One Bold Move

still beautiful

Last winter, I entered a contest. The charge was to explain in 500 words or less one bold action that could make the world truly value the diversity of female bodies. I didn’t win (obviously), but I am still proud of my entry. And should I ever have the power and means to implement it on my own, you can bet your ass I’ll do it.

For the record, I don’t think this is the ONLY bold move, the BEST bold move, or even an ESSENTIAL bold move to changing perceptions surrounding female bodies. But it is one that I feel I could personally spearhead, and one that I think could have tremendous impact. On the surface, it oversimplifies some important issues, but it also pries them open for examination and discussion. Or could, anyway.

* * * * *

No one has ever told me that I’m unattractive. Not to my face. And yet I have felt misshapen and unsightly since the moment I hit puberty. Movies, television, music videos, advertisements, and magazines fed me passive messages about weight and figure, complexion and proportion that invaded my psyche and convinced me of my own inadequacy. Eventually, overt messages from ads for weight-loss products, magazine articles about faking a perfect complexion, and news stories on obesity began contributing, too. There followed several decades of intense self-loathing.

And, like millions of women worldwide, I still struggle. But blogging about the link between style and body image has thrown me into a global community of women of every imaginable height, weight, and body shape. Seeing daily photographs of their radiant faces and amazing figures has exploded my definition of beauty. It wasn’t enough to observe bodily diversity passively. I needed to see it highlighted, called out, labeled. And once I did, I was finally able to shed my belief that there is only one kind of gorgeous.

I believe one bold action that could make the world truly value the diversity of women’s and girls’ bodies would be to launch a multi-tiered, ongoing, subversive ad campaign that forces people to reevaluate concepts of physical beauty. While similar campaigns are already in place, corporate influence and narrow focus have limited their impact. My vision is for a far-reaching, thought-provoking, conversation-starting campaign that presents female bodily diversity in all its true glory.

Imagine a billboard with a photograph of a size 28 woman in a simple red dress, the word “GORGEOUS” in bold type below her. Imagine a magazine ad with a 4’10” woman in jeans and a tee, the word “POWERFUL” her label. Imagine banner ads on popular websites showing disabled women, women with tattoos and facial piercings, women with belly fat and frizzy hair and wrinkles described in simple, high-impact terms like, “SEXY,” and “LOVELY,” and “BEAUTIFUL.” Place these ads in markets nationwide over several months and allow viewers to react and discuss. Then follow up with a more verbal campaign asking viewers why applying these terms to these particular women may feel counter-intuitive. Television spots and animated banners could be part of this second tier, generating more conversation and allowing more time for ideas to shift. The final phase would be comprised of more woman-word pairings, but also direct consumers to a website containing essays from the women featured in the ads, forums for discussion, and other related resources.

Body image is both deep-seated and intensely personal. Women who hate themselves can’t shift mentalities or heal psyches just because they’re told to. They must be shown new examples, allowed time to contemplate, and given room to reevaluate. People who believe that only tall, slender women could ever be attractive need new paradigms. And presenting those paradigms through the very same media that manufacture beauty-related falsehoods could be a bold, effective, even revolutionary step toward shattering biases about women’s bodies.

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  • I got chill bumps reading this. I haven’t had anyone tell me I’m unattractive to my face but I have been on both spectrums of being too skinny and frumpy and there is a difference in the way that people treated and looked at me. Funny I used to pray to gain weight now I pray to lose 🙂 Reading blogs like yours has made me learn to appreciate what I have and nothing makes me feel prettier than an outfit that rocks. I have taken many of your tips to accentuate my assets. I struggle with my self imagine and what I see in pictures. The mirror reflects a much skinnier version of myself. I think my self imagine boost has come reading your inspirations and coming to terms with me. Thank you!!! (a little long winded thanks, sorry)

  • Wonderful and motivational, Sal. Being in my 50’s, I imagine a world in which wrinkles and grey hair will be seen as beautiful. How much more joy and acceptance for women that would bring about!

    • Jak

      Because I’m a 20-something, it wasn’t until it was brought to my attention that I noticed how little you see older women in the media. This reminds me of Gloria Steinem’s quote, responding to people who say she looks good for her age that “this is what 50 looks like”. Since we don’t portray how women age across the board we lose any conception of what it’s supposed to look like, because once you’re past a certain age you’re supposed to fade back and become invisible. Well, screw that noise.

      Older women are beautiful, period, full stop. We need to see more of that in the media.

  • Really, you’re talking about bold moves in advertising, but I think much of the fashion/style blogosphere is helping lots of women move this direction. Bravo!

    And I’m sure lots of readers are thinking it, but I’m remembering back in 2008 when the Body Shop rolled out it’s anti-Barbie Ruby ads (“there are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and 8 who do”) and the ensuing applause–and uproar–over the challenge to stereotypical beauty.

