No retouching on these girls. EVER!
That’s the promise behind Aerie’s body positive campaign #AerieReal. While the company is often heralded for its inclusivity of all bodies, its refusal to Photoshop models, and for encouraging women of all sizes and races to love their bods, they’re still kind of missing the point.
I believe this campaign — and by extension, of course, the company behind it — began as well-intentioned. It’s a campaign we all needed, especially us women. When #AerieReal launched, I wanted to love it. In fact, most people did love it and the lingerie/swimwear/sleepwear brand received an exorbitant amount of positive feedback and praise for being both inclusive and honest. In a 2014 press release, Aerie claimed its new campaign was “challenging supermodel standards by featuring unretouched models in [the] latest collection of bras, undies and apparel.” And many went along with this narrative. But with most of the in-store posters from the no-retouching campaign featuring white, tall, generally thin women, I’m not calling bullsh*t, but I am addressing what no one seems to want to: that Aerie gets certain parts of its campaign wrong.
Are inclusivity and transparency truly the goals of #AerieReal? Because it kind of seems like a half-done marketing strategy meant to appeal to a wider range of consumers, yet not cater to them. Case and point: If you walk into any Aerie store, posters of young women frolicking at the beach in one-piece swimsuits and riding bikes along boardwalks line the walls — the overwhelming majority of which showcase non-retouched women who are white, tall, effortlessly thin, and by mainstream (white) beauty standards, are conventionally pretty.
“This girl is not Photoshopped!” the tagline boasts. And yes, some women of color are featured in these posters. Some. But since most of these photos display conventionally white, thin, and tall women, the message actually being conveyed to consumers is that white, thin, and tall is the ideal. These women don’t need to be retouched, Aerie says. If you look like these girls, you don’t need Photoshop. They have the right skin tone, weigh the appropriate amount, are tall, and traditionally attractive. Women like this, they don’t need Photoshop. But women who don’t fit into this beauty ideal — women like you — do.
The intent is clear: Aerie wants its consumers to see real pictures of real women, undoctored by photo-retouching elements. Aerie wants to be able to say they don’t retouch — you know, for street cred purposes. Fine. Great. In theory, it should work. However, there’s a huge problem with showcasing a bunch of white, 110-pound blond girls and happily proclaiming they’re not modified by Photoshop.
If you’re going to launch a body positive campaign that celebrates real women’s bodies without the modification of Photoshop, you need to do it right. And doing it right means celebrating all bodies – even the Iskra Lawrences and Courtney Fowlers of the world. It means displaying as many girls of color as you do the quintessential white girl. It means exhibiting as many plus size bodies (or bodies touched by stretch marks or curves or scars or cellulite or anything deemed remotely unconventional in the modeling world) as you do the orthodox thin, “model” body.
An important note to make here though as the issues I’m addressing with Aerie’s campaign are primarily in-store issues. Online, Aerie does a much better job of considering inclusivity and representation. Aerie’s Instagram account features models of many races, mixed races and varying body types and weights. Aside from giving exposure to varying models, Aerie also reposts photos of myriad Aerie consumers. Aerie’s online personality dedicates time and space to women’s “fat rolls, unflattering angles, thighs (both thick and thin), stomachs that aren’t concave, and booties with stretch marks.
There are also more women of color featured on Aerie’s online platforms. Although, I will say, Aerie often does not like to mix oil and water. If a model is a woman of color, she is often thin. Rarely will you see an Aerie model who is both thick and a minority. I see the intention and the effort here, but again, Aerie needs to do better.
A body positive campaign that claims to celebrate real women’s bodies also cannot be ableist, as representation spans more boundaries than gender, race, and body type. Completely denying a type of woman exists is hardly representative. Where are the women in wheelchairs? Where are the amputees? Where are the models with stretch marks, like Negative Underwear so chiefly displays on its website? Where are the models of varying races, like Third Love does expertly? Where are the transgender models? Until these women — and so many others — are represented by #AerieReal, and not just online but also in the store, the goal of the campaign remains idle. Because if you’re not supporting all women, are you supporting any?
The fact is, there are so many other lingerie brands doing a better job of inclusivity and yet, our society is giving Aerie all the credit when realistically, Aerie has a lot more work to do. #AerieReal definitely gets the ball rolling as far as first steps but in terms of execution, so much more has to be done.
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Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer, brand consultant, and blogger (@stephosmanski) who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared on Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.