Why American Apparel's Period Power T-shirt is a useful controversy

The Week
Don't scoff: The retailer wants to be a voice for female power and sexuality.
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Don't scoff: The retailer wants to be a voice for female power and sexuality.

For once, people are talking about American Apparel's clothes rather than its borderline pornographic advertisements and its numerous lawsuits. Of course, if anything can change the conversation back to fashion, it's a T-shirt of a menstruating, masturbating vagina.

While American Apparel has never shied away from controversy, including ads that depict Latino farmers as accessories and feature topless women, rarely are their basic T-shirts and spandex the subject.

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Enter the Period Power Washed Tee T-shirt. For just $32 you can get your hands on a white T-shirt featuring the crotch of a woman masturbating while on her period.

The tee is certainly not for the faint of heart. And it's already received its fair share of backlash on Twitter, from people assuming it was a spoof to full-on repulsion. One man tweeted, "Sorry American Apparel, but your Period Power T-shirt is disgusting. Imagine the male T-shirt. Not pretty is it?"

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Amelia McDonald-Perry at The Frisky, a feminist site, wrote, "I'm all for embracing the awesome power of one's moon cycle, but I still think I'm gonna pass."

However, while major pearl-clutching has ensued, American Apparel deserves at least some praise. For once, the clothing company may actually be using controversy for good. Half of the profits from the Period Power shirt go to The Arduous, a female art collective led by the shirt's designer, 20-year-old Petra Collins.

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And even without its philanthropic angle, the Period Power shirt forces people to confront their discomfort with female sexuality, albeit in a rather abrasive way. Collins told TIME:

I decided to put a super-taboo topic right on a T-shirt to make it viewable for everyone. 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.

Despite Collins' good intentions, Period Power may be a tough sell among even those that sympathize with her goals. As Tracie Egan Morrisey at Jezebel wrote, "It seems like a cool project. But the question remains: Where the fuck would one wear a masturbating vagina shirt?"

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Still, American Apparel earns credit for actually creating thoughtful dialogue with its fashion, instead of relying on its suggestive ads to get people talking. Such a progressive depiction of the female body and sexuality almost makes up for the company's routine objectification of women. Emphasis on almost.

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