One of the contestants in this year’s Miss USA pageant made national headlines last week even though she didn’t ultimately win the competition. Social media users praised Miss Indiana for having a “normal body,” rather than being a “complete twig” in her bikini. “I think the normality that everybody keeps talking about is just the fact that I’m relatable,” the contestant, whose real name is Mekayla Diehl, said in an interview with People Magazine. “I’m confident in my own skin. I didn’t obsess over being too skinny or not being tall enough.”
The positive reception for Diehl isn’t the only recent example of pop culture sparking a larger conversation around the unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies.
Earlier this year, the lingerie line Aerie and the British department store Debenthams won widespread praise for announcing they won’t retouch their underwear models anymore. Brands like Pantene, Special K, and Dove have released ads specifically intended to empower women. Seventeen Magazine promised not to alter the body sizes or face shapes of its models after an online petition asking for more images of “real girls” went viral. An increasing number of celebrities are expressing disappointment with having their photographs altered. And this past spring, TV viewers reacted with horror when the winner of the reality show “The Biggest Loser” appeared to have lost too much weight.
So are we getting closer to a tipping point where unrealistic images of women’s beauty are going out of style? Are brands starting to recognize that photoshopping hurts their bottom lines? Will TV viewers start rejecting contestants who are unrealistically thin?
Well, not exactly, according to Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who studies media objectification and body image issues.
“I think it tells us how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone when an unusually tall and thin woman with no visible cellulite and plenty of visible musculature is seen as representing the ‘average’ American woman simply because she is not dangerously thin,” Engeln said in reference to Miss Indiana, who is a size 4. “She looks healthy — and that’s great. But it’s worth backing up for a moment and noticing that we’re talking about a contest that involves women walking around in bikinis while others evaluate the worthiness of their physical appearance.”
And of top of that, it’s important to remember that companies like Aerie, Debenthams, and Dove are still very much in the minority. The movement toward non-airbrushed images is “so minuscule as to be practically invisible,” according to Engeln, and even ads that aren’t retouched don’t necessarily feature real diversity when it comes to age, race, and body size.
“There’s a paradox at work here: Many women like looking at the very same images they feel hurt by,” Engeln pointed out. “Advertisers shows us highly idealized, airbrushed images because we find them so compelling, because they help to sell products. Much of the effectiveness of advertising rests on creating a sense of vulnerability in the consumer and offering a product to allay that vulnerability. We claim we want to see more realistic images, but we also like looking at beautiful people.”
“There’s certainly a middle ground there,” she added, “and I hope more advertisers find it.”
Conversations about unrealistic portrayals of women are hardly new. Dove’s “real beauty” campaign — which purports to celebrate women of all shapes and sizes, but which has garnered some criticism for being too patronizing — recently marked its 10th anniversary. Over the past two decades, the issue of retouching models was covered in documentary films and television shows before it was the subject of Jezebel posts. But thanks to the internet, these discussions now have wider reach.
“We’ve known this was going on for a long time. However, women may be starting to care about the issue more than they used to,” Engeln said. “What we’re seeing in the past few years is that ‘sharing’ instances of particularly egregious photoshopping and videos about photoshopping has become a regular part of social media for women.”
Some members of Congress are beginning to take notice, too. The “Truth In Advertising Act of 2014,” introduced by Reps. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) this past March, would allow the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on companies that use overly retouched images in their ads. “The dissemination of unrealistic body standards has been linked to eating disorders among men and women of varying age groups, but it has a particularly destructive health effect on children and teenagers,” the legislation notes. Anti-eating disorder groups lobbied in support of the bill this spring, but it hasn’t moved yet.