aerie Real Campaign: Body Positive or Body Shaming?

aerie Real Campaign Promise

Body image is such a widely controversial and highly talked about topic in today’s society. We formulate stereotypes and judgmental assumptions based on appearances, acting as if looks are all that matters. We become envious of the models that are featured in fashion advertisements and shame ourselves for not having that “supermodel body”. Body image is so difficult to talk about in our society, and it’s almost impossible to say something regarding appearance without it at least slightly offending someone. This is because we as a society are so hung up on looks; we have this ideal in our minds of the “perfect body”, and if we or another individual fail to meet those standards we look down upon them or even ourselves. In a sort of twisted way, it’s almost as if we’re taught that we need to look a certain way; that someone’s pretty because they look like this, and someone else isn’t pretty because they don’t fit that sketch that’s been etched into our brain. If you truly think about it, what even makes someone attractive? What is it about certain people that we find good looking?

Flat stomachs. Thigh gaps. Tall and thin, but not too tall. No rolls, curves, or fat. Defined cheekbones, lips that are full but not too big. Stretchmarks, tattoos, or birthmarks? Better cover them. This is the standard that women are held to in today’s society. This is what’s considered “beautiful” and it influences the way women perceive their own image while glancing at their reflection in the mirror. The reason for this? It’s because this is what we see in the media, and we all know that social media is an extremely influential part of our lives today. Women shame their own bodies because they don’t fit this mold that society has deemed as “beautiful”. And what’s even more sad is that those society determined “beautiful” women are the kinds of women that fashion companies use in their advertisements- this is what’s supposedly “perfect” and “beautiful” and “stunning”. But the truth is that 0 isn’t the only size that exists. There are women ranging from size 0 to size 14, and an entire range of what’s considered “plus sizes” even above that. Thin, size 0 supermodels exclusively model for apparel and cosmetic and beauty companies, and not including bigger sizes in campaigns and almost acting as if they cease to exist has become the norm in this industry.

Fashion advertisements today are sprinkled with these size 0 supermodels all representing what has become known as society’s standard of “beauty”. What each brand is marketing through their ad campaigns differs from one another, but the models remain consistent throughout each and every photo. Women’s apparel companies strive to create advertisements that are stunning and flawless and beautiful; but what about creating something that doesn’t hold women to an unrealistic standard? American Eagle Outfitters’ lingerie and intimate apparel line, aerie, has done just that. With the launch of their 2014 aerie Real campaign, the company has shocked the fashion industry through their unretouched photos of models of various sizes. This campaign is aimed at promoting body positivity and loving the “real you”; aerie wants their customers to believe that “the real you is sexy”.

What started as an idea that took the lingerie world by storm, the aerie Real campaign has evolved into something much more than just an advertisement. Two years ago, the brand promised to stop using Photoshop and supermodels in their photos with the launch of their 2014 Spring Collection; today, the brand has stayed true to this promise and has developed this passion for change even further. The aerie website now features a fit guide where shoppers can view a product on models of various sizes, in order to envision which size will be the best fit for them (check out aerie’s blog post about that fit guide here). The campaign has since been extended to their swimwear line, featuring various sized models posing on the beach with captions preaching things like “There is no perfect beach body”. Well-known names like Emma Roberts and Iskra Lawrence have also been brought on to the body-positive campaign. Iskra Lawrence, a curvy model who was previously told that she couldn’t model because of her size, is also an ambassador for the National Eating Disorder Association- a group with which aerie is now partnered with, as well.

