Recent stories about the challenges women and girls face in the face of beauty might lead us to believe that we’re not making any progress.
Don’t believe it.
Victoria’s Secret’s new “Perfect Body” campaign, coupled with actresses Renée Zellweger’s dramatic makeover and Shoshana Roberts’ soul-sucking videotaped walk down New York City streets, might feel like proof that we’ll never escape unfair and unrealistic judgments about our outer selves.
But heartening change is evident, and we have frustrated millennials to thank for that.
A quick recap: Actress Renée Zellweger is now almost unrecognizable as Renée Zellweger since her recent makeover. Shoshana Roberts participated in 10 hours of secret filming along NYC streets, tallying 108 catcalls.
And gearing up for the holiday season, Victoria’s Secret introduced a new bra, featuring 10 models whose secret is that they haven’t eaten a meal in a week.
In the old world, say a decade or so ago, conversations around these issues — around when enough is enough — would have been limited to kitchen tables, book clubs and university classrooms.
Now twenty-somethings are conducting these discussions in cyberspace, giving them heft and creating a smoother, quicker route to change.
In response to the Victoria’s Secret campaign, for example, female students at Leeds University in England started a change.org campaign, asking the provocative American lingerie company to stop promoting unhealthy and unrealistic standards of beauty, and to “amend the irresponsible marketing of its new bra range.”
Late last week, the campaign had tallied more than 25,000 signatures.
“Expectations around women’s bodies have been a long-running challenge in our society,” said Katie Anderson, director of insight for Minneapolis branding agency Colle + McVoy.
What has changed, she said, are fed-up millennials who resist a one-size-fits-all standard and are forcing these conversations onto a global stage. “They’re not bashful. They’re sticking up for what they believe in, and it’s really great to see.”
Anderson noted two other successful female empowerment campaigns launched this year. “Like a Girl” by Always challenges stereotypes, including what it means to “throw like a girl.” “Not Sorry” by Pantene is a cringe-worthy reminder of how we, too often, say you-know-what. And many point to Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” as the turning point.
Renee Engeln, director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is also pleased by the shifting sands. “What I love to see is how many young women are involved in this fight,” she said.
“The age at which girls start taking these issues seriously is much younger than I expected — likely because of social media,” she said.
Engeln delivered a TED talk in 2013 about what she calls “beauty sickness,” a chronic feeling that we’re not good enough. It’s also a play on words, she said.
“I think I speak for many women when I say, ‘We’re sick of this.’ No woman wants to be consumed with thoughts about the inadequacy of her own appearance. There are many other things we’d rather be thinking about.”
That includes our often confusing feelings around beauty.
“It’s human nature to be attracted to beauty,” Engeln said, “and it’s inconceivable to think that advertisers won’t use this desire for beauty to sell products. But there is middle ground here.”
Frankly, Zellweger’s dramatic face alterations made me sad. (I thought I was looking at actress Robin Wright.) I can respect Zellweger’s right to happiness, but I still wonder why she felt the need to go far beyond my idea of middle ground. Would I go that far? Would you go that far? Why or why not?
Similarly, Roberts’ YouTube video forces us to talk about how we expect to be treated, particularly when we’re just trying to walk down the street.
Roberts, an actress, was shouted at, followed by some men and chastised by others for not acknowledging their “compliments.” It’s a rare woman who hasn’t had that uncomfortable experience. Now, though, it has a name.
“Street harassment wasn’t a term most people knew a couple decades ago,” Engeln noted. “Now it’s being addressed in viral videos.”
It would be naive to assume that one video will end such harassment, and Engeln knows that.
“There’s going to be pushback — really, there already is,” she said. “Check out any article/blog/video on this topic and you’ll see someone in the comments section saying something like, ‘This is only an issue if you’re ugly’ or ‘This is just an excuse for women to be fat!’
“But comments like that just make the point of how important this fight is.”
Besides, the video led to follow-up stories asking good questions, such as “Where’s the line between flirtation and unwanted theft of personal space?” And, “When is it OK to approach a woman?” One man said he was going to stop his catcalls, because the campaign made him think about his sisters. He wouldn’t want them treated like that.
It’s a start.
And what about Victoria’s Secret? Will a change.org campaign make the company stop selling a fantasy, one that not even models could attain without Photoshopping?
After all, the chain sells underwear up to XL, and bras ranging from 30A to 44 DDD. Fantasy, meet reality.
I’ll say this: If the company doesn’t pay attention to its young consumers, it might be sorry.
Anderson of Colle + McVoy noted that the fastest-growing brands among millennials are those with “a higher-order purpose.” That purpose can be supporting healthy babies, healing the planet or generating plain old happiness.
Pretty undies can certainly create happiness, too. But one perfect body?
They’re not buying it.