Kim Kardashian West chose Alice Marie Johnson alongside many other nontraditional models of all ages and sizes to model her new SKIMS shapewear line, and surprisingly, many aren’t happy about it.
After featuring Johnson in a short Skims video advertisement on social media, Kardashian West was hit with harsh press attention from a variety of news outlets and Twitter users. The critical press is ill-conceived and fails to recognize Johnson’s autonomy as a free and consenting adult, a position that’s still fairly new to her, as she was released from prison just over a year ago.
The media should be celebrating Kardashian West’s choice to feature Johnson as a win for feminism and criminal justice advocacy alike. The advertisement brings awareness to Johnson’s awful story of imprisonment and the downfalls of the U.S. justice system, while showing that the clothing line is meant for women of all ages, shapes, and sizes.
In 2018, Kardashian West worked with President Trump to help free Johnson from federal prison in Alabama. Johnson was incarcerated for her involvement in a cocaine conspiracy in 1996. After being sentenced to life in prison, she sat there for more than 20 years for a crime that, on its own, is nonviolent. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t serious.
Johnson worked as a middleman communicator to help facilitate multimillion-dollar transactions selling and transporting cocaine. Johnson fully admits to making “a series of bad decisions” that resulted in her “desperate (and illegal) attempt to make money” through drug trafficking. Because of the extent of her involvement, some even argue she didn’t deserve presidential clemency. Kardashian West is not one of those people.
The Media Attacks Johnson and Kardashian West
After Kardashian West heard about Johnson’s case, she worked to free the grandmother from unnecessary incarceration, sparking a strong relationship with Johnson throughout the fight for her freedom. Yes, Johnson was involved in a large drug operation, but Kardashian West, as well as many others who empathized with Johnson, did not believe she should be locked up for the rest of her life for her crimes.
Johnson highlights her powerful story in the Skims advertisement, telling viewers that the brand makes her feel free in a new way, free to wear whatever she wants. A play on words, sure, but how is getting paid to tell her story while advertising a clothing brand a bad thing? One USA Today headline reads “Ex-prisoner Alice Marie Johnson is hawking Kim Kardashian West’s SKIMS shapewear line.” The use of the word “hawking” is inappropriate, and portrays Johnson as an aggressive hunter looking to do something devious, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the Daily Beast, Alaina Demopoulos writes that “Halloween must have come early” because “the Skims team dressed Johnson up as a PR prop, touting a woman who should be celebrating her deserved, tortuously earned clemency.” This is yet another awful characterization of the advertisement, and shameful, at best.
The article portrays Johnson as a victim of exploitation but fails to mention that Johnson is a grown woman who clearly consented to being a part of this project — and was likely amply compensated. From a quick look at Johnson’s Twitter page, it’s clear she’s excited about it too. Claiming Kardashian West is merely using her as a “PR prop” is humiliating.
America’s Criminal Justice System Is Broken
If anything, putting the spotlight on Johnson through a clothing line advertisement is giving much needed attention to her egregious case. It’s a genius way to spark interest in her story of injustice with a crowd beyond the typical political buffs and criminal justice reform advocates. That’s important because, while Johnson’s case was awful, it isn’t uncommon in the United States.
On any given day, 451,000 nonviolent drug offenders are locked up at the local, state, or federal level, and many people don’t realize it. Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem: More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, making America the number one jailer in the world.
To highlight a more specific problem among these statistics, many incarcerated people haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet. In local jails, for example, 70 percent of people are not convicted of any crime. The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that out of the 745,200 inmates held in city and county jails in midyear 2017, 482,000 were unconvicted. This is due in part to reliance on a cash bail system that punishes the poor with jail time while the wealthy can afford to buy their way out — even when accused of the same crime.
For most people, facts and statistics simply won’t run the message home, but people like Johnson sharing their personal stories filled with empathy and emotion can accomplish just this. The American criminal justice system fails thousands of people, and that won’t change until Americans start paying attention through stories such as Johnson’s.
Kardashian West Perfectly Chose An Imperfect Model
Women have long felt the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards portrayed by clothing companies and their use of young and thin models with perfect skin and hair. Kardashian West can afford to hire any model that fits this image, but her choice to work with many nontraditional models such as Johnson shows that our society — with Kardashian West leading the way in pop culture — has moved past the need for absolute perfection in advertising.
Our culture is shifting, becoming more accepting of women with varying body types, and Kardashian West isn’t backing away from this national trend with her new apparel. She certainly isn’t the first one to use nontraditional models in advertising, but as a popular public figure with millions of followers on social media, her embrace of nontraditional models will have a strong effect.
It’s true that she and her family are known for plastic surgery galore, but Kardashian West chose to shift the focus from herself and others with the typical “model body” to a more realistic standard of someone who hasn’t been touched by plastic surgery — a real person who has a compelling story to share with the world.
Ultimately, Kardashian West is trying to successfully market her brand to potential customers. But her unique way of doing so is a positive move for criminal justice reform, while showing the world that real women can overcome issues and be confidently beautiful while doing so.