A recent ad by American Apparel has given rise to much debate and heat. It features a model, topless, in a pair of jeans, with “Made in Bangladesh.” printed over her bare chest.
According to fashion magazine Elle’s website, “the model’s name is Maks, and she’s a Bangladesh-born merchandiser who’s been with American Apparel since 2010.” The description continues: “She doesn’t feel the need to identify herself as an American or a Bengali and is not content to fit her life into anyone else’s conventional narrative” – a justifiable stance that anyone has – and should have – the freedom to take. In this age of globalisation, national and cultural identities have become much more fluid in definition and have allowed individuals to make choices about such issues. Maks thus has the right and reason to not want to fit into a particular national – or any other – identity.
The website then goes on to quote American Apparel as saying: “Maks was photographed in the High Waist Jean, a garment manufactured by 23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare.”
Lost in transition
The controversy, if you ask me, is not in Maks being topless, but in the statement on her toplessness that reads “Made in Bangladesh.” This implies, at first glance, that being topless is a Bangladeshi norm – which it is not. So the question that arises is: Where and how is Bangladesh relevant to any of this? The only way in which it is remotely connected to this ad is through Maks’ Bengali origin which she does not want to be attached to. So, doesn’t putting her up as a model with the statement defeat the whole purpose of both the ad and her realisation about her identity?
American Apparel also shared information about how the pair of jeans was made by 23 American workers who are paid a fair wage and have access to certain facilities. If the ad is trying to bring to focus the fact that the manufactures of these jeans have all the benefits Bangladeshi workers don’t, that’s a fair point – and in fact, much needed to evoke conscience in our garment industries.
But that has absolutely no relevance to a girl posing top-naked, showing her bare breasts. If the line “Made in Bangladesh.” had to go anywhere in the ad at all, it might as well have been on the pair of jeans – as that would draw comparison between the status and condition of Bangladeshi workers to those in the US.
Many could argue that wouldn’t make sense as the pair of jeans was not made in Bangladesh, but really, which part of the ad conveys a sensible message? Had Maks gone on to model as a Bangladeshi/Bengali, the ad would still have more relevance to the message it carries; but with the way it has been portrayed, it appears to be a mere collaboration of the three facts which were lost in transition: A topless model, a topless model who does not want to be put within the confines of a cultural identity, and a pair of jeans made in the US. Three facts that connect at no point except for the page where the ad has been portrayed.
Of freedom and fairness
The ad is also likely to trigger a discussion on “freedom” – a woman’s freedom to flaunt her body, American Apparel’s freedom to portray their models the way they want to, etc – and these are all very reasonable arguments. But why attach a country’s label to it? This is not about being progressive or conservative, feminist or chauvinist, this is a clear violation of a country’s peoples’ sentiments.
A country is not just one person or one girl and their ideologies of freedom and identity. A country is full of different people, different sentiments, and different ideologies. It would be unfair to attach a whole country’s label to any statement, let alone such a controversial one.
In today’s world, with movements such as FEMEN that stage topless protests to convey their message, it has become very easy to associate feminism to such activities and/or statements.
This, in turn, can potentially imply another association: If you don’t support a woman’s right and freedom to be naked in public, you are not progressive enough – which is dangerous. Being liberal should focus more on one’s stance on a topic than on how they choose to express it.
And most importantly, being liberal should include being liberal enough to respect, if not understand, the opposing view. I fully support a woman’s right to be naked in public, but it must be looked at in context. This ad is blatantly associating a half-naked woman to Bangladesh – a whole country, a whole culture, and that creates a misleading and insensitive message.
To sum it up, this ad seems too desperate – blindly desperate – with an aim solely to make a statement and even that statement conveys no message. There is a difference between being progressive and being patronising, one that American Apparel clearly fails to see.