The initial launch of the campaign was accepted with open arms and praised endlessly. Social media spread the photos and body-positive captions like wildfire, and customers were fueling the flames with their appreciative comments. Unretouched photos of models with “imperfections”- according to society’s beauty standards- such as curves and tattoos and stretch marks are never seen in the lingerie industry, and aerie was immediately praised for its fresh, new and inspiring idea. Customers reached out to the company to inform them that they were ditching their most beloved lingerie brands to purchase bras from aerie’s spring collection, and sales for the company went up a total of 9% that spring. The world was excited to finally have something “real”; something that customers could relate to when shopping the brand, and something other than the played out thin supermodels that the big lingerie brands like Victoria’s Secret are notorious for. But everything that goes up, must eventually come down- and once negativity began crawling into the conversation, everyone was wondering just how much good aerie had actually accomplished.

Yes, aerie has done an amazing thing in defying this norm and breaking out of this structured shell. But the question remains: have they done it successfully? According to an article titled “Why aerie’s ‘Body Positive’ Campaign Isn’t”, they haven’t. The question that critic Cora Harrington has posed here is if aerie is “simply doing what everyone else is…only with better marketing”, and this is definitely something to think about. While the brand did create a great campaign, they are still doing what every other fashion brand is doing by using flawless, traditional models. Photoshop isn’t necessarily needed because these women are still professional models who have joined this career track because of their looks. Simply adding a body-positive caption to an advertisement photo doesn’t change the fact that the women being featured are still not “real women”- they’re professional models who are paid to look pretty. If aerie wanted to use “real women”, they should’ve picked everyday people, such as their customers or their employees, people who aren’t professional models and don’t have an affiliation with society’s beauty standards. No matter what size the model is, if she is a professional model, she has been accepted as beautiful by society’s standards, and that’s not promoting realness- it’s just promoting the fact that there are models other than the size 0 supermodels we usually see in lingerie campaigns.

Take the two pictures above- one is from aerie’s campaign, and the other is from a Victoria’s Secret photoshoot. Both feature thin, dark haired models with perfect smiles etched on their faces and relatively no flaws. If I asked you to decide which photo was aerie, and which was Victoria’s Secret, would you be able to?

So aerie claims that they’re doing something different with their campaign; that they’re promoting “realness” and defying the beauty standards of society. But don’t these two photos look basically the same? The models are extremely similar, and if I didn’t know anything in particular about either company’s style or models, I would even have a hard time deciding which photo was promoting which brand. There’s nothing diverse about using models who look exactly like the models that fit the mold that you’re trying to break, and I don’t think aerie did their research well when casting models for this campaign. Auditions were held to hire models for this campaign, and the company claimed that they wanted to select models that didn’t look like the traditional lingerie models. But the two photos above reveal that aerie really didn’t choose carefully enough, considering the fact that the models selected to be “aerie real” look surprisingly similar to a Victoria’s Secret supermodel; and if you refer to Figure 1, didn’t aerie promise their customers “no more supermodels”? What they’re doing is simply stating that they’re promoting “realness” and breaking the status quo, but they’re failing to actually do it in a well thought out or effective manner.

(If you’re still wondering, the picture on the left is from aerie’s campaign, and the one on the right is Victoria’s Secret.)

Furthermore, along with using conventionally thin and practically perfect models, aerie has shown no diversity in terms of race and ethnicity in their campaign. Many of the photographs feature white, Caucasian models- there are only two photos from the campaign that show models of a slightly darker skin color, one of which is shown below. It’s almost as if aerie forgot to mention that other skin colors exist, just like they forgot to include heavier sized models in their campaign. There are real women ranging from African to Asian descent, and multiple ethnicities in between. aerie failed to shed light on the diversity of our world and in doing so singled out ethnicities not included in their campaign as not being “real women”. If they really wanted to promote realness, they should’ve created a campaign that featured women of multiple sizes and colors.

This model has the darkest skin tone of all the aerie Real models that were chosen for the campaign. Personally, I know women with a much darker skin tone than this, and I consider them “real”.

