I n 1991, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth called attention to a lie we’ve all been sold: women must be beautiful to be happy. In the years since, a new myth has taken shape: we have to feel beautiful to be happy. And at the heart of this myth is a ubiquitous and affirming mantra that’s been bastardized by the advertising industry: “Love your body.”
The essence of this phrase is, of course, commendable, as is the entire body positive movement. But increasingly and effectively, advertisers have manipulated it to reinforce narrow standards of beauty, keep female self-esteem linked to appearance, and, perhaps most insidiously, maintain women’s status as sexual objects.
Nearly a quarter-century after Wolf’s seminal book, it’s worth asking: How much has really changed?
The ‘Real Beauty’ Lie
The most high-profile example of the new beauty myth is Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which launched in 2004 and, in its first move, advertised Intensive Firming Cream with billboards and magazine spreads featuring non-model women of various sizes posing confidently in underwear.
Several critics challenged the notion that these images were actually promoting body positivity. Salon’s Rebecca Traister pointed out that selling women skin-firming cream “tested on real curves” directly contradicts the message that the women are perfect just as they are. And in The Atlantic, Virginia Postrel noted that the women in this ad were also “all young, with symmetrical faces, feminine features, great skin, white teeth, and hourglass shapes.”
Dove’s ads might showcase different types of beauty, but they’re still teaching women that beauty only encompasses certain features. And, most troublingly, they’re reinforcing the belief that women should care about beauty in the first place. As Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and editor of Sociological Images, notes: “‘Every woman’s beautiful’ still inherently suggests that beauty is important.”
While Dove may be the most well-known advertiser peddling this idea, it’s hardly alone. Piggybacking on the fat acceptance movement zeitgeist, plus-sized clothing brands have, in recent years, begun to perpetuate the notion that the products they sell can help us love our bodies and, by a false equivalence, ourselves.
In early 2015, Lane Bryant launched its #ImNoAngel campaign featuring plus-sized women in seductive poses wearing the brand’s lingerie, a direct challenge to the Victoria’s Secret Angels. In one video advertising the company’s Cacique collection, the models recite single-word phrases like “sexy,” “hot,” and “beautiful,” with one caressing her body while purring, “Honey, have you seen all this?” Lane Bryant’s website states that the campaign aims to “redefine sexy.” Once again, the goal is not to challenge the objectification of women, but to make sure all women can be sexual objects.
Another addition to the roster of brands associating their products with body acceptance is makeup company MAC, whose MACnificent campaign’s website reads, “Being Magnificent means being creative, being confident, having fun and most of all, being true to yourself.”
In a video promoting the campaign, plus-sized woman Luzmaria Vargas says, “There’s so many women out there that won’t express themselves for the fact that they’re overweight, but if I did it, they can all do it.”
But she only “did it” — i.e., posed in a MAC photo shoot — after a makeover she won in a contest held by the company. “Beautiful in and out because it’s not about the size or color, it’s the inside that counts,” text at the end of the video reads.
But if MAC’s definition of beauty is really just about what’s on the inside . . . why should anyone need makeup to possess it?
The Lie Writ Large
It’s not just advertisements telling women that they should feel sexy or that certain products will help them attain this elusive feeling. This supposed wisdom has become so ubiquitous that it’s begun to seem like common sense, spilling over into non-branded content as well. A Cosmopolitan article on how to “make your everyday routine so hot, you’ll start smoldering” tells readers to sleep in satin because “going to sleep in boxers and an old tee shirt may be comfy, but it won’t give you confidence as you walk from your closet to bed.”
All the advice to feel sexy brings us back to where we started: instead of challenging cultural ideals of beauty, body-positive campaigns encourage us to adhere to them in the name of self-confidence. Instead of rejecting the male gaze, they tell women to gaze upon themselves favorably by telling us what to buy to accomplish this. In a society that continues to relentlessly push weight-loss products and an unrealistic beauty ideal, women are thus caught in a double-bind, taught simultaneously that they should hate their bodies and that they’ve failed if they don’t love them.
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Even advertisements that appear body-positive don’t actually aim to make women feel beautiful unconditionally. After all, women won’t buy products to convince themselves of something they already believe. “What body positivity advertising is trying to do is tell the customer ‘we care about you’ and also ‘we share your values.’ And both of those things are false,” says sociology professor Wade. “Companies themselves inherently cannot be principled,” she points out, because businesses have a legal obligation to their shareholders to do whatever they can to maximize profits.
Even when ads “don’t make you feel ugly and unlovable,” she adds, “they do suggest that without their product, you’re not the person you could be, and that’s an inherent threat. All advertising has an inherent threat. It has to promise to fix the problem, but it has to tell you what the problem is.”
Dove wants women to feel good about having thicker thighs — as long as their thighs are firm. Lane Bryant wants women to embrace their curves — as long as these curves are adorned with lacy lingerie. MAC wants women of all sizes to feel comfortable in their own skin — as long as this skin is covered in makeup.
“I might like to see a world where women were just told, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter if you’re beautiful or not. You have lots of other qualities that are more important than that.”
That message may not sell thigh-firming cream, but it just might help create a culture full of women whose self-esteem is not linked to buying a cream to feel beautiful in the first place.
Women shouldn’t need makeup or lingerie to feel sexy. More importantly, they shouldn’t need to feel sexy in the first place.