  • What a great idea! Beauty comes from confidence — no matter what you look like. A campaign like that would allow more women to feel confident in how they look and would push a positive message for thought change. 🙂

  • Fab

    That was a great post. I agree that commercials, rather than representing the current culture of its target audience, actually forces them to adopt a distorted culture the ads depict. In India, fairness creams have a major market with their ads indicating that only fair people can get jobs or get married. Apart from being totally illogical, it is racist beyond doubt. Like you, I wish someone would actually take the initiative to get such ads banned so that every woman would love herself regardless of her color or shape or size.

    Here is the related post: http://shocksandshoes.blogspot.com/2011/07/not-fair-not-at-all.html

  • Thank you for sharing this! Powerful!! Your blog rocks!!!

  • Miss T

    But then, sadly, there’s this: “Half of men would ditch partner who gained weight: http://www.irishexaminer.com/world/kfgbcweycwcw/rss2/ It would be easy to blow off polls like this except that the sample was 70,000 people.

    • Miss T

      Addendum: The point being that MEN need to be re-educated, as well. Remember: men are fathers to girls, and this body-image stuff starts early. Last year, I took my then-3-year-old son for ballet lessons; we had to quit — HAD TO — because it wasn’t dancing school so much as it was “princess lessons”. My son was completely ignored, and in fact, vilified for being immune to the indoctrination (obviously). And, to my surprise, nearly every little 3 and 4-year-old girl there had been escorted to her lessons by her FATHER, not her mother. Astonishing.

      • Sal

        I agree that everyone, not just women, needs to shift perspective. And although I’ve focused on the impact this campaign might have on women and their collective body image, I feel it could impact all viewers and generate discussion among the sexes.

      • I agree with Miss T. Starting with fathers is where it’s at. There’s no relationship like that of a father and his daughter. My own husband thinks his daughter is a ray of sunshine, a little piece of heaven on earth, etc. At the beginning of our relationship, he made some comments about my body, not even intending to mean but I found them to be hurtful. I asked him how he would feel if somebody disrespected his daughter like that…Yeah, he hasn’t made those same comments since.

  • Jen

    I love this post so much I want to hug it and kiss it and snuggle it. Instead I’ll just re-post it everywhere I can. Spot. On. I struggled so much with body image until I met my husband, who worships at the altar that is me in my most hideous morning bed head, smuged mascara, puffy-eyed uglies. Having that kind of outward admiration has caused me to look inward and examine my own insecurities. They’re born from the very same places yours were Sal. As I’ve gotten out of my wretched 20’s and moved into what I love to call my drama-free 30’s I embrace my body much more…flaws and all. I love it more for it’s “flaws.” I’m not perfect in acceptance. I have days where I look into catalogues, see tiny girls in stores, or perfectly dressed women out on the town and start down the path of self-deprecation. But because of blogs like yours, husbands like mine, and girlfriends like the ones I have, I am less likely to go there than ever before. Thanks for all you do!!

  • The first part of this is actually a revelation. No one ever said it to our faces but we all know we’re ‘not measuring up’. Changing that atmosphere is the hard part.

    Wonderful essay, Sally. Thank you. This blog really, really helps.

  • Fantastic post, Sal! I would have voted for you to win!

  • Wow.

    Please, may we have ads like this, free from sponsorship biases?

    I suspect that suggesting people change their ideas will create discord and strife, but messages still slowly and subtly reach the subconscious and become part of what a person knows about the world.

  • Megan

    Amazing post! Thank you for sharing.

    I think a campaign like that would help so much with the negative body image plaguing so many women.

  • Lauren

    Thank you so much! I’ve learned in the past couple of years that even though I have small breasts, big hips and thighs, broad shoulders, freckled knees, and a stomach that is not flat, I actually have quite a nice body, simply because it’s mine! I have a friend who is quite short, round, plump, and with a very dark complexion, and she is adorable. I have another friend who is tall, naturally extremely skinny, angular, and fair, and she is graceful. My best friend is short, curvy, has wildly curly blonde hair and enormous blue eyes, is covered in freckles, and absolutely radiates joy. She is stunning. I myself have decided that I am radiant, with my softer, white-blonde hair, blue eyes, braces, acne, big smile and deep belly laugh that makes me rock back and forth and slap my knees. I am radiant. And I totally agree, Sally, that this ad campaign could and would change the world. 🙂

  • Jak

    I absolutely love the idea for this. Love it.

    I have been told that I’m not beautiful to my face. I’ve also had it implied to my face. It’s not pleasant and it’s just plain wrong. I’m beautiful, even though sometimes I don’t feel it. I’m beautiful, even though I’m not necessarily confident. In fact, I hate it when people say all you need is confidence. No, what you need is a body (not to insult all those ephemeral beings, of course). I’m beautiful because I’m me.

