From moment we play with our first Barbie doll, watch an action film or see an glossy advertisement on a billboard, we receive decisive instructions on how to be attractive. Jean Kilbourne, in her documentary series Killing Us Softly, offers powerful insights into how women are portrayed in the media. The “media” – that is, advertising in television, magazines, newspapers, billboards – has grown to become a 180 billion dollar industry. Kilbourne notes, obviously, that the media sells us things; it sells us products, yes, but it also sells us particular values, images, concepts of love and sex, and conceptions about normalcy. It “tells us who we are and who we should be.” It tells women that what is most valuable about them is how they look; women depicted in advertising often send other women and girls the message that they should spend more time, more effort, and crucially more money, to fit a particular standard that can make them, too, more beautiful and ‘acceptable.’ The problem is, this standard is as illusive as it is glorified. Indeed, it is a true rarity to see a woman whose image has not been retouched or Photoshopped. And yet, girls are hurting trying to meet these ideals. Increased exposure to advertising combined with the media’s relentless emphasis on physical perfection hints at why eating disorder incidence rates have increased dramatically in the past two decades.
This being said, many companies have recently made substantial efforts to combat the psychological fallout from striving to live up to these unrealistic standards. Other companies who have openly endorsed the “beauty myth” have recently come under attack. In 2013, popular clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire when Business Insider included the company in an article about companies that do not make clothing for heavier women. In fact, A&F does not sell clothes above a size 10 for women, and does not include XL or XXL sizes for women (but they do for men). When asked about this issue, CEO Mike Jeffries told people, “we go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong [in the clothes], and they can’t belong.” Hearteningly, there was a significant amount of backlash to this extremely limited definition of “cool” – really, there’s nothing cool about it.
Some positive examples in the media include any-body.org, a website dedicated to body activism and general articles about women and girls’ issues in the modern world. Some actresses in the public eye like Kate Winslet and Jennifer Lawrence, for example, have spoken out about being proud of their bodies and have taken a stand against the ‘Photoshopping’ culture in the mass media. Lena Dunham, who is sometimes criticized for her risqué nude scenes on the popular TV show Girls, has stated that her choice is intentional and motivated by her realization that, “what was lacking in videos with me was the presence of bodies I recognized.” In order to combat dangerous ideals of perfection and negative body images the mass media needs to portray more recognizable bodies, which also happen to be beautiful in all different shapes, colors, and sizes. Some mainstream companies like the ones on this list are striving to help women re-imagine ideal beauty and see themselves as beautiful.
5. Debenhams’ Size 16 Mannequins
Debenhams Department Store is a multinational retail chain with over 170 stores in the UK, Ireland, and Denmark. Recently, the chain launched size 16 mannequins in their department stores; these are intended to represent the size of the average woman in Britain, as opposed to the more traditional tiny figures which are less true to the average-sized woman in the UK. This change comes two months after politician and Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson called for fashion stores to represent a more diverse image of women, saying that the industry often makes it seem “as if there’s only one way of being beautiful.”
Most stores in Britain use size 8 mannequins (which is a size 4 in the US), even though the average British woman is about a size 16 (a US size 12). Debenhams, however, found that the shoppers are three times more likely to buy an item if it is displayed on a mannequin with their body shape. Swinson also stated, “many customers want to see more realistic images [of women] in magazines, TV and on the high street, and having mannequins that reflect and celebrate our diverse society is one way of helping to achieve this.” While other retailers have been slower to adopt this standard, certainly this marketing move is a significant step for positive body image representations in the fashion industry.
4. Girl Scouts’ Body Positive Campaign
In November, Healthy Media Commission co-chairs joined the Girl Scouts of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the Creative Coalition to publicize The Report and Recommendations of the Healthy Media Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls. The campaign takes on the issue of women’s image in the modern media and in the commission’s official recommendation, they stress the importance of increasing the representation of healthy bodies and body image, as well as positive roles for women and girls of all cultures.
In 2011 the Scouts released a PSA entitled “Watch What You Watch,” which won the prestigious Gracie Award for Outstanding Public Service Announcement. WWYW is particularly valuable because it emphasizes the importance of media literacy and addresses the role this awareness can play in public education and career exploration. Girl Scouts also released a PSA called “Changing the Face of Fashion,” which deals with media images and how they affect young girls, especially with regard to eating disorders and negative body image. The final line summarizes its intent well: “it’s our differences that make us beautiful.”
3. H&M’s Plus Size Models
Recently, H&M hired their first plus-size swimsuit model, Jennie Runk, for their 2013 swimwear catalogue. This choice is an industry anomaly, since usually plus size models are segregated from the principal ad campaign. Runk won more attention when, in multiple interviews, she divulged that she chose to gain weight rather than lose it in order to be a plus size model. She has spoken out about the modeling industry and its limitations regarding the shapes, sizes, and types of women who are considered beautiful. She’s ascending quickly in the running for “new face of healthy American beauty.”
Jennie’s presence in H&M’s campaign has certainly sparked a lot of conversation. In fact, H&M has come under significant attack in certain cases, since many of the models in their ‘plus size’ catalogue collections fall far below the so-called plus size qualifier of a size 14. Controversy still exists about whether the term “plus size” should even be used, or if all models should just be considered what they are: models. Women. These issues will undoubtedly continue to be contentious but this campaign has sparked a very significant conversation.
2. American Eagle Aerie’s Real Campaign
Aerie is a lingerie and apparel line, known as the “sister brand” of American Eagle Outfitters. Aerie Real recently wrote its customers a letter explaining the premise of their new campaign for real beauty: “we think it’s time for a change. We think it’s time to get real and think real… This means no more retouching our girls and no more supermodels. Why? Because there is no reason to retouch beauty. We think the real you is sexy.” Although some have pointed out the fact that the new models Aerie uses are still thin and classically beautiful regardless of Photoshop, this campaign is a definite step in the right direction. There have also been changes to the Aerie website; models for different sizes of bras and underwear actually are the sizes advertised, and they all look fantastic. This stands in stark contrast to, say, Victoria’s Secret, where the models – who are already attractive by any standard – have been retouched and do not offer any shape or size diversity. Aerie’s body-positive marketing choices will hopefully inspire more companies to follow suit in the near future!
1. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty first launched in 2004, aimed at starting a global conversation about the need for a broader definition of female beauty as it is represented in popular culture. At the time, Dove conducted a number of studies, one of which yielded the shocking result that only 2% of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful. In 2010, Dove added to its efforts by creating the Dove Movement for Self-Esteem. Through various advertising campaigns and inspirational programs, Dove has reached over 7 million girls so far with these sorts of programs, and has a global goal of reaching 15 million girls by 2015. Recently, Dove conducted an experiment called “real beauty sketches” – women described themselves for a sketch artist, and compared that sketch with one described by another person who had looked at them. The discrepancy between the two images is telling; the overall message of the piece, “you are more beautiful than you think.”