Wednesday, 9 October 2013

When a t-shirt says too much

Let me start by saying this: I have very little tolerance for the messages put forth by American Apparel. As a clothing brand, it's decidedly meh. It has no merit from a style standpoint, and the quality is mediocre at best. Plus, with all the media reports and on-the-record statements made by American Apparel workers about the labour abuses they suffer, the whole sweatshop-free-made-in-America tagline loses its credibility in my books. I also think that the founder and CEO Dov Charney is a grade-A creep.

More than anything, though, I dislike American Apparel for its shock tactics. Their advertisements often have a sexual bent, as if in this era of readily available internet porn sex is still considered subversive. And I generally don't respond well to images of very young-looking girls with vacant eyes spreading their legs wide for the camera or tugging suggestively at their underpants. Call me a prude, but I guess I'm simply not okay with the blatant and unapologetic objectification of women, and especially girls.

Now the company is coming under fire for producing a t-shirt depicting a woman masturbating while she's menstruating. The image comes courtesy of Toronto-based photographer/artist Petra Collins, and was originally featured in a women's art show called Gynolandscape in neon sign form. The piece is rather aptly named Period Power. Needless to say, the t-shirt has caused a lot of hand wringing, pearl clutching and general panty bunching. In defense of the t-shirt Collins said to TIME Magazine: "I'm really interested in what is hidden from our culture. We are always repressing or hiding what is natural to a post-pubescent body. We're taught to hate our menstrual cycle and even to hide masturbation."

Within the context of its original showing I can see how Period Power is poignant, relevant and even thought-provoking. And I agree with Collins to a certain extent. As a teenage girl I definitely remember being embarrassed by my period, surreptitiously slipping a feminine product into my pocket and slipping out of class to go to the bathroom. I also recall being mortified by the thought of another girl hearing me tear open the packaging of a maxi pad because THEN SHE'D KNOW. But was I taught to hate my period? No, my hatred grew naturally out of PMS symptoms and cramps, thankyouverymuch. And of course as teenagers we're ashamed of masturbation, mainly because we can't really decipher our feelings about sex and sexuality, and because traditional social and religious mores tell us that we shouldn't want to experience pleasure in that way. Which is, of course, total bullshit.

So, yeah, the image is breaking taboos. As an art piece. Put it on a t-shirt that sells for $32 at a retailer known for pandering to the lowest form of exploitation just to get a rise out of people and it kind of loses all its potency as a commentary on the perpetuation of Puritanical beliefs in modern society. And it's kind of gross! It's gross in the same way that a picture of a gaping wound would be gross, in the same way that those pictures of cancer-stricken organs on cigarette packs are gross, in the same way that a picture of a dirty diaper would be gross.

Do I think that a t-shirt showing a bleeding vagina that's being stimulated by a hand with a *really* tacky manicure is going to liberate or empower women in some way? Nope, sorry. If I was ashamed of my period when I was a teenager it was because I was ashamed of fucking everything when I was a teenager. They're called your awkward teen years for a reason. And the same goes for masturbation. Besides, I really don't think these issues are in the forefront of our continual struggle for gender equality, either. I don't think that putting a bleeding vagina on a t-shirt is going to do anything to close the wage gap in the workforce or prevent women from being fired or demoted for taking maternity leave or put more women in seats of power.

I'm glad that some ad companies are taking it upon themselves to remove the humiliation from menstruation for young girls. The HelloFlo campaign is nothing short of genius, frankly. But you know what? Parents, specifically mothers, should also do their part to let their daughters know that menstruation is natural and healthy, and nothing to be ashamed about. Same goes for masturbation. Because I really don't think a $32 t-shirt from American Apparel is going to get the message across.

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