On Our Radar: Made in Bangladesh

I’m sure by now, some of you have seen the infamous (sexually suggestive) American Apparel ad. Which one? Right. I’m beginning to lose count myself too…  

The ad features a topless model of South Asian descent, with the words “Made in Bangladesh.” boldly printed across her chest and a detailed account of her background. Read more about the ad here.

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For a few days, I wasn’t quite sure how to wrap my head around the ad. Even though I admired Maks, the model, for embracing this photoshoot and unreservedly showed off her body in what I dare to say, a graceful fashion, there was just something about the text and the image together that made me uncomfortable. 

Well, my friend Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed responded today and she couldn’t have articulated my thoughts better:

Shunoh, I think it’s great that you felt fully comfortable to express yourself. I want to be clear, there’s no “slut-shaming” to this. I’m all about radical forms of feminine art. I think brown is beautiful, and when you are raised in this vapid city of Los Angeles where White standards of beauty are pushed down our throats, it takes a certain kind of strength to fight all that and declare, “I’m brown, I’m an immigrant, and I’m beautiful too.” Brown skin is underrated in this society and baring breasts when making a political statement has the potential to be that much more profound.

But it’s a fine line between self-expressive and being exotified and commodified.

You think you chose to be creative — but in actuality you were plucked by your employer to sell an object. I believe the object you are selling is high-waisted pants, but it’s unclear from the photo. They are rolled down so suggestively. What American Apparel is selling is sex, and in this case, by having “Made in Bangladesh” across your bare breasts, you are selling fetishized sex. One where the brown woman is objectified.

American Apparel is a known American-made clothing company that prides itself on being sweatshop-free and paying “fair” wages (albeit with questionable sexual harassment allegations against CEO Dov Charney). They are selling their clothing. Thus, we can ascertain that the message in the photo implicitly rejects the notion of buying Bangladesh made “objects.” The implication is that Bangladesh is bad, and American is good. Burka-ed Muslim women are bad, and bare-breasted “former” Muslims with newly found American freedoms are good. Right?

But you’re fine with that rejection, right Maks? Because in the press release you state that in high school you distanced yourself from your Islamic upbringing. That you don’t identify as Bengali or American, and you don’t fit into conventional narratives, and that’s why you are essential to Los Angeles.

The thing is I’m Bengali, American, a Muslim, a non-hijabi woman, and I’m also an Angeleno. I work constantly to break the mainstream conventional narrative I’m constantly placed in. And I don’t think that makes me any less important to the mosaic that is LA. In fact, LA is littered with women like this, like me. My Los Angeles embraces this diversity and my mosaic is beautiful. Whereas the LA in this marketing campaign is tinged with Islamophobia and xenophobia.

Did you know that the garment industry in Bangladesh is built on the backs of women? And

that last April outside your birth city of Dhakawhen the garment factory Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1,129 people and injured 2,515, that most of them were women? Did you know that hundreds of orphans were left behind, motherless and penniless? Did you know that in 2012 at the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire where 117 people died, it was said the deaths could have been prevented if the exits were not blocked?

We live in a global economy where we need to apply pressure to large corporations like GAP and Wal-Mart to require international factories to hold to a certain standard of safety. We are beyond the point where buying only American-made is the simple solution. Boycotting Bangladesh made products means we’re boycotting the Deshi-made women that helped get us here — our Ammas and Khalas and ChachisAmadher bhon, our sisters. We just want to make sure they are safe and can survive.

Don’t you see, Appu? That by having “Made In Bangladesh” splayed across your breasts,American Apparel is commodifying a recent tragedy that has killed thousands of people. They are taking the death of thousands of people in Bangladesh as a marketing opportunity to sell their clothes in America. Don’t you see how morbid that is? Don’t you see how your image has been exploited and how you’ve been manipulated?

Read Taz’s letter to Maks in its entirety here.

How we utilize our bodies to express vs. being exploited without realizing it is a fine line. When I say that, I’m thinking about Miley Cyrus, the recent news about the outing of a Duke freshman porn star, and many other day-to-day examples.

In this specific American Apparel ad, the objectification of the female body, or maybe even the showcase of the female body (if Maks doesn’t feel like she is being objectified) is not the way to change a nation that we are too privileged to understand fully AND that we are all benefitting from, whether we like it or not. 

I love Taz’s last paragraph, which is about how we can encourage real change:

We’re not so different, you and I. It’s just that how we choose to wear (or not wear) our hyphenated identities is expressed differently. I plan on continuing to buy “Made In Bangladesh” clothes — except, I’ll boycott the global corporations like GAP and Wal-Mart that refuse to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. I’ll continue to work on projects like Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana Plaza to use radical forms of art to raise awareness and funds for the victims of this tragedy. I’ll continue to organize with South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles to tie the global struggles of the South Asian diaspora to the local. 

- Lisa


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