Dove

Are some kinds of beauty more real than others?

By now, we’re probably all familiar with Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign – in which the company showcases and celebrates “real bodies and real curves,” aiming to expand the definition of beauty and boost women’s self-esteem.

Just take this picture on the left, for example – the familiar lineup of thin, lithe models is contrasted against a row of curvaceous, ostensibly more realistic-looking women.

Dove isn’t alone in trying to change beauty ideals for women.

Well-meaning blog posts and the Crossfit movement argue that “strong is the new skinny,” calling on girls and women to change the way they relate to their bodies through exercise and feeling good about what their bodies can do, not how small their dress size can be.

Similarly, Breaking Muscle points out that the usual discussions of “ideal” weight don’t include muscle, and that it’s more important to focus on how you feel and what you can accomplish than any numbers on a scale (while showing off your muscles, of course).

“Strong is the new skinny” seems to be catching on – there are even t-shirts.

I’m all for efforts to change female beauty ideals – we can’t all be lithe, long creatures with perfectly manageable hair and smooth, evenly-toned skin. But we also can’t all be curvy, or muscular, or anything else, because no matter what products we buy, what diets we try, or exercise programs we adopt, we will all look different.

Of course it’s important to stop telling girls and women that being skinny is the only way to be beautiful, but replacing thinness with a different ideal doesn’t fix the problem, it only changes it.

Look at the “Real Beauty” picture again – by promoting the beauty of the second row of women, is Dove trying to tell us that the women in the first row are not beautiful (or, worse yet, not real)? And “strong is the new skinny” implies that women who can’t bench press an impressive amount of weight or run a 10k are unattractive.

Why does making some women feel good about their appearance need to go hand-in-hand with attacks on the way other women look?

How to get a bikini body: get a bikini on and go to the beach.

Enough said.

Go Kaleo illustrates the very real problems with “strong is the new skinny.”

The author puts herself through an intense training and diet regimen, setting out to whittle down her body fat into the single digits while showing off her hard-earned muscles – and describes the way she felt at the end as “spacey, out of it, low energy,” because her body fat had reached unhealthily low levels.

She achieved a physique to rival any on the cover of a fitness magazine, and ended up feeling unwell.

The problem isn’t which beauty ideal we choose – it’s having any beauty ideal at all. No matter what magazines and movies and other media tell us “real women” look like — be it skinny, curvy, muscular, or anything else – most of us will not look that way. How about a culture that says that girls and women are fabulous, no matter what their shape?

Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.