10/23/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

The Pursuit of 'Real' Beauty


"If 'Real Men' Posed in Underwear Ads," apparently, none of them would have six-packs. None of them would have chiseled shoulders, angular faces or sculpted arms. None of them would have lean calves, and none of them would look like, well, most men at my cross-fit gym.

I do not doubt the good intentions of real beauty campaigns, but they seem to ignore the obvious. Like that guy by the bench press with less body fat than Michelangelo's David. Yes, that guy might not be "average," but what such campaigns forget is that body aesthetics are no longer controlled solely by the fashion industry (if they even ever were). We don't need to go to the gym, or even roll out of bed, to be paraded by hashtags of perky bums, sculpted shoulders and chiseled abs by people who are well outside the business of modeling (and whose pictures are not retouched). Instagram conveniently brings home the insecurity, and we don't know how to feel because, instead of telling us that body shape doesn't bloody matter, all that real beauty talk tells us is that our self worth entirely depends on whether we qualify to appear in a glossy magazine ad.

It is no wonder real beauty campaigns proliferate some of the body-image problems they try to solve. Has a real beauty campaign ever been truly representative? We might have already figured that skinny-shaming sucks too. But, more often, such campaigns are criticized for still leaning too much on the conventionally beautiful side. The women featured in Dove's latest (and largely lauded) 'Real Beauty' ad, might not have been runway models, but, as Slate writer David Zweig has pointed out, they were still "all fashionable and reasonably attractive." They did not have imperfect dye-jobs or acne scars. Instead, one woman was described as "thin so you could see her cheekbones." Dove has once again failed to represent every waist to hip ratio, every bust size, and the full range of skin and facial characteristics (or imperfections) that trot this planet, and while it might hurt to be told you are not quite a Victoria's Secret model, it sure hurts a lot more to be told you are not even average.

But is it really the average that makes us insecure or that real-but-above-average-looking guy by the bench press with chiseled shoulders or the real-but-above-average-looking girl at yoga class with a Jen Selter derriere? When was "beauty" ever attainable, and when was it ever average? The old ideal when "fatness" was considered more beautiful was precisely because voluptuousness was near impossible. People couldn't afford that much food, and body fat was a sign of wealth and status. Once "average" people became curvy, it fell out of vogue. Yes, we suck that way. We thrive on exceptionalism, and we will continue to walk down streets, and encounter flesh and blood humans who might be skinnier than we are, fitter than we are, and perhaps really just prettier than we are (whatever our beauty ideals may be). Have you seen Doutzen Kroes in the flesh? Boy, she does not need retouching.

Am I against a positive body image? Of course not. What I am against is feel-good propaganda that continues to underscore the exact same links between looks and self-worth that it purportedly seeks to undermine. The movement challenges our beauty ideals, but never once does it question the value of physical beauty, not in its own sense, but to self-worth. Instead, it lauds the same beauty pageant, and the only conversation that becomes possible is whether we are closer to the epitomical average.

But if real is average, and average is what industries should strive for, I wonder why the fashion industry bears the entire brunt? What is average about David Foster Wallace, Steve Jobs, or Tina Fey? But we are somehow told we should hold more pride in our intellectual achievements, that we can parade our wits, but not our bodies, as if our intellects, our brain cells, or even psychological predispositions to sanity are any more earned than our metabolisms, or our unusual heights. We are quicker to condemn the vanity of the flesh than the vanity of the mind, as if there are correct reasons on which to hinge our egos. We believe in meritocracies, yet we are unyielding to the hard work involved in getting six-packs, or the perfect derriere. And in our cult of average, we are much more ready to have average men posing for underwear ads than we are to have average men figure skate, style our hair, or even do ballet. But I don't want the average man to pose for underwear the same way I would not want him to do ballet.

I will not apologize for Michelangelo's David.