Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Why I just can't abide the term 'real women'

Big success: Dove's 'real beauty'

There's something about the phrase 'real women' that irks me, possibly more than it should. Perhaps it's the tedious regularity with which, as a size 16 person, the phrase is thrown in my direction as if a) slimmer women than me are holograms, b) their existence bothers me to the extent that I require reassurance, c) the whole thing wasn't so obviously a thinly veiled euphemism for "you're a bit fat".

When it comes to advertising, however, I genuinely believe the trend of using so-called 'real women' has potentially sinister consequences. As a body confidence campaigner/purveyor of the 'beauty comes in all shapes and sizes' school of non-idiocy, my stance on the 'real women' phenomenon may surprise you. Let me explain.

When models, who represent a paradigm of aspirational beauty, were uniformally 6ft, a size 0 and 14-years-old, those were dark and terrible times for anyone who didn't fit those very narrow criteria.

But at least we could comfort ourselves in the knowledge that these people were not only genetic rarities, but had probably been airbrushed beyond recognition.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the aftermath of Dove's phenomenally successful Dove 'real beauty' campaign and more and more retailers are using a range of shapes and sizes in their advertising, while pledging not to airbrush them.

This can only ever be applauded as an excellent thing. Diversity in beauty and fashion? Bravo. What I object to is the attachment of the 'real woman' label.

For where there is an image of a 'real woman' there is by default an explicit expectation placed upon actual, three dimensional 'real women' that this is what they should look like. And when said image depicts a woman who has been scouted from among thousands of 'real' candidates by a street team to represent the brand, have probably spent hours in hair and make-up, been styled by experts before being expertly lit and photographed, they aren't indicative of an aesthetic which is achievable by most.

Unfortunately, the well-meaning pledges not to airbrush undertaken by brands, like Boots No7, can have a similarly negative effect. For while airbrushing is undoubtedly sneaky, sinister and deceitful, it should be remembered that it isn't the only technique that can drastically alter a subject's appearance.

'Unairbrushed' should not be equated with 'this is how this woman actually looks' and yet one can't help but conclude that is the way we are supposed to interpret it.

Furthermore, it's patronising. My response to the influx of 'real women' ad campaigns was one of indignation. How dare advertisers dictate the parameters within which I can be a 'real woman'?

Advertisers may very well ask 'how can we win?' I have criticised them for their historical insistence on presenting only one polarised notion of what it is to be attractive. Some have now begun to broaden the scope of shapes, sizes ages and races of models they're using – and for that they should be given credit.

But they've ruined it by naively jumping on the 'real woman' bandwagon, jeopardising our self-esteem in the process.

So, if you really want to do us all a favour, advertisers, you should simply do this: attach a disclaimer to every billboard, bus stop, TV ad, magazine and website that says: "Adverts deal in fantasy. This is a world we have carefully constructed to create the illusion of a party to which you will not be invited until you buy our product.

"This is not real."

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