July 18, 2019 | News | No Comments
Right now, there are 10 million #bodypositive posts on Instagram. The concept is championed by everyone from Hollywood celebrities to reality TV stars and the wider online community. And it represents a welcome change.
This global re-evaluation of conventional beauty standards has grown in response to the same, narrow definition of physical perfection that has prevailed for too long. As consumers, we get it. We believe in exposing unconscious bias and being allowed to be ourselves. And that, really, should be the end of the story. But right now, three or so years since the whole movement blew up, its war cry is one that still stands, ubiquitous on social media yet still notably absent from the big campaigns.
It’s not that brands are staying completely quiet—far from it: there’s barely a beauty or wellness company out there that isn’t proclaiming to embrace physical diversity, celebrate women “of all shapes and sizes” and promote “body confidence”. But the trouble is, when it comes to translating this sentiment into the images they use and the models they work with, it seems as if, for now at least, that’s a step too far.
So, which brands are doing body positivity well?
Of course, there are exceptions. Glossier launched its body products in October 2017. The campaign was shot by US photographer Peggy Sirota and featured five women, each with very different physical attributes: from the toned to the curved to the heavily pregnant. Crucially, the thing you noticed first was the quality of the models’ skin: dewy, glistening, alive with health and vitality. It stopped the beauty industry in its tracks (and most of America, too, given that the campaign came to life in more than 350 larger-than-life ads in some of the highest-trafficked areas of Los Angeles and New York City, not to mention a full page in The New York Times, too).
Image credit: Peggy Sirota/Glossier
In March 2018, when Jules von Hep, the infamous celebrity self-tanner, launched his body-positive tanning brand Isle of Paradise, it felt as if it was the beginning of the end for conventional beauty imagery. Having spent his career listening to women apologise for their bodies as they stood before him naked, pre-tan, he felt compelled to create something based on “body positive energy”. His imagery features “real”, but more importantly, happy-looking women, each with a different body type—prompting one beauty editor to comment, “You can’t look at the campaign and not smile—what a welcome change for a beauty campaign, hey?”
Image credit: Courtesy Isle of Paradise
And there are other examples, too: Fenty, CoverGirl, Babor and Revlon have all worked with a more diverse roster of body shapes.
What are the body positive ambassadors saying?
Ashley Graham, who is part of Revlon’s Live Boldly collective of ambassadors (which also includes Adwoa Aboah and Gal Gadot), has said of the movement: “This should be the norm. I’m really hoping and striving that in the next 10 years we don’t even have to discuss this. Beauty is beyond size.”
10 years seems like a long wait, but it will be worth it for a real step change. The singer Lizzo, who many onlookers agree “won Glastonbury” this year with her incredible, sequinned, leotard-clad performance of songs, self-love affirmations and freestyle flute-playing, is a beacon of body positivity for the Instagram generation. (“I want you to go home tonight and look in the mirror and say ‘I love you, you are beautiful and you can do anything!’” she implored the audience.)
She has been vocal about her belief that while more diversity is undoubtedly a good thing, any brand doing a swift 180, overlooking decades of promoting narrow beauty ideals in the hope of jumping on the body positive bandwagon can expect to be met with cynicism before being congratulated. Brands, she says, “have spent decades telling people they weren’t good enough and selling them an ideal of beauty. All of a sudden you’re selling them self-love? People don’t know how to love themselves because they were trying to look like the motherfucker you were selling them!”
Image credit: Getty Images
It’s a feeling the model and co-author of a new book Mixed Feelings Naomi Shimada has also expressed. At 31, she has been a “normal size 14 person” for almost a decade. One of her biggest frustrations is brands who adopt a tokenistic attitude to body diversity, choosing extreme, banner-waving depictions of beauty rather than reflecting what she calls the “normal middle”. “Like why are the bigger bodies always nude?” she asks. “For so long, people would only want to photograph me nude. In fashion, they’d say they couldn’t get bigger sample sizes… but in beauty, it shouldn’t matter. I get so frustrated that bigger girls in campaigns are always either nude or tagged to a ‘sexy girl’ aesthetic. Why can’t bigger bodies just be beautiful?”
Shimada has also worked with Nike, which had its own moment of body positive controversy in June, when it launched a “plus-sized mannequin” in its London flagship. While many enthusiastically applauded the move, some called it out for presenting a mannequin that was “obese” and “cannot run”. Rihanna’s Fenty mannequin, on the other hand, launched just a few days later, gained almost universal approval simply because it was so normal. “Brands like Fenty know what’s up,” says Shimada.
Why are bigger brands slow on the body positive uptake?
The Nike moment in particular speaks to a murky muddle of unconscious bias that perhaps helps to explain what beauty brands are struggling with. It’s to do with the crossover between “beautiful” and “healthy”. Can you have one without the other? How does health relate to size in these days of #fitnotthin? The interplay between the concepts of health and beauty is shifting, and the beauty industry, that for so long has conformed to such a rigid set of physical ideals, is finding it difficult to navigate between the two.
Naomi Shimada. Image credit: Getty Images
Dove has wrestled with its place in the beauty industry—both celebrating and questioning it—since it launched its campaign for real beauty in 2004. But last month, the brand won a prestigious Cannes Lions award for its Project #ShowUs campaign, in which Dove collaborated with Getty Images and Amanda de Cadenet’s female-led photography platform GirlGaze to create a bank of 5,000 photographs of “real women”, photographed by women, all of which are now available for media and advertisers to use, free of charge. “We wanted to respond to the powerful insight that 70 per cent of women still don’t feel represented by the images they see every day,” says Dove global brand vice president Sophie Galvani.
Dove’s commitment is impressive, and is one of the few examples globally of a beauty company leading the change. So why aren’t more brands thinking visually about the images they portray? “I think it’s a big change that can be daunting to undertake,” says Galvani. Von Hep continues: “So many people warned me not to do the body positivity thing. I had arguments with friends, colleagues, retailers… I think there’s a real fear about taking a stance, doing things differently, even now.” Shimada agrees: “I think the fear is we’re going to switch it up and we’re going to scare people off. I would like to think we can move beyond that,” she says. “I want to believe in a world where we have more vision than that. I would like to see more commitment from the bigger brands at least.”
Is a more body positive beauty industry actually down to us as consumers?
Ultimately, though, it’s the job of beauty brands to sell products. How much longer before we stop accepting the imbalance and start voting with our cash instead? What strikes Galvani as odd about the reluctance of brands to offer a more inclusive representation of body image is that it actually appears to make good economic sense, too. “If brands or products were to use more diverse imagery, six in 10 of the women we surveyed globally say they would be more likely to buy them,” she says.
And then, just maybe, we should start thinking about a more body positive description of the products they’re selling, too. As much as we can applaud Glossier’s brilliant Body Hero campaign, it’s accompanied by a product called Body Hero Daily Perfecting Cream. Perfecting? Isn’t that exactly the language we’re trying to change? But, Glossier does make great products, and you can’t ignore the skin in those photos. Maybe we can sideline our moral indignation sometimes—after all, no body is perfect.
Image credit: Peggy Sirota/Glossier