Can we stop trying to define “real beauty?”

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?

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.

13 thoughts on “Can we stop trying to define “real beauty?”

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  1. This is a great post! As a mom with 2 daughters it is difficult to raise them to be self-confident when they are bombarded with ideas of what perfect is. Perfect doesn’t exist. Why should women/girls be judged on their bodies at all? I agree, there should be no ideal; for women or men.

  2. Whenever someone says “real” before anything, in this type of context, it drives me crazy. “REAL women…”, “REAL men…”, and “REAL beauty…” don’t exist.

  3. I’m sorry…but I have to agree with the Dove campaign. Those overly thin, anorexic looking models are NOT real women. They are products of the fashion industry that demand size 00 women to wear/model their clothing, and I think Dove has it right trying to show this to our youth. I am an aunt of a 15 year old girl diagnosed with Exercise Bulimia. She has seen these stars and models and thinks she has to look like them to be beautiful….and that is so wrong!!!Her kidneys started to fail and then her heart began with troubles…we almost lost her. Now she will spend a lifetime battling this disease because of the imprinting the fashion world and society shows her that you have to have a skeletal figure to be beautiful The industry should start using what we are now calling “real” women to showcase their fashions. Why not use a size 6 or 8? Clothing can look, drape and fit those sizes as well as those starved little girls trying to be models. I know this will get some flack from some readers, but honestly…I don’t care. This is my opinion and having a niece I almost lost at 15 years of age because of this entitles me to this opinion!!

    A Concerned Aunt.

  4. I’m sorry, skinny women aren’t “real woman?”
    Why should you single out size 00-2 woman and tell them they aren’t worthy of being beautiful?!
    I am very thin (85 pounds) and it took me a month to gain 3 pounds, even though I am eating 3,000 calories per day, to the point where I get acid reflux. All the woman on my mom’s side can barely gain any weight!

    Now woman starving themselves so they can be skinny, I’m NOT OKAY with that! You should be happy with your body!
    Please try to be more accepting of different body types! One of those VS models may be crying her eyes out because she can’t gain a pound and the same for one of the Dove models, because she can’t lose a pound!

  5. First of all Emma…I didn’t say ALL skinny women…I pointed out the model and fashion industry if you read it carefully. Secondly, I am a plus size girl and I am accepting of ALL body types. Please read again to understand what I was saying and why. I don’t agree with the fashion industry wanting those types of models I described. They could weigh 80lbs and an agency would tell them to loose 10lbs and that’s not right…that’s my beef. Plus, if you read about my niece and her disease….that’s what makes it hit home for me all that much more. Please read things carefully before you accuse people of not accepting others!!

  6. I created a poster just a few minutes ago for the Facebook page “In The Wrong Line.” It contrasts our country obsesses over body while the biggest concerns for children in other countries is getting enough to eat.

  7. I really enjoy this post. I am a high school student and this is what girls in my grade need to read and to understand that they all are beautiful!!!

  8. I agree that the premise shouldn’t be to shame other body types or women BUT we should encourage healthy. Groups are calling out against fat shaming and I agree but only within reason. Metabolic syndrome, type two diabetes, and obesity are all very manageable medical conditions that have an adverse effect on the health of the individual and society at large. It’s time to step up and talk about HEALTH in terms of blood pressure, glucose, triglycerides, inches, and muscle content instead of just “strength” and “sizes.”

  9. I agree. It’s too darn easy to start attacking yet another body type for not meeting some NEW arbitrary beauty ideal, but it’s the same old song. Just for the record, the Dove ad was way off, too. Where were the really fat women? These ladies still looked skinny in the abs area. Not everyone has “washboard abs”. You’re right, though – EVERY body should be seen as beautiful, otherwise there’s always going to be someone who feels left out and therefore unacceptable and unattractive. To say otherwise would be hypocritical, and kids can pick up on hypocrisy really fast.

  10. For all of Dove’s talk about its “real beauty” campaign, I find it interesting that the picture on the bottom is just as photo-shopped as the one on the top. Sure, the models may not be photo-shopped to look thinner, like the VS girls are, but there’s definitely some skin-smoothing in the second photo. Understandable for a company selling skin-care products, but kind of deceiving for a campaign emphasizing “real” beauty.

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