Does Dove Really Love Our Humps?

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When read in the current American cultural context, what passes on the surface as a redefinition of beauty, is in many ways subtly reaffirming the dominant and damaging trope of the 20th century that says the female body is imperfect unless it is sculpted to meet cultural and commercial needs.

Jennifer Flynn, Amanda Waterman, and Nate Garrelts

Historically and culturally, beauty is a moving target. What is gorgeous one decade and in one culture might be found hideous elsewhere. In the United States, for example, the stereotypical images of beauty have not always been the tiny waists and slim hips we are accustomed to seeing on television and in magazines. Throughout much of the eighteenth century American women envied the curves that women today hide in shame. Today the pendulum of beauty seems to be swinging in yet another direction, with popular media’s portrayal of real, healthy, athletic bodies. While many audiences find “reality advertising” and other seemingly honest depictions of the female body empowering for women, giving them the certainty to be comfortable in their own skin, these images exist largely in a media culture dedicated to thinness. When read in the current American cultural context, what passes on the surface as a redefinition of beauty, is in many ways subtly reaffirming the dominant and damaging trope of the 20th century that says the female body is imperfect unless it is sculpted to meet cultural and commercial needs.

The last time being anything but skinny was popular was in the 1890s. To the people in this time period weight gain was seen as a sign of increased energy, a better social life, and youthfulness. In fact, products like Fat-ten-u foods encouraged this lifestyle by featuring advertisements with plump women and ad copy promising to help thin women gain the weight they desired. A quote from one “satisfied” customer read: “In four weeks Professor William's famed FAT-TEN-U Foods increased my weight by 39 pounds, gave me new womanly vigour (sic) and developed me finely”. Within three decades this full-figured image had been displaced by the rebel women of the roaring 20’s who embodied much of the spirit of the jazz age through their empowerment, and found their place in history as symbols of a fashion revolution. These women who were not confined to their home and family traditions, ushered in some modern beauty ideals including flat chests, often bound with bandages, and tiny waists. Two decades later, during World War II, women were encouraged to be strong and able bodied as the ever popular Rosie the Riveter posters promoted with the famous phrase “We Can Do It!” written in large letters over a factory woman flexing her muscles.

Indeed, American images of beauty throughout the twentieth century seemed to alternate between these three trends: voluptuous, rail-thin, and healthy/athletic. For example, Marilyn Monroe showed off her curvy body in the 1950’s and early 1960’s; Twiggy, a model best known for her “twig legs” outlined the perfect 60’s shape with her “narrow body, perfect square shoulders, long legs, and small bust” , and 1970’s and 1980’s models like Cheryl Tiegs, Brooke Shields, and Cindy Crawford were featured, showing off their beautiful, healthy looking bodies . More recently, the invention of breast implants, eating disorders, and photoediting has made hybrids of these body images possible. According to Dr. Nancy Etcoff, author of “A Fashionable Body: A Brief History,” today’s ideal beauty is “…extremely tall and very thin, [women have] small hips, but a big bust…large eyes, large lips and a small nose”. While the results in real life are appealing to some, the description on paper sounds almost like it comes from science fiction. Indeed, many of the women who fit such descriptions are often created by equal parts computer code and genetic code.

Fortunately, in this new century there has been a concerted effort in mainstream media to accept all body shapes, which is especially fitting in our postmodern world where identity is as temporal as a MySpace page and weights fluctuate daily. Supermodel Tyra Banks for example has been a spokeswoman for real bodies around the world for a number of years now, empowering women and helping them to have the confidence in themselves regardless of their dress size. In an effort to refute the accusations that the retiree’s weight gain has affected her career, the February 2, 2007 airing of “Tyra” featured the 34 year-old model in a nothing more than a bathing suit and a pair of heels. When asked in an interview by, “Why such a bold move?” Tyra’s response was that she wanted to “speak out against anyone who makes women feel unattractive because of their size.”

This change in perception has most notably been ushered in through various advertising campaigns for products ranging from firming creams to sports wear. One of the most well-known attempts at changing the way people view female body image has been Dove’s “Campaign For Real Beauty.” This company has made it their calling to promote self-esteem through commercials, magazine ads, and even a self-esteem fund devoted to helping educate and inspire young women not to give into the stereotypical definition of beauty—whatever its current parameters. In an Associated Press interview, Dove’s marketing director Phillippe Harousseau stated that the corporation’s mission was “to make women feel more beautiful everyday by broadening the definition of beauty”. With that in mind, Dove set out to conduct a global study, “The Real Truth about Beauty: A Global Report.” This massive undertaking interviewed three thousand women in ten countries across the world and set out to discover women’s thoughts on beauty and well-being. When researchers tallied the totals, they found that only two percent of the interviewees would describe themselves as “beautiful,” and nearly 50 percent of the girls said that their weight was “too high”. But too high according to whose standards?