A prime example of aerie’s error in not being diverse enough with their campaign is their selection of actress Emma Roberts as an “aerie Real girl”. Emma Roberts is a thin, in-shape, Caucasian celebrity. Her photos for aerie Real are seemingly perfect and beautiful and look extremely similar to the other fashion campaigns that aerie is attempting to change the stigma around. How can you defy society’s beauty standards if you cast a woman who is a professional actress, educated and former spokesperson for multiple beauty and cosmetic companies, and has previously modeled before- a woman who meets each and every unrealistic standard of society’s so-called perfection? Again, there is nothing unique about using an attractive celebrity to sell lingerie. Victoria’s Secret has been doing it for years, considering the fact that their models- who are referred to as VS Angels- are professional, famous supermodels who attract millions upon millions of fans and Instagram followers. You can check out the Victoria’s Secret Angels here, and then try to tell me that Emma Roberts doesn’t look like she could be placed right beside those supermodels. In using Emma Roberts in their campaign, aerie is making it even harder for consumers to understand their message because it’s still representative of all the other lingerie campaigns out there.

Emma Roberts for aerie Real. The well-known celebrity looks pretty similar to a size zero model, don’t you think?

What aerie has done incorrectly in attempting to promote body positivity is through their execution. There is no doubt that the brand is passionate about this issue, which can be easily seen through their commitment and dedication to the campaign that’s been going on for 2 years now. But by featuring nontraditional sized lingerie models and declaring them as “real women”, aerie is also promoting the idea that women with a size 0 printed on the tag of their jeans aren’t real. In a way, they’re demoting the thin women who resemble the supermodels that society considers “fake”. Executive director of the nationwide coalition of feminist organizations Dana Edell is quoted praising aerie for their campaign: “…unrealistic, unattainable images of women contribute to physical, mental and emotional health problems in girls and showing images of real, ‘unretouched’ women is a step in the right direction.” (“Real Change: How aerie’s Bold Campaign is Shaking Up The Lingerie World”).

As I am a size 0 myself, I take a slight offense to this comment; according to Dana, and mostly everyone else who agrees with and supports the campaign, I’m not a “real woman”. My size is “unattainable and unrealistic”, and is a negative factor in young women’s health. While I agree that there needs to be diversity in fashion ad campaigns, I don’t agree that we should shame the women who meet these beauty standards. Just because fashion companies choose to highlight smaller sized models doesn’t mean that they aren’t real- these companies use professional, thin supermodels because that’s what our society has deemed as beautiful. That’s what appears “stunning” and “flawless” on camera, and it’s what people want to see when they see an ad campaign. But in recognizing that we need diversity in modeling, we also need to recognize that models are still real people, too. Whether their size be due to genetics or a fast metabolism or a passion for fitness, it is still their size, and they are still real women. We can’t simply put them down because we want to see something other than a flat stomach in a lingerie ad. But we can accept them as real women, just as we can accept a woman with big hips wearing a size 12 tag as real, too.

aerie Real Swimsuit Campaign

The photo above is a perfect example of aerie demoting supermodels in calling them “not real”. The aerie Real campaign was extended to the brand’s swimsuit collection, and in doing so aerie created body positive captions related to summer and “the perfect beach body”. This photo goes to show how aerie is in a way making girls who may have that “perfect beach body” feel as if they’re not real- because according to aerie and the way the brand is portraying that “the real you is sexy”, they’re not. Subsequently, this particular photo features a thin young girl, and although we can only see her back, it’s safe to assume that she has a flat stomach and is relatively in shape. aerie is claiming that there is “no perfect beach body”- but the girl in this photo pretty much resembles the “perfect beach body” that other apparel companies feature in swimsuit advertisements. There’s nothing remotely impressive about brainstorming a few inspirational words and then simply adding that body-positive caption to a seemingly familiar image of a thin girl in a bikini. If aerie was really concerned about getting young women to love their body and recognize that there’s no “perfect beach body”, then they should have featured a girl of a different size in this photo.

