Saturday, June 5, 2010

fuck fashion: taking action against oppression

this past week, two t-shirts were brought to my attention. the first was this lovely "eat less" number, pictured above, was available for purchase in urban outfitters stores and online. the second was brought to my attention by my friend karina with the subject like wtf??. (un)surprisingly, it is also sold by urban outfitters, and featured an uncle sam type figure holding an unconcious (or dead?) half-naked woman draped in an american flag and demanding that fathers protect their daughter's virginity. unbelievable? believe it:

so here we have two offensive garments, both making comments and in some sense claiming ownership over women's bodies and sexualities (which are so intrisically connected - think about which women are permitted which kinds of sexualities - which bodies do we sexualize, etc): the "women's" t-shirt, clearly tied up in body politics and explicitly pro-ana, and the "men's" t-shirt proclaiming that it is a father's responsibility to "preserve" their daughter's virginity. on top of that, in the second t-shirt, the image of uncle sam as the father is rendered even more offensive and frightening, as though he represents the big bad government lording over young women's sexualities.

the "eat less" one conjurs up debates about who has the right to tell who to eat what and how much. there are so many other aspects of our society that judge us for our eating habits and/or size, why do we need a t-shirt to bark commands at us? aside from enraging me about the fact that this is specifically targetted towards young women, this t-shirt raises some of my serious complaints and concerns about how eating disorders and general harmful "body snark" (as i like to call it) constantly finds its way into (retail and high) fashion, as much as i try to pretend otherwise... as much as we are seeing an increase in "body acceptance" discussions in mainstream magazines and ad campaigns (think the dove "real beauty" campaign), at the end of the day the fashion industry still constantly tries to sell us insecurity and body hate. but that might be something to take up at another juncture.

these products raise some serious questions, mainly... why. why do these t-shirts exist? why are these t-shirts for sale, and who would buy them? are they simply jokes in bad taste that many don't think they should have to stomach? a lapse in judgement on the part of the designer, the company, and its staff? a simple oversight? we can debate the reasons why this specific company thought that selling these items was not only acceptable, but a wise business decision, but that is not why i am calling them to your attention. i am interested in what steps we take, as critical fashion lovers, when we see offensive items like the aforementioned. what questions do we ask, and what actions should we be taking?

in the case of these t-shirts, people took action. understandably, many people were pretty pissed off about these two t-shirts, and not soon after they were noticed, some young women decided to organize a "girlcott" of urban outfitters until the t-shirts was removed from stores. from their facebook page:
Let Urban Outfitters know you won't be buying from them until they pull the sexist clothing items from their store and issue a statement committed to creating and selling anti-sexist items:

Tweet this: TO @UrbanOutfitters - sexism may sell, but we're not buying. Throw out the sexist shirts, make clothes for all! #girlcott

Call 1.800.282.2200 and issue a customer service complaint. Tell the representative that you will not buy their clothing until they pull sexist items from the store and site and issue a statement committed to anti-sexist items in the future.
as of June 6th, urban outfitters claims the t-shirt has been pulled. well, not quite. you can't buy it online anymore, but if you go to their stores you can still have your dose of fucked up body image, since it is in such short supply elsewhere. sidenote: for those claiming not to understand why a t-shirt that says "eat less" could be construed as offensive or pro-ana, i suggest reading the comments on the posts linked at the end. i think it's quite clear why it's offensive. what i am really interested in understanding are the specific dynamics at work here in the capitalist/consumerist fashion industry.

in this specific case, let us look at the t-shirt that demands girls "eat less." eating is talked about in these spheres as directly related to body size. the implicit message is that the person reading (and/or wearing?) should eat less, most likely because this t-shirt (without eyes or any sort of vision) has deemed the person reading the statement as being too large or as consuming too much food. how does this make any sense? it doesn't, really. but, a t-shirt like this one feeds into all kinds of other industries, namely the diet industry, which is closely connected to the beauty industry. so we have these three (capitalist) systems, fashion, beauty, and diet, working together to give young women around the world complexes about their bodies and the way they choose to adorn and modify them. ever since i have been interested in fashion, i have been concerned about the links between these systems, and i don't think they are more clearly explicit than in situations like these t-shirts.

but my main concern here is that getting rid of this t-shirt doesn't necessarily change the fact that these systems work together to oppress, humiliate, and objectify women in every level of production. taking the "eat less" t-shirts off store shelves is, yes, a victory of sorts, but it only makes me wonder more about the way the company that thought selling this was a good idea operates. who is behind the scenes? who is profitting? and most of all, is this t-shirt the only place in the levels of urban outfitters where women are subjected to body hate and discrimination?

