Back in 2011, I wrote about the media and advertising construction of ‘real women‘ as curvy creatures who weren’t represented adequately by (apparently ‘unreal’) fashion and beauty models. I pointed out that all women are real – whether or not they are tall, black, short, trans, white, fat, athletic, thin, disabled etc – and so turning a cry for more diversity in models into a call from more ‘real women’ was somewhat pointless. After all, Halle Berry is no less ‘real’ than Susan Boyle. What is not real is the representation of Berry in the majority of images that we are shown of her. She’ll prepare for weeks before a red carpet event like the Oscars, will be styled and dressed on the night by professionals, and the images we’ll see in the media will have been shot by professionals too, under extremely good lighting. When shooting an advertising campaign, the final image we’ll see will not look exactly like the woman who showed up on the morning of the shoot. And we know why this is… we know they’re selling us a fantasy.
That’s where the construction of the ‘real woman’ has entered into some pretty sinister territory lately. As pointed out by Natasha Devon in a fantastic article for The Independent last Sunday, now that advertisers have started to respond to the calls for more ‘real women’ in their campaigns, it’s becoming more difficult to tell ourselves that this is make-believe. If the women they’re using are real and they’re not using Photoshop to smooth out their skin, then why don’t we look like them? Perhaps it’s because they’re professional models, or were selected for an advertising campaign by the sort of people who know what to look for in a model. Maybe their skin is naturally flawless, or they spent hours in make-up. Most of us don’t get to have our photograph taken by professionals and so that’s why many women don’t realise just how much work goes into creating these images.
You might be brilliant at doing your own hair and make-up, or known to all your friends for your fantastic sense of style but, at some point, everyone has been snapped at a bad angle by a friend with a cameraphone who has then shared the resulting photo on Facebook. Good lighting, flattering poses and a skilled photographer are all used in professional photoshoots. Therefore, even if they use bloggers or customers to model for them, the advertisers will be able to create a perfect world for you to buy into. As Natasha Devon pointed out:
Some have now begun to broaden the scope of shapes, sizes ages and races of models they’re using and for that they should be given credit. But they’ve gone and ruined it by naively jumping on the ‘real woman’ bandwagon, actually jeopardising our self-esteem in the process. So, if you really want to do us all a favour, advertisers, you should simply do this: Attach a disclaimer to every billboard, bus stop, TV ad, magazine and website that says:
“Adverts deal in fantasy. This is a world we have carefully constructed to create the illusion of a party to which you will not be invited until you buy our product. However, the party does not exist and your invite will be lost in the post. This is NOT real”.
So, once and for all, let’s ditch the ‘real women’ label. Adverts and fashion/beauty shoots are not real they are aspirational. If we choose to buy the products, we are hoping to buy into the feeling that the advert evokes rather than exactly imitate the women in the images. I am impressed at the increased diversity that the likes of No7 and Debenhams are introducing into their advertising and really hope that more brands follow them, but I’ve had enough with this obsession with what is real and what is not. Who are they to decide this anyway?