The perception regarding “realness” is what is at fault here in aerie’s campaign. What isn’t real in lingerie campaigns- actually any ad campaign for that matter- is the fact that models are being Photoshopped and electronically altered. The differences between the image on the left of this photo and the image on the right are pointed out and labeled as things that need to be Photoshopped, according to society’s beauty standards. The model has been slimmed down, had her skin recolored and smoothed, and her curves emphasized; and for what reason? What was wrong with the image on the left? Why is it so horrible to have a bit of meat on your bones- doesn’t the girl on the left look to be of a healthy weight? She looks healthy and as if she’s in good shape- but the fact is that she’s not a size 0, and Photoshop can change that. Electronically altering women has become the norm in advertisements, and we’re used to seeing the image on the right as opposed to the image on the left. But who decided that the slimmer version of this model was “beautiful”, and the real version wasn’t?

I absolutely love aerie for making the decision to not Photoshop their models; as a college-aged young woman, I understand the pressure to be “beautiful” and have a “perfect body”, and aerie is working to encourage their customers to love their body no matter what. This is an important and influential move for aerie to make; they’re allowing young women to see that what’s typically portrayed in the media isn’t real, and giving their brand a positive, empowering image in the fashion industry. The company is telling their customers that it’s okay if they have society-labeled “imperfections”, because so do the models that young girls look up to- it’s just not advertised because fashion companies don’t consider it “beautiful”. aerie is admitting that what we see in fashion magazines isn’t real because of the magic wand of a computer mouse that clicks around an image, making the “imperfections” of said image poof, no more.

It’s as simple as that: Photoshop is not real. Size 0 models are real. Trimming down a woman’s waist with a computer mouse is not real- but size 0 models? They’re real. This is the concept that we need to recognize when we talk about body image. It’s all about perception, and the way that companies are presenting models and how we are perceiving them isn’t real. Obviously aerie recognized this, as can be seen through their no Photoshop pledge, but they seem to have only grasped half of the concept. As I mentioned before, by claiming that their models of sizes other than 0 are “real women”, they’re suggesting that size 0 models aren’t real. But the fact still remains: Photoshop is what isn’t real. The controversial size 0 models themselves eat, breathe, and sleep just like any other human being. They have a career and they work hard at what they do, and that’s real.

Positive responses to aerie’s campaign are filled with words of support, praising the brand for stepping off the beaten path and forging their own- and I agree with these praises, to some extent. The company has done a great job in starting a conversation about the use of Photoshop in lingerie campaigns; I just don’t believe that they’ve done it 100% effectively and without fault. However, the campaign has been inspirational to aerie’s customers and young women everywhere. According to Beth Malcolm, Girls Fund Director for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, “kids are comparing themselves…it’s important that girls see themselves in advertising.” (“Real Change: How aerie’s Bold Campaign is Shaking Up The Lingerie World”). It’s no surprise that we relate to what we see in the media, and aerie has given us a wider variety of women to relate to when we imagine ourselves in their apparel. This campaign has been successful in being an inspiration to young women and other fashion companies in the importance of recognizing all body sizes, and I sincerely applaud them for that. Kailun Zhang expresses kind words of praise to the company for being real in their approach to the campaign: “aerie’s contrasting success has hinged on their ability to show authenticity.” And that’s exactly what aerie is doing- even if it isn’t done to the fullest potential, they are still showing authenticity and being real with their customers by choosing not to Photoshop their photos. They’re not portraying a false image like those companies who trim down or alter a model’s body in campaigns. This campaign has slowly grown into more of a movement than just a simple marketing tool for their spring collection, and it has had an overall positive impact. There is just room for improvement, as there is with any new idea or movement.

