Is fashion approaching a turning point in showcasing ‘real’, diverse bodies?


Elizabeth Olson

Attempts to move away from airbrushing in advertising have ebbed and flowed over the last decade, but at a time when even Barbie now comes in petite, tall and curvy, more retailers are turning to authentic-looking women to market their products.

One of them is Aerie, the intimate-apparel brand owned by American Eagle Outfitters, which features women of varying body types in its marketing campaigns to promote a positive body image. To underscore the point, the company will begin a social media campaign this week to support the National Eating Disorders Association.

This is the second year Aerie has devised ads to highlight the association’s eating disorders week. The current ads, featuring an average-size model, are aimed at the brand’s target customers – women between ages 15 to 25 – and are intended to heighten awareness of the perils of bulimia and other eating disorders.

The ‘Strong, Beautiful, Me’ campaign, which appears on Instagram and other social media, is not the only instance of a company’s trying to promote a positive body image among women.

David’s Bridal, one of the country’s largest wedding gown retailers, cast Mercy Watson, a size 14 model – its average customer size – in its spring bridal season ad campaign. Christian Louboutin, famous for its red-soled shoes, recently hired a plus-size model for the first time in its two-decade history, to be the face of a social media campaign for a new lipstick. This year, for the first time, Sports Illustrated put a plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover of its annual swimsuit issue. The 28-year-old Graham appeared earlier in a Lane Bryant commercial advertising its lingerie for larger women.

Yet those instances remain the exception, more than a decade after Dove, the beauty products company owned by Unilever, announced that it was upending conventional female advertising images with its “real beauty” campaign. In that campaign, Dove presented six underwear-clad women with different body types, to stand for women as they really are rather than as the perfectly proportioned specimens that many people might like them to be.

Even as Dove promoted its effort to showcase everyday women, it was criticised because its ads for another brand, Axe, showed beautiful, slender women swooning over men who used the line’s toiletries.

Other companies, including Nike and H&M, also introduced advertising in the early and mid-2000s with women who did not look like stereotypical models. But after that splash of realism, subsequent years saw only a smattering of the same.

“YouTube, selfies and everyone being a media creator are helping to change what we see,” said Michelle R. Nelson, a professor of advertising at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “At the same time, we want to see people who are like us, but maybe the idealised version of ourselves.”

Such divided views show up in market research. In a 2008 study, researchers at Villanova University and the College of New Jersey found that glamorised ads made young women feel more negative about their sexual attractiveness, weight and physical condition. Even so, study participants said they liked the ads and were more likely to buy apparel featured in those ads than items shown in ads with typically proportioned women.

Research from the University of Sussex in England, published in 2004 in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, found that ultrathin models made women feel worse about how they looked, but that women were not more likely to buy products from companies whose ads featured those models.

Aerie adopted the natural body approach in 2014, with its #AerieReal ads that featured models of various sizes, shapes and skin colours, and did not airbrush beauty marks, scars or tattoos. Aerie, with sales of about $340 million in 2015, is vying with the lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret for a bigger share of the lucrative market in sleepwear, swimwear and underwear. The line, which is sold in American Eagle Outfitters and stand-alone stores and on its e-commerce site, is relying on its healthy, positive role model approach to attract young women.

“Real and unretouched models are the core of our brand DNA,” said Jennifer M. Foyle, Aerie’s global brand president, who said traffic is up as customers embrace the idea of women models whose appearance is not altered.

The ‘Strong, Beautiful, Me’ campaign will donate all proceeds from the sales of a limited edition T-shirt, available only online, to education about and treatment for eating disorders. Customers who donate to the cause in Aerie stores will be given a bracelet.

The ads feature British-born model Iskra Lawrence, 25, a spokeswoman for the eating disorders association, which organises more than 65 walks annually to increase awareness and raise funds for education programs.

“As a curvy woman, I know young women are constantly being told that they’re not good enough,” Lawrence said, “but we’re trying to change that mindset.”

The New York Times


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