This is an image from the Debenhams High Summer Lookbook. And so are these:
I love these images because they attempt to show diversity in different and boundary-pushing ways. Many retailers will throw in one standard size woman of color and call their ads a celebration of all womanhood. But the women in the ads shown above are tall and short and fat and thin and brown and black and differently abled. And, of course, it would be nice to see an older woman, someone with tattoos, anyone not dressed in extremely femme-reading garments, and many, many other overlooked groups. But it’s progress.
What I don’t like is this statement from the Debenhams blog:
Here at Debenhams we believe that anyone can look fabulous in our range—which is why we’ve decided to break with convention … By becoming the first high street retailer in the UK to promote its latest fashion collections by using models in a diverse variety of ages, sizes and looks—the imagery in our “High Summer Look Book” turns its back on the industry norm of young thin models. Featuring an amputee, three models over 40 (including one nearing 70), a Paralympian athlete and not forgetting our swimwear shot with a size 18 model to celebrate curvelicious women.
Aside from the fact that curvelicious isn’t a word, this text absolutely reeks of self-congratulation. Showing non-normative bodies and saying LOOK AT THIS, LOOK HOW FANTASTIC WE ARE FOR INCLUDING THEM … well, it’s a start. Especially since the alternative is showing nothing but tall, thin, hourglass-y white women who’ve been Photoshopped within an inch of their lives. But it sure does make a move that could have been a real step in the right direction look like a self-serving PR stunt. Instead of being a company that acknowledges the diversity of the world and naturally wants to include it in advertising efforts, Debenhams sounds like they created these photos mainly because they knew they’d grab loads of media attention.
I believe that one of the most powerful ways to support diversity is to show it and NOT comment. To create a visual world that includes a truly varied picture of humanity, and make that snapshot the new normal by acting like it’s totally boring, utterly expected, and exactly what we see everywhere. Because it is what we see everywhere. Except on our TVs, in our movie theaters, and on the pages of our magazines.
I assume some of you watched Sesame Street with me back in the 70s. There was definitely a “one of each” situation going on there, but the actual human beings on that show were African-American and Latino and Caucasian in equal part and no one acted like that was a big deal. The Muppets themselves had blue and green and orange skin and differently shaped bodies and faces as a subtle way of showing kids that people come in a huge variety of shapes and colors, and all of them are trustworthy and interesting and unique on the inside no matter what their outsides look like. That was groundbreaking, back in the 70s: Creating a televised world of diversity and not making a huge deal out of it. And it certainly influenced my own worldview. Along with several other influences and factors, exposure to that televised world helped me learn to expect the people around me to be the same as me and different from me in recognizable ways and in ways I could never anticipate.
So when I saw the Debenhams lookbook and observed the festival of gushing that ensued, I felt a little weary. I wonder why, after all these years, a company still gets to be lauded as groundbreaking when it includes members of its actual consumer base in its advertising materials. Why is it extraordinary to picture ordinary women in your ads just because they are not all exactly alike? And when will doing so become so normal that we no longer have to throw a big party whenever it happens?
Although I wish they hadn’t been so keen to pat themselves on the back about it, I do applaud Debenhams for making this campaign a reality. And I hope to live to see the day when ads like these are utterly, unremarkably, fantastically normal.
Images via Adweek