Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg caused a stir in the stock photo world recently. Through her Lean In organization, Sandberg partnered with Getty Images to create a gallery of photos showing real women doing real things. Like all other stock images, this library is meant to be used by the media and anyone else who has the need for a generic visual. The goal is to change how society views beauty by changing what is seen on a day-to-day basis.
Will it work? Maybe, but the women, girls, and teenagers depicted are still glamorized — almost as if they fall into a paradox of being perfectly imperfect. One feature that may jump out at you is the subject’s “flaw,” what might bar them from a typical casting call or trait that would be glossed over digitally. However, at the end of the day, the women are just as beautiful as the images that normally bombard society. This picture shows a woman described as having long, beautiful, healthy hair — and she does. Every strand of her grey hair is shiny and indeed beautiful.
Photoshop and retouching pictures have led to a great beauty debate. Websites revel in being able to point out a digitally trimmed waist, or the overzealous digital brush that removed a limb. The fanfare created by such mistakes and enhancements has led to the use of “real women” as a marketing ploy. Again, we want that perfect-imperfect paradox. When digitally created flaws aren’t being exposed, we’re using relatable images that remain one step above reality.
This isn’t reserved for stock photos and fashion magazines. In 2004, Dove started its Campaign for Real Beauty. In January, American Eagle brand Aerie released un-retouched photos for its spring campaign. Fila has used “non-professional models ages 25 – 50” in ads for the brand’s Body Toning Collection. But are these images really fueling anything new, or do they fit into a mold previously carved out? Debating these issues is important, but so is understanding what we are discussing when we engage in the conversation. Being concerned with how an advertisement is presented — and the values attached to the picture — is a distinctly Westernized approach to marketing. It is a bias that is hard to shake, especially if it is the only one we have ever known. Dove describes its campaign as a global effort, but “global” is based on ten countries: the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Italy, France, Portugal, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, and Japan.
David Bolt, in the British Journal of Visual Impairment, pointed out another problem, particularly with Dove. It is a company that has a brand built on selling products to make women more beautiful while celebrating a woman’s natural features. It engages in this marketing idea to encourage women to purchase the company’s products.
The images on the left are all from Aerie’s Facebook page; two predate the company’s policy on not digitally enhancing photos, two do not. The second and final photos were released after the announcement, the first and third before. Aside from the second explicitly calling attention to the non-retouched nature of the picture, is there really that much difference? The models in all four still appear exactly as you would expect them to — pretty and confident with the brand’s product.
Brooke Erin Duffy discussed this “authenticity advertising” in The Communication Review. ”Real women,” she explains, is a term with no single definition — instead, it relies on social construction. When magazines and ads use these real women, the critique that what is being sold is not attainable can be dismissed. But the “real” people used still fall within the narrow parameters of what is considered proper for advertising. The rhetoric is there, but because the aim of the ad or magazine is commerce, little has changed.
As a result, the images that are truly shocking for their stark depictions of life are still missing. Take, for instance, The Under the Dress Project, a courageous initiative that aims to raise cancer awareness by showing the real scars of real people. What is depicted on its Facebook page are Beth Whaanga’s scars from breast cancer, her double mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery. In the pictures she is topless, but it was meant to show what her post-cancer body looks like to increase societal awareness. The SCAR Project, another site with images some may find controversial, has a similar goal. Fashion photographer David Jay takes pictures of young women in order to literally put a face on breast cancer.
Do fashion magazines and advertisements need to be filled with scars and images that confront difficulties head-on? Not necessarily. But, there does need to be an awareness that when “real beauty,” “authentic beauty,” and transparency in fashion and advertising is discussed, what we are talking about is narrowly defined. There are multiple groups of people who live outside this band, and their definition of a “real woman” differs from the “real woman” in the stock image, swimsuit ad, or fashion magazine.