frankly, i wasn't surprised to see that these t-shirts were being sold by urban outfitters, given their track record (it ain't a whole lot better than american apparel). in my opinion, jezebel commentor everyonesfree couldn't have put it better:
I don't expect Urban Outfitters to be a responsible company, given the racist and discriminatory products I've seen in the past, as well as it's documented stealing of trademarked ideas from indie crafters and designers, but this is truly a sorry excuse for 'fashion'. It is not edgy, it is not harmless, and I would hope that my email and the hopefully thousands more that you get will make the company see how offensive this shirt is.
and this is where i think the problem is. the thing is, me not spending money at urban outfitters isn't really a change of habit for me. my girlcotting of this store won't change a thing about my issues with the way they run their business or what they sell, and my complaints with many other retail giants like them. my questions are more about the effectiveness of calling attention to specific examples of sexism like the aforementioned ones.

are these the things we, as young feminists, choose to be outraged about?
one specific t-shirt, or the problematic ideologies that the t-shirt represents?
are they part of larger struggles?
where does that struggle begin, and how will it end?

so let's say the offensive t-shirt in question is pulled from stores. does that mean the store is now less sexist and fatphobic? what about when the same store refuses to hire a woman, because they don't sell clothing in her size? or because she doesn't fit the "image" that urban outfitters wants to project to its customers? what sizes does that store cater to, and are there problems with that?

what about who makes the clothing in question: are we as outraged when we read the label of the clothing and have no way of knowing what the work conditions were like, and if we did know, would our consumption habits change in any way? how many women were oppressed or exploited in physical and emotional ways, in labour, production, presentation, all of the work that went into selling this t-shirt?

this is not meant to victimize the workers in question, but rather to address some concerns. i am simply asking questions about how and when we express our outrage, and what about. why is it pretty clearly universally offensive to point out a t-shirt that reads "eat this," and unsurprising to have it garner so much attention, while other situations that are explicitly oppressive and, pardon my french, fucked up, seem to receive little to no attention? in the same week, for example, i only heard one brief radio segment about the young men and women committing suicide while working in a factory making computers. were the working conditions in the factories that makes t-shirts for companies like urban outfitters any better, or worse?

photo from marxist-feminism

in honesty, yeah, i do think there are other things to be outraged about, especially this week. i can't seem to escape it. first, the foxconn suicides (as a former factory worker i feel a certain amount of solidarity and sadness) and of course with the oil spill in the gulf destroying ecosystems, killing animals, and ending people's livelihoods... not to mention the israeli attacks of the free gaza flotilla in international waters.

but! if we are going to express our outrage as consumers in the fashion industry, my question remains: what steps should we take, as critical fashion lovers, when we see oppressive systems at work?. what questions do we ask, and what actions should we be taking?

it is great to see people being mobilized and it would be great if these t-shirts were no longer being sold. however, i am wondering what happens when we look at the reasons why this t-shirt existed and was being sold in the first place, and what we can do to actively challenge those reasons and hopefully change them.

i think we, as critical fashion lovers, need to think about and share more productive ways we can challenge oppressive systems when we see them at work, wherever we see them happening. if you have any suggestions, now is the time to share them.


feministing: really, urban outfitters? (the comments are worth reading)
the tummy project: keep tummy shaking on
jezebel: urban outfitters pushes pro-ana movement
the frisky article: urban outfitters wants dads to protect sacred virginity
tips for an effective boycott
facebook girlcott group
if it was my home: visualizing the bp oil spill


hannah and landon said...

I'm happily "girlcotting" urban outfitters (along with all dodgy overseas clothing manufacturers - I'm looking at you forever21!) forever (for all the reasons you've stated above, just because they removed the offending t-shirt they are not redeemed in my eyes nor should they be! With the way the buying process goes that t-shirt was seen by enough eyes that somebody with sense could have said "no"). They have a dirty track record and are shamelessly exploitative of small designers and young companies. I feel fashion is the one area that we can really make a difference - we CAN buy second-hand only (minus the underpants - though I have been known to sport oldies underoos at times) and still have a variety of choices to shape our own styles. With electronic goods such as computers, phones, etc. it's harder to follow a rule of second-hand (I admittedly to not know much about the conditions in which electronics are manufactured, something for me to learn about!). Second-hand clothing is available to all income levels and consignment shops are popping up all the time providing a more upbeat and enjoyable way to sift through other people's discards. This is something I'd really like to one day address on my own blog (I'm sure you've noticed I don't often launch into ideals close to my heart on there as I once did in the LJ days - too many eyes makes me nervous) It's something so easy to change and if enough people voice their indignation it will change (same goes for representing a variety of body shapes and ethnicity, fashion, why are you such a little shit?) I apologize for this long-winded comment - am I allowed to claim air travel and sleep deprivation as responsible? COS I AM. I love you Julia, I'm always excited to read your writings. xo

Eline said...

