American Able

Imagine this: you’re headed towards a bus stop on your daily commute to work. You notice a gigantic advertisement plastered on the side of the bus shelter – a young, thin, blonde woman wearing nothing but striped socks and a pair of underwear. It’s not even 8 :30 in the morning yet, and you’re sighing at the sight of a woman objectified and hyper-sexualized, all in the name of advertising. How cliché. The problem isn’t even necessarily the fact that she’s half-naked, it’s more that you’re sick of seeing the same kind of woman sexualized in these boring, uncreative ways. What’s even worse is that the fine print of the ad tells you that this is not, in fact, a professional model but rather an every day, average gal. Just like you! Ah, American Apparel strikes again, you tell yourself. As if this speaks to my life.

In my reality, all kinds of people are sexy and sexual: People who identify as queer, as disabled, as trans, as fat, and generally, as awesome. But in this world of American Apparel and various other “real beauty” ad campaigns making claims of representing the “average woman,” I never see myself or the kinds of people I know. It still doesn’t speak to my reality, and I’m sure it doesn’t speak to a lot of other people’s realities as well.

Luckily, if Holly Norris and Jes Sachse have anything to do with it, that reality might slowly be changing. This May, riders of the TTC in Toronto will bear witness to the critical sass created by photographer Holly Norris who teamed up with her then-roommate and poet/photographer/pornographer Jes Sachse to satirize the notorious American Apparel ad campaings in a witty, sex-positive way. Their spoofs of the ads, titled American Able, will be shown on television screens in subway stations across the city as part of the Contact Toronto What’s the Hype? Exhibition.

One of the most effective ways for feminists to constructively criticize the fashion industry and their problematic ad campaigns is with humour. Many of us have seen Sarah Haskins’ Target Women videos, which are probably the best known contemporary examples of criticizing the rampant stereotyping and sexism that goes on in advertising while simultaneously making you laugh your ass off. Holly and Jes’ thoughtful and witty takeup of American Apparel’s notorious ad campaigns is just another way to think about how (and which) women are presented and sold to us in the advertising industry.

To talk a bit about why a photo series like American Able is needed, I caught up with these old friends to ask them a few questions.

Tell me a bit about your goal with this project and how you came up with it.

Holly: Originally, it was just a project for a Women and Pop Culture class at Trent University in 2008. While working on the assignment, I saw a photograph on Facebook of the Fat Femme Mafia in a change room wearing tight, shiny American Apparel tracksuits. It got me thinking about how different bodies look in clothing, and how we only see one specific kind of body in advertisements. I had been living with Jes that summer, and we had started talking about disabilities and difference. She does a bit of modeling so I asked her if she could model for this little ad thing I was doing for class and it just grew from there.

Jes: Holly was taking Women and Pop Culture I think? We’d lived together during the summer of 2008 and had some shitty experiences that got us talking about disability politics. Holly was relatively new to critical dis theory, and would ask me lots of questions, which got us into great conversations. The shoot was Holly’s idea, but the actual process was collaborative. The second set was all my own clothing, much of which was American Apparel. The poses were all me, some of the ideas, and the general attitude was mine. But Holly is the genius behind the lens.

There are so many sexist ad campaigns out there. Why single out American Apparel?

Holly: First off, on their ads there are often little blurbs like “Sarah is a student in New York…”, so they are positioning their models as representative of ‘regular people.’ However, they all fit into a specific idea of what a “regular woman” is. More practically speaking, for me as a photographer, it is easier to spoof their advertisements because they have that notable style with on-location shoots, simple cotton basics (which is half of my closet anyway), and helvetica font. It is a lot easier to recreate their ads as there is no need for a studio or for high fashion.

Jes: God. American Apparel is sexy. I dunno about Holly but I love their style. Its andro and ‘basic’ and hipster. Lots of lyrca, lots of ‘your body as is’ type clothing. However, model and sales-clerk wise? Tall, skinny, white people. The usual. The fact that AA is hyper-sexual appeals to me. The fact that the lens isn’t really on an empowered body, is less appealing. Sexy sells. But why does sexy always seem to intersect with misogyny? Ultimately, AA is a popular brand of choice for hipsters, many of whom are educated and/or are familiar with the provocative nature of their ads. American Able doesn’t mock from the outside. It mocks from the inside. I like that.

