Fifteen years ago, Unilever – one of the world’s largest cosmetics manufacturers – launched an ambitious advertising campaign that eschewed product placement altogether. The Dove Real Beauty campaign launched with a photography exhibition, featuring the work of 67 female photographers, which soon morphed into a multimedia advertising strategy featuring a now iconic line up of ‘regular’ women of different body shapes, sizes and ethnicities.
The idea of diverse representation in media and advertising has since coalesced into the body positivity movement, which has existed to varying degrees since the 60s. More recently, it has been spurred on by the far reaching influence of social media and a new generation of body positive campaigners have emerged.
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Some have crafted lucrative careers thanks to their refusal to conform to mainstream beauty standards, while others have incited grassroots movements with the help of viral hashtags. The most recent of these hails from Russia, thanks to teenage influencer Natalia Zemlianukhina. Two weeks ago, she posted an artfully shot video to her 1.2 million Instagram followers featuring a group of young women. They showcase their stretch marks, burns, acne and hair loss.
The video was accompanied by the hashtag #AllisFineWithMe and Zemlianukhina, who has suffered from anorexia in the past, implored her followers to post photographs of themselves without make-up. She hopes it will dispel pressure women may feel to “improve or change” their appearance.
The video is clearly reminiscent of the 2004 Dove campaign that signalled a new era in the body positive movement, but how much progress has really been made since?
The mid Noughties were the halcyon days for an aesthetic embodied by the era’s poster girl, Paris Hilton – Caucasian, stick thin, with a blonde bouffant and perky beasts. Social media was in its infancy and it would take some years for women to utilise its power and rail against this narrow definition of what women should look like.
When they did, it seemed seismic. Plus-size model Ashley Graham is now a household name. Size 26 Tess Halliday became a lingerie-wearing Cosmo cover girl on the back of a hashtag she created, while British model Charlie Howard relaunched her career thanks to a frustrated Facebook post denouncing her former agency that insisted her size 8 frame was too big. Countless women joined rank, empowered by a rally cry to dismantle the patriarchy, burn the centrefolds and revel in their unshaved body hair.
Yet somehow we are still bombarded daily with photographs of the female body. The only difference is we are the ones taking them. The body positive movement reassures women that uploading a selfie that ’embraces the flaws’ is empowering when, in fact, these photographs render the whole movement pointless.
Isn’t it convenient that the areas of the body we photograph to display our stretch marks and cellulite are still erogenous zones – thighs, buttocks, chests. Yes, there are body positive hashtags imploring people to show off their acne and alopecia, but overwhelmingly, these images still feature a woman in her smalls. We may think we are sticking it to the man, but these photographs still have all the hallmarks of imagery created for his gaze.
Far better to leave it to the professionals. This unrest has forced former gatekeepers of body image to change tack and represent more than one type of woman. The Victoria’s Secret fashion parade, the final bastion of Hilton-esque femininity, has been temporarily toppled because of its refusal to cast diverse models, while just this week, the company has featured a plus-size model in a major campaign.
The Pirelli calendar has been utterly transformed, replacing naked women with fierce portraits of academics, sportswomen and actresses. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has scrambled to include women of different ages, sizes and abilities.
By forcing these arbiters of body image to diversify, the body positive movement has succeeded. Where it threatens to dismantle itself is its obsession with documenting the female body. Whether it’s over sharp collarbones or soft stomachs, this fixation reduces a woman’s body into a commodity. So where to now for the body positive movement? Body neutrality calls for acceptance of your own physicality. No ’embracing’ of so called flaws and, crucially, no half-naked selfies.
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