In America, few things are more quintessentially 2019 than the frequent need to question whether something is real. Is the Twitter account that wants to argue with you about politics run by a real person or a bot? Does YouTube truly encourage kids to commit suicide? Has the viral video that everyone’s talking about been doctored? Things that many people would normally take for granted now feel slightly askew.
This unsure cultural footing brings with it a certain tension. You could be fooled at any time, or you could be passed information by someone you trust who’s been fooled. This is largely a problem of technology, both of how much it permeates everything about life and of how little time everyone has had to adjust to its changes. As we go further through the looking glass, the promise of finding reality feels only more powerful.
Marketers, to their credit, sensed this nascent shift before almost everyone else, and especially as it applies to the ways women view themselves. Since the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty spawned its first viral commercial in 2006 by taking viewers through the layers of digital artifice that go into making a single ad, personal-care and clothing brands have been lining up to sell people “real” products, made for real women to achieve real beauty in their real lives. The American retailer Lane Bryant calls its rewards program “Real Women Dollars.” Earlier this week, the British plus-size clothing retailer Evans launched a model search looking for “real women” with “real bodies” to star in ads.
It’s comforting to think that who we are and how we look is some sort of true north, or at least a brandable identity with its own product line. But it also brings up a question. If only some women can be categorized as “real,” what becomes of the women outside those boundaries?
Women can’t be divided neatly into models and “real” women. By “real,” these companies usually mean a person a little bigger or darker-skinned than those in the images they or their competitors traditionally have put forth, but being a model isn’t some divine status bestowed by a higher power. According to the definitions provided by consumer brands, we’re left with two categories of acceptability: those who are young, thin, and symmetrical enough to conform so closely to conventional American beauty ideals that they make a lot of women feel bad, and “real” women who, these ad campaigns suggest, are simply the most conventionally attractive of everyone else.
While brands like Dove market on their inclusivity, they still tend to go with flat stomachs and hourglass figures when choosing their larger or disabled models. The American clothing and lingerie brand Aerie, which celebrated five years of its #AerieREAL campaign in January and has built its public name on body diversity, still doesn’t make a true plus-size line. (A representative for the brand told me that it will soon be expanding its bra line by 50 percent, including larger band and cup sizes.)
Even for the brands that market to “real” women with more sizes, the result is still pretty clear. These ads wrest the mantle of cultural approval from one subset of women and bestow it on another, a transfer of power that will hopefully be met with grateful sales dollars. In doing so, the campaigns validate one set of people as the truest to a nonsensical concept. For “real women” to be a useful idea, people have to grant that it’s possible for a person’s womanhood to be fraudulent. You can remove digital retouching, but there is no objectively correct way to depict a woman in a photo, or for a woman to present herself in real life.
In a time when the idea of gender authenticity is often used as a cudgel against the human rights of queer and trans people, drawing lines of acceptability around any portion of the female population for the purpose of selling soap or loungewear can feel especially uncomfortable. The realities of being a woman in 2019 are just as messy and varied as everything else about trying to find solid footing in this cultural era. A woman in a full face of makeup is no less real than one who never bothers to apply eyeliner, and both of those women are real whether they fall outside a brand’s size range or fall within the traditional ideals of beauty that women have now been asked to reject.
On social media, you’ll find plenty of evidence that women who buy from these brands are ready to hear something else. The actress Jameela Jamil was forced to respond to blowback for taking part in the #AerieREAL campaign in spite of the brand’s lack of plus sizes. Evans apologized and quickly changed the wording of the model call on its website in response to criticism from Danielle Vanier, a prominent plus-size woman on Twitter. (Evans did not respond to a request for comment.)
Maybe that criticism contains a way forward. Instead of shifting or expanding the confines of beauty’s definition and the women to whom it applies, what might be more useful is a reconsideration of why we insist that physical beauty is a worthy goal for all women to pursue. If womanhood weren’t predicated on appearance at all, an interest in makeup and fashion could one day be something that inspires no more guilt or anxiety than being an avid golfer. In the meantime, brands can leave the task of defining a real woman to every woman for herself.