On the heels of Jezebel’s splashy hunt for unretouched photos from Lena Dunham’s Vogue photo shoot — and coinciding with the tenth anniversary of Dove’s “Real Beauty” ad campaign — American Eagle underwear line Aerie unveiled “Aerie Real,” an ad campaign featuring unretouched photos and “no supermodels.” Hailed as “revolutionary,” the ads announce, “The girl in this photo has not been retouched. The real you is sexy.” With colorful undergarments marketed at women ages 15 to 21, Aerie seems to be casting itself as the anti-Victoria’s Secret— the Jezebel to Victoria’s Vogue.
Promoting body acceptance is, at this point, a tried-and-true genre of advertising, but “real woman” ads nevertheless send me into a self-doubting spiral every time I see them. Stage One, playing into their hands: Real bodies! So beautiful! Stage Two, eye-rolling: Why do I need a panties-peddling corporation to affirm the “real me”? Am I supposed to be weeping for joy right now, like all these women who didn’t know they were beautiful until a soap brand (phonily) told them so? Stage Three, backlash-to-the-backlash: But attainable beauty standards are better than unattainable ones, right? If feminist messages sell mall merchandise, that means we’re winning. Stage Four, eyes rolling all the way around: Even if it’s pro-woman, it’s still patronizing.