Turn on your TV, flip through a magazine, or glance up at a billboard and you are inevitably bombarded with images of unnaturally thin, airbrushed-to-“perfection” women. It’s hard to miss the message that the media is pushing our way: thin equals beautiful. This narrow definition of beauty isn’t new—it has plagued Western society for decades and has slowly made its way into other cultures as technology has allowed for the rapid mass distribution of American media—and it brings with it potentially damaging consequences. The pressure to attain an impossible standard of beauty can result in low self-esteem, poor body image and, in a subset of individuals, can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. But there’s good news: A new wave of advertisements has emerged to engage us in a healthier, more productive, and potentially self-protective dialogue about beauty and self-esteem.
One big break in bringing positive body image, in the form of realistic body image, to the media (and by extension, the public) came with Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Founded in 2004 in response to a Dove survey reporting that less than 2% of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful, the campaign is perhaps best known for its ads featuring 6 “real women.” The pictures of these women, stripped down to their bras and underwear, smiling and laughing as they showcase their real bodies, curves and all, stood in contrast to the images we were accustomed to seeing and helped ignite a worldwide conversation about our problematic definition of beauty.
Since then, other brands have started similar initiatives. Collectively, these campaigns are important conversation changers, particularly in light of research indicating that body dissatisfaction is starting earlier and earlier, with over 80% of 10-year-old girls being afraid of becoming fat. Recently, Aerie, American Eagle’s teen lingerie line, launched a campaign specifically targeted at young women and adolescents. The #AerieReal project uses models who look much more like real teens than the typical lingerie model. The brand boasts that their photos remain airbrush-free, that “there is no reason to retouch beauty.” While the girls in these ads are models by trade, they represent a more diverse range of body types than we typically see—at least a step in the right direction.
Government sponsored public service campaigns have been slower to jump on the body- satisfaction bandwagon. However, this past fall, New York City became the first major city government to take on the issue of girls’ self-esteem with the launch of the “I’m A Girl” campaign, part of the NYC Girls Project. Hopefully, this refreshing movement is just the first of its kind. Targeted at girls ages 7-12, the campaign, which runs on buses, subways and phone kiosks, features photos of real girls overlaid with positive text such as, “I’m a girl. I’m clever, adventurous, outgoing, unique, smart and strong. I’m beautiful the way I am.” The project aims to redirect our focus from external to internal beauty and, in doing so, to boost confidence.
With social media connecting us more seamlessly than ever before, many campaigns now urge us to actively participate in the positive body image movement. For example, Dove invites us to share our own definition of beauty with the hashtag #beautyis. In response to their survey finding that approximately 50% of women retouch selfies before posting them, The Renfrew Center’s “Barefaced and Beautiful, Without and Within” Campaign (kicking off today, February 24th in conjunction with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week) encourages women to tag a makeup-free photo of themselves (without any touchups) with #barefacedbeauty on Twitter.
Taken together, the result of these campaigns is that we are seeing more “real” people in the media—people to whom we can relate, whether they are famous or not. Add in the social media initiatives, and it just might be possible for positive body image messages to travel faster and farther than ever before.
Written by Christine Call, AB