What do you hope people will take away from the American Able series?

Holly: I’m really interested in where it will be seen. It is showing on digital screens that are typically ad space, and has the potential to make people do a double take and question what they are seeing and how it differs from a regular ad. I think the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why – why do they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising? People with visible disabilities are rendered invisible by mass media, and I think the reactions to American Able really highlight that. Even when there are claims of ‘diversity’ it is usually really lacking, to say the least. One rarely sees people with disabilities in advertising, unless it’s in a group photo and then it often seems more tokenizing than anything else.

Jes: It’s Holly’s project, but personally? I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes? I’d love to be a model. I love designers and fashion, it’s art on bodies. I guess I love modeling because I feel like I embody a piece of that stare in my own work. That “I see you lookin’ at me” stare. I know I don’t look like a stereotypical model, and I like my body, but I get stared at a lot, in a different way. So when I pose, I have the opportunity to engage with my voyeurs. Or act indifferent about their gaze. Or make them question the politics in their stare. Or seduce them. Or pierce them. It’s really fun.

The first thing I took away from the photos was a mischievous, sexy sense of humour. What do you think about the place of humour in criticizing media of an oppressive nature? Do you think it is more or less effective than, say, boycotts, or other more traditional activist approaches?

Holly: I don’t think it’s necessarily more or less effective, it’s simply a different venue for activism. I like it. The images won’t ask you to sign their petition or join them on the streets, but you can sit and look and develop your own thoughts and opinions. And then I hope it will inspire people to at the very least be more critical of the advertising they are usually bombarded with. Spoofs point out the problems with advertising that one might not otherwise identify. It’s a really interesting space. I really like looking at spoof advertisements; I love Adbusters and that sort of thing. We live in this culture where we are so bombarded by advertisements that it would be strange not to respond or react to it. I am so excited to be putting American Able in a space where we would otherwise be seeing corporate advertisements over and over again. I am hoping it will make people ask, “why am I not seeing ads like these? Why are bodies like Jes’s not seen in major ad campaigns?”

Jes: Humour is my life. On the surface, it’s easy to take me less seriously because of it, but humour also gets you in the door in a way that a rebellious placard never will (lamentably). Me boycotting AA is ridiculous. You show me a fashion line that rocks my disability politics. None of ‘em do! I’ll wear what I want to, because my body, like everything else, contradicts itself.

- Interview by Julia Caron. To hear more from Holly and Jes about American Able, stay posted on Julia’s personal blog à l’Allure Garçonnière.

24 thoughts on “American Able

  1. “I am so excited to be putting American Able in a space where we would otherwise be seeing corporate advertisements…” ABSOLUTELY.
    I love the idea of subversive adverstisement in corporate spaces. Not just as juxtaposition but, hopefully, in that moment of double take, as an encouragement for people to realize how uncritically they consume the world of manipulative images around them.

  2. When I read this post in its draft stage, I was so excited for it to go up. As someone who regularly sees American Apparel ads and wonders just how the people in them are supposed to be “normal,” and having written a feature last year about sexuality and body image in advertising (particularly AA’s), I could not be more supportive of this campaign. Using a spoof like this, like Holly says, will make people think. It’s not just criticizing AA’s ads, and saying “hey, the ads aren’t fair and should be changed,” but it’s making people analyze the ads. It’ll make people who usually dismiss AA (or all) ads stop and think about just how narrow-minded the media can be. Not that this is a new concept – we all know that the “real world” is not represented in the media the way it should be. What I like about the concept of American Able is that its messages aren’t subliminal. It is using shock value to make people question their own perspectives on the norms we’re all force-fed daily.

    Great interview, Julia. Welcome to the team!

