In the beginning, there was the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. It started innocuously enough, with a 2004 photography show in Toronto, then expanded to billboards, traditional print ads, and videos, all with similar messages: Women often feel bad about themselves and their appearance, and it’s bad that women feel that way.
The campaign first gained wide acclaim simply by showing a time-lapse version of a model in a faux beauty ad being photoshopped to unattainable perfection. The video contained no narration, but it demonstrated the manipulative nature of beauty advertising on both a level that ad giant Ogilvy & Mather intended and one it probably didn’t.
This was more than a decade ago, when the phrase “Facetuned Instagram” was total nonsense on a literal level instead of just a spiritual one, and an admission of photo editing still felt subversive to average consumers. The brands had been naughty, and Dove would gladly accept the praise for noting its own bad behavior.
The problem with using subversion as a corporate marketing tactic, though, is that if the brand is successful at it, the point it’s making becomes immediately non-subversive. And Dove was very successful at it — the beauty industry had always worked so hard to obscure its tactics and encode its negativity that many consumers felt understandably relieved to see the manipulation acknowledged, even if the only solution Dove offered was the opportunity to buy its products.
As the viral campaign helped cultural knowledge of image editing spread rapidly, beyond just people who read the feminist websites that had long been critical of the practice, Dove had to up the ante. It did so by devising a series of ads that put unsuspecting women in various contrived situations — choosing to walk into a building through doors labeled “beautiful” or “average,” for example, or being spontaneously required to describe their faces to a sketch artist.
Those sketches were then compared to others’ descriptions of them, revealing for ad viewers just how much these women hate themselves. In the case of the door experiment, it’s unclear why anyone with a functional knowledge of how averages work could reasonably expect all women to consider their appearances “above average.”
That these later ads leave out any larger agent responsible for the body image epidemic isn’t a mistake. Dove and its ad agency had picked up on something important in the positive response to its first ad: They didn’t need to take responsibility or propose a solution. While the logical continuation of that thought for anyone who doesn’t work at an ad agency would be that maybe brands should mind their business instead of dabbling in ineffective cultural criticism — that maybe they’re not the institutions we should be looking to on these topics at all — they saw an opportunity.
The cultural narrative about women’s bodies was so bad that simply identifying the problem would get Dove full credit and move plenty of product, but the urge to talk about a broad cultural problem while refusing to name a bad actor left the blame squarely on the shoulders of the women who had the temerity not to love themselves sufficiently.
In the context of advertising, women’s self-perceptions are invented out of whole cloth, with no apparent connection to the circumstances of their lives. And so we have the marketing landscape as we know it now, courtesy of Dove: gentle, millennial pink, and passive-aggressively reproachful of women who have allowed themselves to feel bad about their bodies. On top of all the old, existing insecurities, Dove posited that women might adopt a lucrative new one: shame over feeling bad in the first place. The brands had become self-aware, and an idea broadly known as body positivity hit the big-time.
The enormous public success of Dove’s ads flipped a switch in the minds of other people in the attention business. The Real Beauty campaign launched a thousand imitators, but not because it inspired a wave of genuine self-reflection in the people who make a living inventing things for women to feel bad about. Instead, it taught brands like Aerie and Target, which have both received waves of positive public attention for Photoshop-free campaigns, that they could get exposure for pennies on the advertising dollar if they created content that people felt compelled to share themselves, above and beyond paid placements.
For that, Ogilvy execs should probably be tried at the Hague for war crimes, but I’d settle for the broad acknowledgment that body positivity, as we know it in 2018, is a load of horse shit.
Like most ideas that become anodyne and useless enough for corporate marketing plans, “body positivity” didn’t begin that way — it started out radical and fringe, as a tenet of the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s. Back then, body positivity was just one element of an ideology that included public anti-discrimination protests and anti-capitalist advocacy against the diet industry, and it made a specific political point: To have a body that’s widely reviled and discriminated against and love it anyway, in the face of constant cultural messaging about your flaws, is subversive.
Now body positivity has shed its radical, practical goals in favor of an advocacy that’s entirely aesthetic and a problem that can be wholly solved by those looking to sell you something. The brands previously thought you should feel one way about yourself, and now they have decided that’s no longer appropriate for their goals. How you talk about yourself should change, even if nothing has changed that would materially affect how you feel.
The way these companies see it, our self-perception is unrelated to the external forces that determine the circumstances of our existence, which is why they think telling us to do better is enough to absolve them of responsibility. When brands offer solutions like using bigger models or those with more varied skin tones, or vowing that cellulite or stretch marks will survive their ads’ retouching process, they’re just barely eliding the fact that they think the problem is all in your head. Show you some different pictures and everything will get better, right?
Why a corporation’s opinions about anyone’s self-worth should matter or be seen as a legitimate sales tool for consumer goods is still unclear, but that dynamic has given rise to an entrepreneur class of its own. For instance, a conventionally attractive Instagram model clapping back at her haters, or a literal supermodel who feels the need to publicly answer her anonymous, powerless social media critics. Or that supermodel’s cousin who is a hero to women everywhere for displaying one single fat roll (again, on Instagram).
An alarming percentage of the public conversation about which bodies our culture values or rejects pivots around models, actresses, and other professionally beautiful people reassuring what they seem to believe is a dubious public that they are, in fact, super hot.