After this study was conducted, the Dove company went on a rampage. Suddenly, all of their advertisements were in support of the diversity of the shapes, sizes, and ages that shows a woman’s true beauty, inside and out. The primary models chosen for the ad campaign were six “average” American women of varying body types and ethnicities who ranged in pant sizes from 4 to 12. They were “discovered” in all different parts of the country and also came from all different walks of life. One worked at the Gap, another was a student, and another a barista . Another of the girls, Gina Christani, was approached by a scout while taking out the garbage one morning. The ads, which showed these “average” women posing in nothing but white underwear with big smiles on their faces, appeared on television and in magazines, as well as on billboards and buses in big cities such as New York.

Some would say these ads were a good way to get people to appreciate the beauty in all women, and it worked. The models received letters from many men and women who were happy the ads were run. Some of these letters included those from anorexia sufferers who would put the ads up where they could see them daily to remind themselves how beautiful “healthy” women could be . But everyone was not so fond of the advertisements. Columnist Lucio Guerrero wrote an article that criticized the advertising campaign on both logical and emotional grounds. One point he made was that women in the ads, while larger than most models, were technically smaller than the “average” American woman who is somewhere between a size 12 and 14 . He also expressed what many others were no doubt whispering, when he said “Really, the only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it” . While Guerrero was criticized by some for rude comments, the fact of the matter is he was not the only one who disliked the advertisements. Bill Zwecker of a CBS morning show had this spin on the ads: “In this day and age, when we are facing a huge obesity problem in this country, we don't need to encourage anyone -- women OR men -- to think it's okay to be out of shape” . Obviously, Zwecker is a proponent of the idea that full figured women are necessarily unhealthy women, which simply may not be the case, as is expressed in the recent Nike advertisements.

Nike has been, undisputedly, one of the top manufactures of athletic apparel since its debut in 1972, but has never until recently pushed the door open into women’s advertising. In an effort to appeal to, design for, and communicate to women Nike, like Dove, made the decision to feature “real” women in their ads . Athletes, moms, and young girls were plastered onto the pages of magazines, dressed in the usual running shorts, sports bras, and the ever present Nike shoes. One of Nike’s campaigns, “Thunder Thighs and Big Butts,” featured close-ups of toned, athletic women showing off some of their most prized possessions: their muscles. Accompanying one advertisement was a clever and witty paragraph about the feature being targeted:

I have thunder thighs. And that is a compliment because they are strong and toned and muscular and though they are unwelcome in the petite section they are cheered on in marathons. Fifty years from now, I’ll bounce my grandchildren on my thunder thighs, and then I will go out for a run.

Any active woman can agree that the more you care about your body and the more active you stay, the more your body begins to shift from rail-thin or chunky, to developed and muscular. That accomplishment is something to be celebrated, not something to be hidden and ashamed of. Nike’s advertising is helping to bring forth the celebration side of body image not only with their latest ads, but all along with advertisements enforcing family, self confidence, and athleticism. Before their call to runner’s legs and swimmer’s shoulders across the country, Nike mass produced pictures of adorable, wide-eyed girls holding baseball mitts and basketballs with the words “If You Let me play” in big bold letters, and a paragraph about how sports boost health and self-esteem. These ads were targeted towards a multi-generational audience, speaking out about how sports can affect the life of a developing young lady. The young women in the ads are stating ideas like:

If you let me play sports…I will like myself more…I will have more self-confidence…I will be 50 percent less likely to get breast cancer…I will suffer less depression…I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me…I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want too…I will learn to be strong…If you let me play.

In short, Nike is helping to promote athleticism and health for women, while at the same time selling products. They are also allying the fear of many women who believe that exercising will add gurthy curves to their body. This is subtly different from the Dove advertisements which one could argue are not promoting natural and healthy beauty at all, but saying that large women are made more beautiful by firming their body parts with crème—in effect giving women the look of having exercised. One journalist wrote that Dove might as well be saying “Those cottage cheese thighs are vile! Dear God, cover them up!” . These examples demonstrate how the media is beginning to connect with women on different multiple levels. With the help of product advertising and media support, this trend of looking beyond the perfect body to see real people will continue to be welcomed by audiences. After all, there is no logical reason why a female athlete of any age should feel uncomfortable with her strong arms and toned thighs, and there is no reason why a working mother of three should feel pressured to fit into a size two. And at the same time, we must be skeptical of any change in ideology brought on because of profit motive. In essence, some ads that appear to be pro-woman might be subtly reaffirming that the average woman is imperfect and in need of change. After all, isn’t that the point of many products—to keep us binging, purging, growing, shrinking and buying?

Works Consulted

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Jennifer Flynn and Amanda Waterman are students at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. Nate Garrelts is Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.

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