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Dear American Apparel: Please #FreeTheNipple (and Pubes)

Why American Apparel's new vanilla marketing strategy — obliterating models' body parts — is alienating an important group of people: its faithful female fans.
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Dana Wright in an American Apparel ad. 

Dana Wright in an American Apparel ad. 

For several years now, concerned members of the fashion and business communities alike have been asking the same question: What can American Apparel do to turn its troubled brand around?

In their highly publicized efforts to do so, the good people at AA have narrowly avoided filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, ousted (then rehired, then re-ousted) controversy-prone founder Dov Charney, hired (and fired) several other high-powered company executives and even purchased another hip, up-and-coming brand. All seemingly sensible moves. 

But apparently, it wasn't enough. The brand's newly appointed decision-makers — in particular, Senior Vice President of Marketing Cynthia Erland — have now turned their attention to eradicating other things that helped bring it to fame: namely, nipplespubic hair and curves. Those belonging to American Apparel's models, specifically.

And I really, REALLY wish they wouldn't. 

As a fairly regular American Apparel customer since college — back when I'd spend my spare time stocking up on shiny lamé headbands and multi-way tube dresses — I've cringed each time a news outlet suggests the company is hanging by a thread financially. Where the eff else would I find the perfect mom jeans, crop tops and ass-less tights? But aside from just being a fan of its wares, I've also admired AA's models — who've often resembled a cool, confident woman you might meet at a bar, versus the lithe, runway-ready girls most clothing brands employ. 

AA's women have always been unique, representing various body shapes, races, ages and heights. Sometimes their thighs touched, sometimes they had a hint of cellulite. And when they modeled sheer clothing and lingerie, their nipples — and, occasionally, pubes — showed through. Like, you know, they do in real life, on a real person. You can argue that AA's original decision not to airbrush out, and many times, even flaunt those "private parts" was nothing but a gimmick to court controversy-seeking press — and you may be right. But I can't think of a single other online brand that doesn't Photoshop them out. 

Photo: American Apparel

Photo: American Apparel

I first noticed the strange trend of invisible nipples before I'd even grown breasts myself, flipping through my mother's Victoria's Secret catalogs. No matter how see-through those unlined bralettes were, there was nary an areola to be found. It's also how I discovered "thigh gaps." I specifically recall a photo of Heidi Klum standing knee-deep in the ocean, with a clear view through her legs to the other side of the water. She represented my pre-teen ideal: All stick-figure thighs and monotone Barbie boobs. 

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Of course, whether you're aware of it then or not, it's those images that stay with you way after the catalogs have hit the recycling bin. They're also the reason so many girls grow up wondering whether their breasts and nether regions look "normal." (If you've never worried that you might have so-called "pepperoni nipples," consider yourself lucky.)

Beyond my own personal experiences, it seems like an odd time for American Apparel to take such a conformist, pro-retouching stance — particularly considering all the many body-positive movements that've made headlines recently: There's the celeb-endorsed #FreeTheNipple campaign, more shape diversity in massive publications like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and Vogue (as well as on the runway), and a wave of influential ladies, like Cate Blanchett, Demi Lovato and Kelly Clarkson, who are openly embracing their 'imperfections.'

And yet, it was just this week that a recent casting call for new AA models was leaked, stating that "[AA] IS GOING THROUGH A REBRANDING IMAGE SO WILL BE SHOOTING MODELS MOVING FORWARD. REAL MODELS. NOT INSTAGRAM HOES OR THOTS.” (For those sub-rock dwellers, 'THOT' is less-than-flattering slang for "that hoe over there.") 

As per Animal, AA employees have revealed that the so-called "real models" the brand now wants are 5'7" or taller, predominantly Eastern European-looking and white (though American Apparel has, of course, not officially confirmed this). Reminder: This is the same company that, in summer 2013, posted an open casting called for "Transexy" transgender and transexual models. Quite a difference a year and a half can make.

Now and then. Photos: American Apparel. Composite c/o 'Animal'

Now and then. Photos: American Apparel. Composite c/o 'Animal'

American Apparel's e-commerce site currently tells a similarly bleak story. The exact same women who once unabashedly bared their bodies for the camera — nipples, hair and all — have now been photoshopped into censored, Real Doll-esque mannequins. (Actually, scratch that: even Real Dolls have nips.) What's more, most of the original, non-airbrushed product images, like the one shown above, weren't especially sexual, either. (Note: I'm referring to the product shots — not the ads.) They simply provided the shopper with an honest look at how certain clothes would look on a female human body. 

So why is AA suddenly taking this huge step backwards? In regards to a crotch-centric ad campaign released by the brand way back in 2011, former Fashionista editor Leah Chernikoff posed the question, "Can pubes save American Apparel from bankruptcy?" The answer of course, was no. Though, I'm not certain the sudden disappearance of them can turn things around at this point, either. 

Simply put, erasing body parts and shapes can't and won't erase years of questionable leadership and financial woes. But it will proliferate the unfortunate notion that female bodies, in all their beauty and uniqueness, aren't meant to be seen. To me, that's a loss far greater than that of a prude-minded potential customer, who'd rather buy her deep-Vs elsewhere than see a semi-obscured areola on her computer screen. She'll never experience, first-hand, the simple luxury of unisex tri-blend tee. I truly pity the fool. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that American Apparel had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Dov Charney has informed us that this is not the case. We apologize for the error.