There’s nothing capitalism can’t alchemize into a business opportunity, but for it to be a useful tool for marketers, body positivity needed to be decoupled from fatness and political advocacy, sanitized, and neatly repackaged into something that begins and ends with images. So now, what we talk about when we talk about our physical selves is who gets to be thought of as pretty and who doesn’t, as though personal beauty is an obligatory part of a fulfilling life.
Brands have done such a good job at setting tight boundaries on our expectations and their own responsibilities that even when we chide fashion designers for not being size-inclusive on the runway, we gloss over the reason they’re not: The vast majority of fashion brands make no size-inclusive clothing and don’t see people with different bodies as worthy of being their customers.
Everlane recently launched a new underwear line featuring a plus-size model in its ad campaign, despite making no actual plus-size underwear for sale. A special outfit made for a size 14 runway model or a photo of the very largest woman who can wear a product made in a conventional size range doesn’t address structural bias in any meaningful way, but it does paper over the problem in the only way required by our current cultural values.
In this system, corporate interests have a clear opening to insert themselves into the fray and emerge as heroes simply by hiring an ad agency or casting director who can read the room, and without changing their business’s treatment of anyone. Body positivity in 2018 rushes right up to the line between aesthetics and politics but puts not one toe over it.
What brands and individuals alike are less enthusiastic to talk about is how having a noncompliant body — whether it’s fat, nonwhite, trans, disabled, or some combination thereof — impacts someone’s life, how those external conditions affect someone’s sense of self-worth, and how corporate interests have long benefited from and upheld the structural forces that create inequality.
There’s nothing an ad can (or intends to) do to ameliorate any of the actual problems that harm people’s self-perception, but that doesn’t stop brands from taking enormous credit for their newfound surface-level wokeness. There’s no radicalism in the sales department.
Instead, corporatized, media-friendly body positivity as we now know it puts the onus on people living in marginalized bodies to turn their criticism inward, which is essentially the same thing brands selling clothes or underwear or personal care products have required of us all along. This time, though, those people are told not to be ashamed of their physical selves, based on the premise that there was never anything wrong with them to begin with, as though the same companies that claim to be guiding this “movement” haven’t been selling insecurity for years.
What none of this addresses, of course, is why someone might hate their body. There is no inherent unhappiness to womanhood, or to fatness, or to blackness, or to anything else that American beauty standards have long treated as a problem. The conditions under which we loathe ourselves are socially constructed, but in practical terms, they’re very real.
Women aren’t taken seriously when they report sexual assault. Fat people are turned away from help for serious medical issues because of their weight. Black people are more likely to be the targets of state violence. Trans people are murdered at a rate far outpacing the population average. Having certain types of bodies makes you more likely to die an early and unnecessarily painful death that will be blamed on you before your body is even cold, so I’m not sure why it’s so mystifying and dismaying to the world at large that people in those bodies might not think much of themselves.
Contemporary body positivity makes it incumbent on people with nonconforming bodies to change their own self-perception without requiring anyone with any power to question what created the phenomenon in the first place.
Because consumer-facing brands are such effective attention magnets, and because so much media coverage of their marketing efforts is credulous and brand-friendly (advertising doesn’t exist without someplace to buy space, after all, and most media doesn’t exist without advertising — BuzzFeed notoriously deleted an op-ed critical of Dove’s marketing tactics after publication), these requirements for how we talk about our bodies and those of the people around us have seeped from the ads into the population at large.
Nothing has changed in how most people feel about themselves; instead, it’s simply become very gauche to articulate any of those negative feelings. That wouldn’t be very body-positive of you.
Criticizing the cultural regime of body positivity is a precarious pursuit, though. Media has been so flatly thin, white, straight, and cisgender for so long that seeing more types of bodies does feel like a step in the right direction, if only a very shallow and tentative first step. And body positivity as a vague concept has been a useful touchstone for plenty of people trying not to hate themselves in a world that insists on it.
Those people aren’t wrong to have found it useful; they’ve been put in a bad position and are using the tools available. What we need to do — and what will largely rely on preventing corporate interests from setting the parameters of the conversation and withholding praise from brands for doing the absolute bare minimum — is give them better tools. That’s why corporate-approved body politics feels so dangerous, though.
These companies, with all their resources and reach and ability to manipulate public opinion, have done something they do frequently: They’ve conflated identifying a problem with solving it, and if we let ourselves be convinced these issues are headed in the right direction and our problems really are internal, then we ignore the very real reasons so many people don’t feel good about being the people they are in the world we live in.
When you peel back all the layers of infantilization that Dove and its marketing progeny have heaped on us, though, you get something that’s pretty simple: A lot of people are genuinely sick of being pushed to feel bad about themselves all the time, and they probably also don’t want to expend the energy required to performatively love themselves in the body positivity mode preferred by the idea’s advocates online.
They probably just want to buy and use soap that works, have access to clothing in their size, and not think about their physical selves so much. They also probably don’t want to be denied job opportunities or refused lifesaving medical care because of what they look like. None of that requires a body wash brand to weigh in on anyone’s self-worth, and maybe the most helpful thing brands could do for all of us is shut the fuck up.