  3. I think this is an excellent idea, and I’m glad it’s getting some exposure. The way in which Jes and Holly take on the subject of the portrayal of women in advertising is effective, fresh and unapologetic. They don’t have to mention the words “media, women, body image, perception of beauty, self-confidence” etc to make their point in the ads, and instead call upon the audience to think about these ideas on their own terms.

  4. I think this interview is stellar, and wish I had something to add to the conversation but can’t think of anything that Holly and Jes haven’t already said. So instead I’m gonna quote my favourite part:

    “I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes?”

    oh, and

    “The images won’t ask you to sign their petition or join them on the streets, but you can sit and look and develop your own thoughts and opinions. And then I hope it will inspire people to at the very least be more critical of the advertising they are usually bombarded with. Spoofs point out the problems with advertising that one might not otherwise identify. It’s a really interesting space.”

    I’ve been looking up more of Jes’s work because of this, and I’m really glad I did.

  5. This article is so true. Reminds me of a Sassy article in which the staff made fun of cliche model poses.
    Another great post by WORN!

  6. Wow, I just started reading this blog – what an article to begin the love-affair. It took everything I had to not stand up on my work desk and yell “PREACH IT!” at the computer screen.

    Thanks for showcasing the extremely relevant and eye-opening brainchild of a talented artist.

  7. This was a really cool post, loved to hear what the girls said about their project. You can see too how much enthusiasm there is just by looking at those shots! Well done, Holly and Jes!

  8. Love your site. Awesome project! Hate typical sexualized advertising LOVE LOVE LOVE your spoof of it!

  9. Total fashion neanderthal male here (“normal”?), who got here through a referral from a graphic design discussion list thanks to Holly’s mom. Pardon me for feeling more than a little out of my element here, but I just had to reply.

    This project is extremely interesting. Part of me thinks that its kind of like the story of a girl telling the emperor not that he’s naked, but that he’s got his clothes on somebody else’s body. See?

    It’s a long, long overdue statement, and you handled it brilliantly. And deftly. Could have easily dragged down into some kind of ‘freakshow charge’ (though, I’m betting in some circles, it already has). Instead it has a beautiful sense of fun, tastefulness, and courage. Jes, you’re simply amazing (and beautiful, if I may be so bold).

    If you’re looking for another project suggestion I’ve got one: replace all the mags in a typical grocery store’s checkout displays with mag covers that features GUYS. Better yet? Just a representative mix of people, REAL faces at random!

    I work with figure images and image selection daily. My designs are geared towards mostly the general public and are supposed to present ‘believable’ and even politically correct, faces and figures. Guess what? At least 90% of the shots selected (not by me, I merely present choices) are inevitably women. Young women. Attractive (but not too much!) and of coures, smiling. When I started doing this about 15 years ago, the mix was closer to 60% female to 40% male. And of course, the stock photo sites and their catalogs reflect this. Ask any male model — they almost universally the second fiddle market, commercially.

    I know why. Scientific studies have shown that a pretty female face will almost ALWAYS generate more sales than a handsome male face, or any other. It’s simply economic reality. So that’s why it’s the absolute dominant choice in mainstream advertising. As a designer, it’s frustrating at times. It puts a real damper on a lot of great alternative ideas. But the pretty-face strategy misses the truth about contrast: if everybody’s a classical beauty, it’s a lot easier to get attention on the shelf with someone who is not.

    One of the things I love about British television and film is that there’s such a wider spectrum of beauty displayed in the actors chosen. It brings a level of believability to a show that American productions just can’t achieve with their narrower beauty formula.

    Anyhow, congratulations on a great job. Look forward to seeing what you come up with next!

    Oh, and don’t forget to spoil your mom a bit on Mother’s Day! (Gift suggestion? How about a Lycra apron? Just kiddin’ Karen! [g])

  10. Why… did my last comment get deleted? Lemmie guess. You don’t like hearing from people who disagree.

    Got it.

