET RAPED" across the front of it. Offensive? Maybe. But perhaps clever, too. A woman never asks for rape, but some would say that flaunting a model in such a vulnerable position could feed into that sordid interpretation. "It's basically like, 'Here's my a--, f--- me'," if you want to be as blunt as possible, says Steve Hall, the creator of Adrants, an advertising blog.

The debate over American Apparel advertising is not a new one, of course. The company made a name for itself largely on its amateur-porn-style ads full of crotch shots, sweat stains and bikini rashes. (One ad I remember even encouraged shoppers to Google the model, only to find out she was a rising Canadian porn star.) On its Web site the company states up front its reputation for "provocative photography"—in addition to comfortable clothing—and the company's founder, Dov Charney, is in effect the Ron Jeremy of the T-shirt world. (Charney takes the company's characteristic snapshots in various states of undress himself, he once exposed himself to a reporter from Jane, and he has had more than one former employee file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.)

But some think that style—which uses real people for models, not professionals—is brilliant. After all, sex sells. A recent posting on the company's Web site called for new models, "particularly ones with great, how do we put this … assets." (American Apparel was restricted from commenting for this article because it's in the process of going public, but an associate said that while a good portion of Charney's models are employees, the others are amateurs who send in photos. Ninety percent of them are in their 20s, and on the few occasions they have shot minors, they've done so with parental consent.)

Still others find the ads completely opposed to the company's "socially responsible" sweatshop-free image. (American Apparel workers produce the threads in a single factory in downtown Los Angeles, where workers are paid an average of $12.50 an hour and are offered subsidized meals, health care and free English classes for those who are Spanish speakers.) "I find it quite ironic that a company that so heavily markets itself as being 'socially responsible' is quick to perpetuate the sexual subordination of young women—airbrushed or not," says Sara Sheridan-McAndrew, a gender and social policy master's student at the London School of Economics. "They are sending the message that social responsibility is about money alone—as long as you pay the women inside the factory a legal wage you're absolved from exploiting them in other ways."

I, for one, can't quite decide. We see images every day of airbrushed, photoshopped models placed in the most sexual of positions—remember Dolce & Gabbana's "gang rape" ad? And thanks to technology, models are nothing more than objects to be shaped and molded by marketers, fashion editors and photographers. Moles and acne are erased, eyes enlarged, ears trimmed, hairlines filled, teeth straightened and necks and waists lengthened and stretched. "We're always stretching the models' legs and slimming their thighs," a Manhattan photo retoucher recently told NEWSWEEK. And in some cases hands, feet and even legs are replaced when a subject's parts don't add up to a perfect whole.

So why then am I so offended when I see real-looking women who choose to display themselves for American Apparel—the rare company that doesn't airbrush, manipulate or otherwise alter the photos in their ads? Shouldn't I view them as brave, sexual, confident? Refreshing, even? Hall, of Adrants, says it's easier to detach ourselves from more mainstream fashion images that are so overproduced "they're almost fake … It's like you don't even believe there's an actual person involved in the creation of the ad." With American Apparel "that's like some girl that could live next door to you."

Former porn star turned Ph.D. sexologist Annie Sprinkle says American Apparel's promotions tap into American culture's contradictory views about sex. "They can be fun, sexy and positive," Sprinkle says, or they can be a turnoff—depicted as dirty and ugly. "But that's why it's a great ad campaign," she says. "As a feminist, I like the ads and I like the graffiti [the New York billboard was defaced with]. It makes us think about how we view sexuality."

How we view sexuality has certainly changed: we're no longer living in the days of free love, yet we're bombarded by sexualized images just about everywhere. And younger Americans who've grown up in a MySpace world aren't shy about sharing our own most intimate secrets … with everyone who has an Internet connection. It turns out the photo in the controversial American Apparel billboard in Manhattan was a self-portrait shot by the model herself, 24-year-old Kyung Chung, an amateur photographer living in Paris. "The fact that some people chose to project 'victim' onto that image—an image that I took of myself—is only an indication of their own distorted perceptions about women and sexuality," she tells NEWSWEEK. Ah, beauty … or exploitation: it's in the eye of the beholder.