  • Anon

    4’11 and POWERFUL here!

  • Dani

    Love this Dove commercial that exposes the false imagery of a beauty advertisement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U&feature=youtu.be

  • What a powerful campaign, Sally! Of course I wish you had won – I think it’s a genius idea. I completely agree with you that it’s not just a matter of telling women “love yourself as you are” and “every shape and size and color is beautiful” – it’s seeing it reiterated again and again visually. It’s crazy to me that there still isn’t more diversity in fashion and advertising. I know ideals and celebrity and sex sells, but I feel like that’s just the easy (tested) way out. I hope your vision comes true one day (very) soon!

  • Tabithia

    I want to do this. You let me know if you figure out how. I have actually been considering going to grad school in a year or so for my masters in mass communication. The first project I plan on working on is how body image is shaped by the media. I don’t me channels like E! and news stories and certain magazines that make their money on talking about how beautiful or “hideous” different famous people are and what they wear. I want to focus on television shows that deal with fashion like Project Runway and What Not to Wear. Both are shows I enjoy watching and both have a habit of saying things that offend me like, “You don’t have to be happy with the body you have, you can change it with clothes!” Which is true, and we all do it at some point or another, but it’s the fact that they were encouraging this beautiful, volumptious girl to work against her shape and the idea that the only correct style for clothing is that which will make you look taller, thinner and like you have a defined waist.

    Oh…and anti-stretch mark commercials piss me off too.

  • Lynn

    I thought about this off and on today, which is probably an indication of how important I think the topic is. However, as someone who volunteers at a free clinic, part of this bothers me. I agree that a woman in a size 28 dress should never be considered unattractive or ugly, but I see so many women that size and bigger with terrible health problems and life limitations that it worries me to think about a billboard. I’m not sure how to resolve my feelings about this…….

  • I love the sound of your voice in the world.

  • It is too bad that you didn’t win, since it sounds like a great idea.

  • Marie

    Great essay. I partially blame the very nature of advertising, meant to convince us that product X will help us attain perfection. Problem is, most advertising only ever portrays the stereotypical ideal beauty, ignoring the fact that there are many definitions of perfection. I especially love when all shapes and sizes of women are included naturally and seamlessly, with no special footnotes to tell me someone’s beautiful, as if I should have some reason to think they’re not.

  • Anonymous

    Calling a 4’10 woman “Powerful” to be “ironic” or “provocative” is, quite frankly, insulting. Being “powerful” has nothing to do with looks, unlike conventional definitions of “gorgeous” or “sexy”. I’m shorter than that, have a Ph.D. in biophysics, and you damn well better believe I am powerful – and no one has ever used my height to make me feel otherwise, it would be laughable if they did.

    • Sal

      Having spoken with several colleagues and close friends who are under five feet, my impression is that many people – ESPECIALLY women – who are in that height range are treated as weak or childlike, almost by default. I’m glad to hear that you’ve never had that experience personally, but clearly others have. I agree that being powerful isn’t contingent upon looks, and that’s kind of the point: That anyone in any body can be powerful, and making assumptions to the contrary is ignorant and, to use your word, insulting.

      Furthermore, the goal of this proposed campaign isn’t to focus solely on beauty but to dispel stereotypes about women’s bodies on multiple levels. Hence the inclusion of a word like “powerful” alongside words that describe beauty-related traits.

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  • Beautifully said. I wholeheartedly agree. Love this.

  • Anonymous

    Sal, petite Anonymous again. This isn’t meant as any sort of commentary on your petite colleagues and friends, since obviously I don’t know them at all, just a general comment – One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people treat you based on how you present yourself, and how you act. eg, if you *act* confident, people treat you like you’re confident. Which of course makes you more confident. If you *act* like you’re attractive, people treat you like you’re attractive. (Provided you do these short of being obnoxious about them!) I decided years ago that height is actually a state of mind, and so I’d just ignore it and present myself the way I wanted people to view me – and it’s *amazing* how people respond to the image that you present, and the positive feedback loop continues, until – voila! The image that you present becomes true. There’s some truth to “fake it till you make it”. I had a very petite classmate who wore her hair in pigtails and acted pretty immaturely – and people responded accordingly. I have another petite classmate with spiky hair, tough attitude, and more piercings than I can count, and I wouldn’t want to encounter her in a dark alley! I think self-portrayal is a large part of the game.

    I’d be interested in a sign with a stereotypical “blonde bombshell” with the label “Brilliant” and see how people react to that – the joke in the academic community is that “pretty = 1/smart”… It’s a joke, but you kind of wonder if people want to initially believe this unless proven otherwise.