  11. Ray: I’m honestly sorry your comment got deleted. Because of your specific comment in fact, we are now working on a policy for comment editing. We want very much to encourage discussion…and sometimes that comes in the form of something we don’t agree with. WORN needs to support that to develop a well-rounded conversation. However, we also need to decide when something goes from a critical and thoughtful disagreement to name calling and insults. Where do we draw the line? Should we draw a line?

    We have never encountered this particular problem before. As I said, we are now working on a policy that will be published on the site to avoid any further confusion. I’d love to hear any feedback from you or anyone on what you think our policy should be.

    Serah-Marie, WORN Editor

  12. Interesting idea. One thing I object is this..
    “However, model and sales-clerk wise? Tall, skinny, white people.”

    I work at American Apparel and can promise you not everyone is tall (I’m 5’1) or skinny, or white. In my staff, it is hard to find someone who is just white.
    In recent years, American Apparel is trying to steer aware from these overtly sexual advertisements and go for a classier style.

    Good job though!

  13. Sam: I agree with you, not all the sales people at every AA location are tall, thin and white. I haven’t been into an AA store in a while, but last time I went into a Toronto store, I definitely remember seeing people of different ethnicities working there. However, in their ads, of which I’ve seen several, I think I have to agree with the American Able girls – a wide variety of beauty, especially in body shape and ability, is not represented. As for the bit about AA trying to steer away from overtly sexual ads, I disagree completely. I think we’re just getting so accustomed to their ads that we don’t notice a lot of the things we would have gasped at before. If they are in fact changing their ads, I’d really like to see these new, supposedly classier ads, posted on a billboard or on the back of an issue of NOW Magazine.

  14. If you go look at their website (, you will see the direction they are trying to push. They have not made the full adjustments, some overtly sexual pictures are still there. But their new campaign of “The New Classics” is their direction. Go to any American Apparel store and pick up the new issue of VICE magazine to see the direction, featuring their “SPRINGTIME” campaign. I live in Montreal and all the ads I’ve seen are women fully dressed. Like I said, they have not made the full adjustments yet to everything, but that is the new direction they are going for.

  15. So I checked out the AA site to see what Sam was talking about, and the first thing I saw was a series of a topless girl faking orgasm in fishnets. I then refreshed 6 times, saw 5 different woman’s nipples, and finally saw a fully dressed person. A fully dressed man that is.

    I’m not trying to bash people who work at AA (we’ve even had Wornettes who work there) but this argument so falls flat.

  16. Maybe it depends what type of “classy” you’re talking about, but even that’s a stretch. AA used to have really gritty pictures showing people’s pubic hair and bruises and stuff, I think about 5 years ago when I started buying their clothes. Now, they have more clean-cut looking people in their ads and better photographers and editors. They’re still overtly sexual though, just maybe in a “cleaner” way.

  17. i read this article yesterday, and then later that day when i took the subway, the second i looked up at the ttc monitor, i saw one of these ads, and i smiled. made my whole day. im looking forward to seeing more.

  18. I was doing a search about American Apparel models because I really like their clothes…but their website tends to make me feel a little sick. Like literally gagging-a-little-bit sick.

    I’ve done a little photography and most of it was rather sexualized. I like the female body. I like sex. I like pictures of sexy women. I know that sex sells. So did some of my photographs! ;-)

    There’s no easier way to get someone’s attention!

    But I am not even going to comment toward the sameness of the body types among AA models. It’s evident.

    Nevertheless there is something indescribably creepy about their photos (even today when I was shopping).

    It often looks like a guy picked up a drunk barely-18 year old girl on the street, took her back to his apartment, got her dressed up, slipped her a roofie, and proceeded to take pictures of her (lingering on her crotch and ass).

    Not even an “amateur photographer.” Just some random dude. It’s everything that’s sleazy or dirty about “real sexy photos” and nothing that’s classy, cool, stylish, or artistic. Just pure exploitative, objectifying nastiness.

    Sometimes when I browse their site I feel a distant worry that I am actually seeing photographs of an abducted teenager.

    There an Onion article from 2007 I just found about American Apparel models being rescued from a basement. It’s almost to true to life to be funny.

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