Interrogating Real Beauty


What does the term ‘real beauty’ mean to you? Maybe you’ve seen it splashed around on posters or used in advertising campaigns. The term appears benevolent at first. It seems like a welcome relief from the barrage of homogenous images that feature the same toned, tanned blonde. Not to knock that archetype, some of my best friends are blondes. Even though real beauty and the campaigns that surround that term appear to be benevolent, it’s anything but. Real beauty is an ideological net that often refers to cis, able-bodied, straight, white women. Even though campaigns try to enforce their idea of variety by including women who don’t fall into the model stereotype, they often play into a very narrow realm outside of that idea.

Michayla Cauglhin, Maddie Hofford and I worked together on a project that aimed to shine some light on this hypocrisy. Women’s bodies are often likened to fruit, so we decided to use anthropomorphized fruit instead of human faces. We had originally planned to use models who fell outside of heteronormative, white, able-bodied matrix of domination but we didn’t want to impose our own ideas of beauty onto anyone else, that would further the hypocrisy that we aim to highlight in the first place. One consumes fruit much in the same way that one consumes images. The idea of a real woman with real beauty is still a consumable product. Just ask Dove and Aerie.

Kathie Lee and Holda

Projects such as “No Makeup Monday” aim to play into that hetero-dude classic: “but you don’t need makeup, you’re beautiful just the way you are”. No Makeup Monday claims to address restrictive standards of beauty and empower women. However, this is just a bait-and-switch. One ideal is replaced with another. This campaign still places importance on beauty as a valuable notion. You still have to be pretty, but good God – don’t put any effort into it. You’re vain or insecure if you do that. The assumption is that women, and women alone, use makeup to cover up any perceived flaws. This assumption is condescending and ignores the fact that everybody on the gender spectrum uses makeup. Some people apply makeup because it makes them feel more like the selves they want the world to see. Some people apply makeup because they like it.

A woman lying in green and blue lingere for the #aeriereal campaign

Even the recent Aerie “Real You” campaign is problematic. Sure, it’s an un-retouched ass. It’s still a slim, white girl’s ass no matter how you slice it. The letter from head office claims that they find “the real you sexy”. All of the women in the photos are the acceptable sort of curvy that you’d expect to find in similar advertisement. For corporate body acceptance movements – there’s still a right way to be fat. The claim that real women have curves still implies that there is a correct way to be female or feminine. Women who possess bodies on either side of this ideal get tossed aside in favor of the sexually appealing hourglass figure that you’ll find in advertisements trumpeting real women.

Furthermore, these ads don’t address women who were assigned male at birth. Their notion of femininity is essentialist and rooted in old-fashioned notions of gender and sex. Activist Janet Mock described it best when she said: “There’s not one way to be a woman. Trans women share issues with non-trans women yet also face unique issues that only other trans women will understand on an intimate level”. Read more here.

Natalie Drue holding up the sign "F*ck fascist beauty standards, fat is not a bad word"

We don’t want to be preachy or burn the body acceptance movement to the ground. We’re all for people accepting themselves through their bodies and the practices that reify identity. We just don’t want real personal activism to get trampled by voices that pretend to be on their side. Check out this post on Rookie and explore some of the wonderful work done by women who dare to live outside the boundaries of what their “real self” should look like.

One thought on “Interrogating Real Beauty

  1. As one who has spent thirty years evolving from a playboy-gazer into an actual man, I have to ask this question: isn’t part of the problem with this that we’re talking about two-dimensional print ad campaigns? Personally I find brainiacs dead sexy, regardless of age, look, or gender. But that’s a much harder concept to adjudicate with only a three-second glance through a magazine.

    There’s a similar problem in dating. I may or may not be smart, nice, and interesting, but I’m easily dismissed in the dating pool as out-of-date, lopsided, and style-less.

    I think the problem is one of attention span; today’s culture wants to classify as soon as possible so we know how to relate. Why should he write in his diary about what he loves about her, when he can just tweet to his friends?

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