The aerie Real campaign is a brilliant and empowering marketing strategy, but to me, that’s all it is: a marketing strategy. Yes, aerie seems passionate about this campaign, but it seems more for show than anything else. The campaign has no doubt influenced young girls in loving their body and realizing that Photoshop isn’t real, but that’s about it. It’s a great campaign with good intentions, but I don’t believe that it’s been executed effectively. I think the campaign has raised more questions and concerns than anything else. While it’s a thoughtful idea, the campaign has raised more issues regarding body image due to the way that aerie has presented “the real you is sexy”. They’ve made girls who wear a size 0 question whether or not they’re “real”, and they’ve failed to feature women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. You can’t promote realness by using professional models who basically resemble the supermodels that you claim- promise your customers even- that you aren’t going to use anymore. When I first saw the aerie Real photos, I have to admit that I was impressed by the no Photoshop promise and the fact that the “imperfections” that society labels in terms of beauty were still present in each photo. But after looking into the campaign, and comparing it to other lingerie brands, I realized that the execution fell short, and that aerie had only given about 50% in their attempt to change the way society perceives body image and perfection and beauty. Based on where the campaign stands now, I would say that the brand is promoting a boycott of Photoshop and the fact that “the real you is sexy”; the idea that supermodels shouldn’t be used in lingerie campaigns doesn’t necessarily come across with the current use of models in aerie’s campaign. Ultimately, I support the aerie campaign and its efforts- I just don’t support the way that aerie has perceived realness and beauty in our society.

Attempting to change the way an entire society views something is a challenge, and aerie should be commended for jumping into the rough waters that make up the deep sea of body image in today’s society. They’ve sparked the match to a much needed conversation and created a successful marketing campaign that has grown their company in both sales and recognition. Body positivity is something that needs to be talked about and promoted and the way that we think about it needs to be altered. Beauty standards need to be banished, and we need to recognize that no matter your size, or your skin color, or your hair, you’re beautiful, and you’re real. aerie has done a tremendous job in standing up against the big name lingerie companies like Victoria’s Secret and saying “hey, you’re wrong, and we’re going to do something to change the way people see lingerie and beauty”. Their no retouching pledge is admirable and a huge step for the future of advertisement in the lingerie industry. Whether or not they continue to be successful with the aerie Real campaign will rely on working out the tweaks and recognizing that every woman, from size 0 to 14 and above, is real.

Acknowledgments

I’d like to start off by thanking my group members, Jaclyn and Liam, for their comments and feedback on my essay in its early stages. Liam helped me to place my argument regarding body image in the most effective spot in my essay, and Jaclyn gave me insight on other critics to add into the conversation. I’d also like to thank Kaylynn for editing the almost final version of my essay and pointing out the little mistakes that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. Finally, I need to thank my professor, Dr. Harris, for his thoughtful insight and concerns. I truly believe my conferences with him, both regarding this essay and the last, have influenced and strengthened my writing not just in this essay but as a whole. I appreciate all of his expertise and want to sincerely acknowledge how much he’s helped me through this process.

Author’s Note

This piece has gone through countless revisions and been looked over by multiple different people, but overall I am pleased with the end result. When asked to write a critical essay on a text of my choice, I have to admit I was very worried I wouldn’t be able to find the right text; however, once the aerie campaign popped into my mind, I knew it would be the perfect topic. I love aerie as a company and although I don’t completely agree with the way they went about the campaign, I’m nonetheless impressed with the movement they’ve created regarding body image. I’m very proud of the argument I’ve created around the campaign and the points I’ve brought up regarding body image and the perception of realness in ad campaigns. This essay went from a simple piece about a brand I enjoy shopping to a full critique of a brand’s campaign, and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.

References

“aerie Real | aerie For American Eagle.” American Eagle Outfitters, 2014.

Harrington, Cora. “Why aerie’s ‘Body Positive’ Campaign Isn’t.” The Lingerie Addict Fashion Blog. Web, 10 Sept. 2015.

“Real Change: How aerie’s Bold Campaign Is Shaking Up the Lingerie World.” Lingerie Talk. Web, 30 Jan. 2014.

Zhang, Kailun. “#aerieREAL More Than Just Good Marketing.” The Queen’s Journal. Web, 5 Feb. 2016.