QUICK NOTE: I wrote the bulk of this post almost a year ago, but it got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t finish it until just now. I realize the news item in question is long gone, but the points still stand.
Recently, American Eagle made some headlines by announcing that their lingerie line, Aerie, wouldn’t be using Photoshopped models in their ad campaigns. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years or are fantastically naive about what human beings look like, photographers and magazines and the like often digitally alter photos to make people thinner, fix stray hair, smooth out skin, etc. Here’s an example.
You’ll notice I used a man. People (women) seem to think that this only happens to women, and have long been very upset about what they perceive as “unrealistic standards” for women and girls to attain. No one seems to give a shit about unrealistic standards for men, but that’s not the point of this particular post.
The basic idea is that if even our most beautiful people don’t actually look like that, how can we possibly be expected to look like that? So Aerie decided to do something about it and announced that from now on, they’d only use unretouched images in their ads.
That’s not good enough for Nina Ippolito over at Mic, who posted the following headline:
Unfortunately, the resulting marketing campaign — while a tiny shuffle in the right direction — represents meager progress at best. At worst, it’s a calculated attempt to use the idea of body positivity for the sole purpose of selling teal and pink panties printed with the phrases “spring breaker” and “true love.”
I’m not sure how being the first in the industry to do something represents meager progress, especially when that something that you’re doing is literally the exact thing that everyone’s been complaining about all these years, but I’m sure she’ll get to that (because I’ve read ahead and she does). And I’m also not sure why you’re taking potshots at the products themselves for…their immaturity? Their color schemes? The fact that no one in their product design team has apparently seen Spring Breakers?
Surely you’re not taking issue with the fact that they’re trying to make a profit, because that is what businesses are for. You say “they’re exploiting the idea of body positivity to sell underwear,” I say “they’re proving that they don’t need to retouch their models to sell underwear.” Next point.
To be fair, photos from the American Eagle campaign, which can be seen above, do seem slightly less airbrushed than the majority of their retail-ad counterparts: Models’ stomachs have depth and their skin has texture. Necks and abdomens haven’t been hollowed out, thus leaving Jezebel to focus its Photoshop witch hunts elsewhere. But that’s it. While American Eagle Chief Merchandising Officer Jennifer Foyle claims that the company designed the campaign for “young women of all shapes and sizes,” it has done no such thing. Unless, since the last time I checked, all women are within a single-digit dress size or two of one another.
First of all, they’re not “slightly” less airbrushed, they’re 100% less airbrushed. Comprehensively less airbrushed. That, again, is the point.
Secondly, obviously their CMO is exaggerating when she says “all shapes and sizes,” because that’s necessary in order for your sentence to mean anything. They’re an underwear company. They have to manufacture clothing items in a variety of sizes, and each size needs its own molds or patterns or whatever, and each size and color has its own manufacturing costs, which all boils down to having to pick a certain number of size and color combinations to sell, based on whom you’re selling to. If you’re far enough outside the bell curve, you don’t get to wear those clothes. It’s the same reason that NFL receivers need custom gloves or Shaq needs custom shoes (and probably everything else he wears). It’s the reason that “big and tall” stores exist; you are an abnormally large person, you don’t get to wear clothes sized for the average person.
Which brings us back to Aerie. Artificially slim and smooth bodies are not necessarily realistic, and it’s stupid to say “you have to look like this” when the actual person in the photo doesn’t look like that. But this is different. The girls in these photos are real, and they are young and vibrant and beautiful and smiling and relatively thin and fit. That is why they were selected for this campaign. That is why they were photographed on white beds in what looks like sunlight streaming through the window (it’s not). That’s why their products are pink and teal and yellow and have flowers and other bright girly patterns. Maybe you want underwear in black with metal studs. Maybe you’re more of a Cruel Intentions type, and you want red satin and lace. Maybe you’re 50 and want something a little less revealing, or you think flowers and pastels are too childish. Maybe you’re overweight. Wear something else. This brand isn’t for you.
And therein lies the problem. All that American Eagle has managed to do is replace one archetype — the skinny-but-buxom Victoria’s Secret runway model — with another — the thin but approachable young woman with “imperfections” such as an individual mole or a small cursive tattoo.
First of all, VS models aren’t buxom. Most of them have very small breasts because they’re skinny and breasts are mostly made of fat and thus go away when you’re that skinny. They’re wearing pushup bras. That’s like Victoria’s Secret’s number one selling point: to make your boobs look bigger and better than they are.
As for this other archetype, that is who they’re selling to. I can absolutely guarantee you that somewhere in the offices of either Aerie or their advertising agency is a description of “the Aerie girl.” Not “an,” “the.” It’ll tell you her age, what magazines she reads, when she goes to the gym, what TV she watches, how many friends she has on Facebook, whether she shops at Macy’s or Kohl’s, whether she eats sushi or Chipotle, and so on and so on.
