THE BLOG
11/25/2013 10:39 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Building a Case for Real Beauty

Real beauty. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it is now a welcome message for many women. While the shift has been slowly building, we're currently witnessing an important sea change in how beauty is viewed in today's culture. One can almost map the evolution -- which I believe is about to become a Revolution -- so let's take a look at our progress.

In 2004, Dove began its campaign for Real Beauty with what then seemed like an innovative idea; print ads using everyday women instead of models. Their now iconic photo of six women with real bodies and real curves provoked a global conversation about female stereotypes, body image and the importance of widening the definition of beauty. In 2006, after gaining enormous approval from consumers, the campaign continued by creating videos related to the topic. The first one, " Evolution," showed a model transformed, from unadorned to billboard perfection, using the magic of makeup, lighting and photoshop. Another, "Real Sketches," compared two artist drawings of the same woman -- one based on a self-reported description, the other on a stranger's -- revealing women's tendency to be more critical of their appearance than others are. More recently, the organization Global Democracy created a time lapsed video with the similar intent; to demonstrate how digital alterations can create an image that barely resembles its original model. The clip received worldwide attention. All these videos have gone viral, with millions of views on YouTube, signaling an eagerness by many to change the culture of beauty.

While the makers of Dove may have led the way, others followed. Last year, The American Medical Association (AMA) denounced the retouching of images in advertising, asking for stricter guidelines for the way photos are manipulated in ad campaigns. AMA physicians believe that portraying models with body types attainable only through editing could contribute to the body image problems plaguing women today. Around the same time, members of the French parliament proposed a policy requiring all digitally enhanced photographs include a warning label indicating that the images may be detrimental to one's health. Failure to do so in advertisements, press photos, political campaigns, art photography and product packaging would lead to a serious fine.

The trend continues to spread worldwide. English officials chimed in after London magazines featured 59-year-old Twiggy, photoshopped without a single wrinkle for an Olay ad. Jo Swinson, a member of the British Parliament said, "Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable perfect images no one can live up to in real life. We need to help protect children from these pressures and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them."

In 2006, the Spanish government demanded a ban on overly thin women from its fashion runways. This year, the media was abuzz when a popular clothing store in London, Debenhams, decided to use mannequins that look more like real women. They told reporters they believed that other stores in Europe would likely follow, since these new figures more accurately reflect the true market.

It's a sentiment that is growing stronger and louder around the world and from women of all ages. Remember 14-year-old Julia Bluhm, so outspoken about this issue? She inspired the "Keep It Real Challenge," gathering thousands of her peers to sign a petition against the use of Photoshop in teen magazines. Employing social media to gain momentum, she staged a protest in front the Hearst Corp., and got Seventeen's editor-in-chief, Ann Shoket, to sit down and talk about the magazine's picture-doctoring practices. Shoket ultimately agreed to at least one unaltered photo spread per issue.

Stimulated by Bluhm's success, several other organizations -- Spark, MissRepresentation.org, Lovesocial.org and I Am That Girl -- joined together in a similar venture to reach other magazines. A three-day campaign was launched as a Facebook event. First, Twitter was used to directly ask magazines to pledge to change their Photoshop practices. Participants were then asked to blog about how unrealistic images of beauty have impacted them. On the last day, girls were asked to post photos of "real beauty" on Instagram, with a selection featured on a billboard in New York City. The campaign was a wild success.

Verily, the first adult fashion magazine in recent history was published this year promising to forgo all digitally altered images. Founders Kara Eschbach and Janet Sahm want to promote the idea that "the unique features of women, whether crows feet, freckles, or a less-than-rock-hard body, are aspects that contribute to women's beauty and should be celebrated -- not shamed, changed or removed." The magazine garnered enormous media attention and the support of women around the world.

We're seeing this trend elsewhere in the media. The HBO series Girls is a hit for lots of reasons; among them is its very real-looking star/writer/producer and her willingness to portray herself as breaking the stereotype of conventional beauty. Lena Dunham takes great pains to display 20-somethings as far less than perfect. She almost exaggerates her physical flaws on camera, to make the point; she is who she is and she represents how most "girls" truly are in the real world. Orange is the New Black, another hit series, stars a wide variety of real looking women of all ages -- unadorned with no makeup and in prison garb -- but each growing more beautiful than the next as the season goes on.

The hopeful news continues. Recently, the "Regular Woman" campaign was launched by Curvy Girl, a lingerie boutique in California. Women were asked to submit unadorned photos of themselves, regardless of their shape and size, to celebrate the beauty of average, non-model looking females. Some celebrities have done the same, posting their unaltered images online, just to make the point; they may be considered beautiful by most, but they're not perfect by any means.

Other celebs have asked that their digitally altered photos be removed from magazines. Thirty eight-year-old Kate Winslet, 44-year-old Rachel Weisz and 54-year-old Emma Thompson have all been quite outspoken about cookie-cutter beauty and its impact on the aging celebs. Winslet told The Telegraph, "People who look too perfect don't look sexy or particularly beautiful," And Emma Thompson added, "We're in this awful youth-driven thing now where everybody needs to look 30 at 60." Surely these women can afford to take such a stand -- being so young (it's all relative) and beautiful (yes, also relative) -- but their attitude toward it all has been well received.

As I see it, the yearning for perfect beauty is beginning to lose strength among every day women and celebs alike. Boomers may have been the first to feel what I call, "image fatigue," as their attempts to appear younger led to too many inauthentic looking faces and bodies. That plastic, overly puffed up, frozen image has become a turn off to many, in part because they have begun to all look the same. And the next generation is feeling it too: Millennials are experimenting with more fashion and makeup statements that express authenticity. For many young women, less is becoming more.

Seems like women's voices are joining together and are finally being heard: "We want to feel and look attractive, but there isn't just one way to do that. We want to look like ourselves, not someone else." At last, real may be the new beautiful.

*******

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

For more by Vivian Diller, Ph.D., click here.