I don't think we can do anything drastically as consumers of fashion though. I mean, we can boycott this sure, but we won't influence sales very much because (although it pains me to admit this) I think we (the people that find this offensive and want to actively do something about this) are a minority here.

I think the problem lies much, much deeper. We have to strike the core of the fashion industry and let them see how fucked up they are. This is already happening and I think fashion is slowly (veryyyy slowly) catching up with it.

Fashion is strange in that sense, it constantly changes, renews itself etc. yet the fashion mentality is still so stuck in this 50s misogynist era or something. Or maybe it's just an alternate reality? Maybe it's just a completely different world.

Either how, the fashion industry is a capitalist system that caters to their clients, and if they're going to be misogynist, sizeist ageist and whathaveyou, they will simply become irrelevant because there'll always be this new person that WILL cater to their public and eventually will show diversity.

Anonymous said...

wonderful article again, though from what I've always been told/ understood urban outfitters (and anthropologie) are owned by militant christians who donate quite a bit of their profits to pro life groups, so I haven't been buying there for years. Do you happen to know if this is accurate? It really boggles my mind sometimes to know how many shoppers, fashion consumers really couldn't care less where their clothing comes from, as long as it's cute.

hannah and landon said...

McCall, I've heard the same thing! I know that the CEO is definitely very right Republican, not sure of the militant christianity, though it would not surprise.

I should have added that I don't mean to say "only buy second-hand" as there are many made fairly in USA and elsewhere options (and super independent designers) to support!

gluegun said...

Clearly the "eat less" shirt is awful (look how thrilled the model is to wear it!), but I'm not sure I understand why the other t-shirt is offensive. I assumed it was making fun of the idea of fathers being responsible for their daughter's virginity. I saw it as humor similar to this, which I have on a t-shirt:

Am I missing something?

Also, I like to think I had something to do with the "eat less" t-shirt being removed, because when I saw it, I entered a lot of angry and profane things as tags for it on the website.

Ilya said...

What makes the daughters' virginity one so insidious is that it is invoking early twentieth-century white supremacist rhetoric about protecting *white* daughters - and hence the fabric of the nation - from black men, figured in profoundly racist terms as hyper-sexualized predators. Through murderous means, like lynching.
- Ilya (hi j.!)

Andi B. Goode said...

...I'm just kind of flabbergasted. That's insane! I probably shouldn't be surprised but we don't have those stores here (and I don't ever go into the ones that sell similar kinds of t-shirts so I don't know if we get as many screwed up slogans/images or not). (Also, is the Uncle Sam type one a print of a vintage propaganda poster or just made to look like one? It doesn't make much difference, but I was just curious).
-Andi x

apocalypstick said...

Excellent post.

slanderous said...

Great post as ever, Julia. I think one of the things we have to do you're already doing, which is making "fashion" legible as a tangled complex of industrial-capital-state imperatives, underpinned by colonial and imperial structures as well as gender and sexual maps for making meaning, that together operate to determine not just how we as individuals wear our clothes or bodies, but also that dictate how we as social beings are assigned degrees and tiers of value and humanness via our clothes or bodies. The cultural appropriation debates are a perfect example of how these macropolitics are brought to bear upon the micropolitics of a hipster in a headdress. This is hard, hard work, as you know.

forestfirecity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Fuck yeah, Julia.

I feel like we're not as outraged as we should be over the working conditions under which our clothing is made. I've been thrift store buying the vast, vast majority of my clothes and other products for years as a way of avoiding supporting this system, which I think is an important buycott.. (but not quite the activism that is needed to change others' minds). Gah. I am so angry! Fashion shouldn't come at the expense of worker's rights, health, and wages, nor should it come at the expense of the environment - the resource degradation and the unbelievable amounts of chemicals and other pollutants that go into manufacturing clothing is terrifying (not to mention the 'carbon footprint' of current trade routes and manufacturing/agricultural practices).

And after they've exploited workers and polluted the environment they're going to sell me a shirt that says 'eat less'? Or one that says 'Shop local' ( as IF Urban Outfitters is local/supports local. Fuck that.

Nrrrd Grrrl said...

Amazing, thoughtful post! and what horrifying clothing. Is there really something we as consumers can do aside from boycotting such brands? And honestly, it seems like there are a whole lot of brands right now that need to be avoided altogether (umm, american apparel anyone?).

These brands cater to the mass superficial desire to be eco-conscious and shop local, essentially to fit in, but they've created a hollow image of that person. You can dress like you care without actually giving a shit (or so they seem to be saying).

But at the same time, the amount of time required to fully research every store you want to shop at and every brand you want to buy to ensure ethical and socially conscious practices is exhausting in and of itself, not to mention the additional costs of such retailers. My question is how do we hold the corporations accountable in the first place? We need to send the message that we don't just want to seem like we're doing the right thing but that we actually want to be doing it. And that's something that I definitely don't have a solution for. Thoughts?

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