Every single brand in the world has one or a few customers that they’re specifically targeting, and the people who actually use their stuff are either very like those people or wish they were. That is how branding works.
The company could have been courageous, and could have gone all out. They could have truly, in their own words, “broken the mold,” and committed to featuring the full range of young women you’re likely to see walking across a high school hallway, university quad or city street: large women, short women, tall women, transwomen, hirsute women, women with acne and vitiligo, women with disabilities, women with different-sized breasts, women who are pregnant or have recently given birth and so on.
Sure they could have. But there are several reasons they did not. Firstly, no one wants to see that. Women like this love to blame magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair and Elle and Cosmo and so on for their unrealistic depictions of women, but those magazines are read by women, in staggering majorities. And the vast majority of the women reading them don’t look nearly as good as the people on the cover, but they like looking at them. Why didn’t they feature fat women? Because there are more people who don’t want to look at fat women than there are people who do. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with being fat, it means that if you have to pick three people to feature in your catalog in order to sell clothes, you’re not going to pick a fat one. That’s why there’s no one with rampant acne or vitiligo either, or in a wheelchair.
Again: the point of this is that you can take beautiful pictures of beautiful girls without retouching them. This does not mean that everyone is beautiful. They’re not. The only reason that it’s even possible to feel “pressure” to conform to a certain standard of beauty is that most people broadly agree on what’s beautiful. Acne is not. Neither is vitiligo. Neither are hairy women, physically disabled women, or fat women, and that’s why they’re not on the cover of this campaign. Obviously there are exceptions to all these things, and the tastes of “beauty” among different people are enormously variegated, and none of this is relevant to the discussion of whether it’s important to be beautiful. This is about selling clothes, and the number of girls between 15 and 25 who wish they had a mustache or an Adam’s apple or were missing the use of their legs is much smaller than the number who want to look like the ones in the pictures above.
They could have abandoned detrimental talk about “imperfections,” or what constitutes “real” when it comes to curves. At the very least, American Eagle could have included women who come in the same sizes as the clothing they sell; their range, after all, goes up to XXL. They could even have included just one woman with short hair.
Jesus fucking Christ. If your self-image is so goddamn fragile that even the idea that there is such a thing as an imperfection is hurtful, then you are the problem. And I’m all-but convinced that that’s the case. Do you know what acne is? It’s an infected hair follicle. It is literally a tiny abscess — a pocket of pus and dead skin cells and oil — under your skin. That is about as clear a definition of “imperfection” as it’s possible to get. Vitiligo is when patches of your skin stop producing pigment, resulting in lighter blotches. Is is still possible to be beautiful with vitiligo? Absolutely. Is it an imperfection nonetheless? YES. It is caused when melanocytes — melanin-producing cells — die. And if a major component of your skin is dead, your skin is not perfect. Get over it.
What this all comes back to is that there is an increasingly pervasive idea that every young girl is beautiful and perfect and delightful just the way she is, which not not just stupid, but damaging. Let me make this clear: beauty should not be your main priority. Speaking from my own life experience and from living in a college town, it is far easier to find pretty people who are either too stupid or too boring to talk to than it is to find average-looking people who are interesting.
You cannot simultaneously say that it’s not important to be beautiful and then go through such preposterous mental gymnastics to say that everyone is beautiful. If beauty doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter that you’re not beautiful. Maybe some people are “beautiful on the inside” or have a “beautiful personality” or some other thing you’ve made up so that you can apply the word “beauty” to every woman under the sun, but that’s not what the word “beauty” means. We have other words for that. Like “nice” and “sweet” and “charming” and that kind of thing.
Beauty, by its very definition, is superficial. It is also mostly subjective. It is therefore not something you should be placing so much goddamn importance upon.
Dove and Pantene and American Eagle are welcome to keep pandering to young women through individual ad campaigns like the one above, even if they look increasingly cynical for doing so. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here shopping at stores that actually carry my bra size and underwear that aren’t pink
FUCKING GOOD FOR YOU. You need to get it out of your head that all brands care what you think all the time. They don’t. For example, I find Mercedes’ TV ads, without exception, to be unbearably pretentious. They actually make me want a Mercedes a lot less than if I were doing an objective comparison of cars based on their merits as motor vehicles. And if I were to tell this to Mercedes’ chief marketing officer, he would give not one Lilliputian morsel of a fuck because I cannot afford a Mercedes. Mercedes’ ads are not for me.
By the same token, this underwear is not for you. It is for girls who either A) look like the girls in the photos or B) want to look like that. That’s it. You’re not in that category. Move along.
Which brings me to my final point: your headline. “This isn’t what girls really look like.” Presumably you’re a smart person with thoughts and feelings. I mean you’re offended by the very idea that not all skin is perfect, which is such a fundamentally self-evident truth that being offended by it is like being offended by the idea that some people are taller than others. What I don’t understand is how a smart person with thoughts and feelings, seemingly so concerned about the delicate psyches of young women who will apparently be devastated by the cynical pandering of these campaigns, could say something so unbelievably ignorant and insulting.
This isn’t what girls really look like? THESE ARE REAL GIRLS. THIS IS WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. What, did you think they were imaginary? Did you think they were the world’s most photorealistic Pixar characters? Do you think that all women aged 15-25 have acne and boils and stretch marks and whatever other flaws you’re mad at these women for not having? Well bad news: they don’t. There are a huge number of women with bodies and skin and smiles like these. Millions of them. Here’s one right here:
Cracked put up an article not 48 hours ago entitled “5 Reasons We’re In The Middle Of An Anti-Photoshop Panic,” and item 3 says that “models aren’t ‘real women’ in the first place,” which is not only deeply insulting to models but makes no mention of the very attractive non-models that exist in the world. Are they real? What does a girl have to do to be considered “real”? I’d have thought that mere existence would be enough, but apparently I’m mistaken.
Case in point: the girl in that picture is not a model, she’s a normal person, and she is gorgeous. That is what she looks like. There’s no retouching going on there except Instagram. She probably also has to work really goddamn hard to continue looking like that. She, unlike me, does not eat an entire box of mac and cheese in one sitting. She’s probably in the gym five days a week. And she is not an outlier.
These people are everywhere, going about their daily lives, and you are saying that they’re not real girls because you’re so pathetically insecure about the existence of people who are more attractive than you that you have to LITERALLY PRETEND THEY DON’T EXIST in order to make yourself feel better. And by doing so, you are discounting all the people, men and women alike, who prioritize their own physical appearance and are willing to put in the time and effort and make the sacrifices to maintain it.
The sheer pettiness is immediately apparent in the Cracked article. Amanda Mannen, the author of the article, is presumably a woman. I don’t know what she looks like, and I don’t care. It’s actually not that important whether she’s a woman or not. What is important is that her approach to “models aren’t real women” was to immediately tear down several examples of naturally attractive women because SHE, THE AUTHOR, DOESN’T LOOK LIKE THEM. She complains that she doesn’t look like Dove’s “Real Beauty” models or Modcloth’s “Real Women” or Aeire’s un-retouched lingerie models.
I’ll give you a hypothetical. Imagine I, an amateur writer, were reading the New York Times and read an article that was beautifully written. In the author’s bio, I see that he/she has an advanced degree from an Ivy League school, a Ph.D, and a Pulitzer. I wouldn’t dream of accusing the magazine of setting an “unrealistic standard” for writing for an average Joe like myself, just because I’ll never write as well as the professionals at the NYT and National Geographic and the other big-name publications. It would never cross my mind to say that these writers aren’t “real” because they’re paid to be good writers, or to insist that the magazine feature shitty writing, with misspellings and run-on sentences and smaller words, to better represent “real,” average, everyday schlubs like me.
Do you know why? Because if any part of your identity — any aspect of yourself that you value — is reliant on the idea that you are in the upper echelon of what you do, you are going to be disappointed your entire life. You may love running or writing or drawing or yoga or cooking, and most of you are probably fine with the idea that you are nowhere near the best in the world (or even your city) at those things. But dare to suggest to an average-looking woman that there are other women who, without the use of digital trickery, are much prettier than them? Blasphemy.
Here’s my final example:
On the left is a girl from the Aerie campaign. On the right is a photo that I took. I have done nothing at all to that photo. No color correction or contrast. No artificial lighting. No retouching to make her teeth whiter or her skin clearer or her hair shinier or her eyes sparklier. She’s not even wearing makeup, and I know that because she got out of the shower like five minutes before this picture was taken. She’s not a model, she’s a server at a brewery near where I live. She’s only in the photo shoot because she’s friends with a girl I work with and we needed someone to stand in so we could test the natural light through the windows at a location we had our eye on. She’s not a professional, I’m not a professional, and the photo hasn’t been altered in any way, and she’s still just as pretty as the girl in that ad.
These people are real. You must make your peace with that.
If you don’t like the products Aerie makes, that’s fine. Shop at Target or the Dollar Store or Goodwill or even Fascinations; I don’t give a shit. If you don’t like that lots of already attractive models are photoshopped into even-more-idealized versions of themselves, that’s fine too. Aerie isn’t doing that any more.
But if you don’t like that there exist young, vivacious women with beautiful faces and clear skin who appear in magazines and catalogs and make you feel bad about your own body, that’s your problem. Just because their existence upsets you does not give you the right to tear down their effort or looks to make yourself feel better. Stop it.