Sex sells, as they say. Another great way to sell a product? Make people feel terrible about themselves.
The beauty and fashion industries have awakened somewhat in recent years to the plight of widespread body-shaming in advertising. Some storefront mannequins are a little closer to resembling the physique of the average American; magazine covers have partly abandoned their manifestoes to “stop aging” and help women achieve “bikini bodies.” And diversity has increased; images of models like Winnie Harlow and Nyakim Gatwech can be seen plastered across subway cars and makeup counters.
But some companies still refuse to get with the times. Major corporations continue to rake in millions by body-shaming women and using subliminal messaging about conforming to prescriptive standards of beauty.
It’s important to note that while some brands have recently turned against body-shaming practices, it’s an extremely new phenomenon. Plenty of the products that claim to support body positivity by focusing on health and empowerment still built their platforms through decades of marketing messages that banked on women wanting to alter their bodies. The damage has been done, in other words. And while magazines may be eliminating phrases like “get bikini ready” and “drop two sizes,” their glossy covers often still include, as Greatist writes, “plenty of other phrases (‘3-minute fat blasters’ and ‘go to bed 35, wake up 25’) to make us feel not so great about the skin we’re in.”
Body shaming is all around us. Here are three of the worst corporate shamers, and three that are starting to get it right.
1. Lululemon (revenue: $1.8 billion in 2015)
Many have criticized athletic brand Lululemon for equating health with skinniness and for actively discouraging anyone from shopping at its stores who can’t fit into a size 8 or under. A 2012 petition on Change.org tried to pressure Lululemon to produce plus-size options to no avail (the average American woman wears a size 14; Lululemon’s products only go up to 12). The anti-fat culture at the brand was clearly bred from the top down: founder Chip Wilson stepped down in 2013 after publically acknowledging that “some women’s bodies just don’t actually work” for some of the brand’s clothing. But his legacy lives on in some of his employees who have been accused of fat-shaming customers several times this year (in Park City, Utah and in Ohio). As one retail branding expert told the Huffington Post, “They hate unhealthy living, and for better or worse, plus-size people aren’t included in that. Lululemon is very image conscious. That’s why women are shelling out $100 for a pair of pants they could get at Target for $20.”
2. Bauer Media (revenue: 2.3 billion euros in 2015)
The media company owns tabloids like InTouch, a weekly tabloid that engages regularly in celebrity body-shaming, like the time the magazine accused Kate Middleton of looking too thin while she was pregnant with her first child. Bauer made headlines earlier this year after actor Rebel Wilson successfully sued the company for defamation. So, not a highly credible news source to say the least.
3. Victoria’s Secret (revenue: $12.6 billion in 2016)
The brand, owned by L Brands, is best known by many for its ambassadors, the “Angels,” who don’t include a single plus-size model among their numbers. It’s not a huge surprise that Victoria’s Secret advertises lingerie using a strange combination of body shaming and propping up the male gaze. “The Perfect Body” campaign, for example, which featured all thin and light-skinned women, received intense criticism when it was released.
And here are three that are getting it right (or at least trying to).
— Barbie (@Barbie) January 28, 2016
The original 1959 Barbie Doll and her impossible-to-achieve waistline are relics of the past. In 2016, the toy company released a collection of Barbie dolls that are much more inclusive of the body types, skin colors and ethnicities that make up American women today. The 2016 Barbie Fashionistas collection includes four body types (including three new ones: “petite,” “curvy” and “tall” — progress is slow, people), as well as 22 eye colors, 24 hairstyles and seven skin tones (that’s a bit more like it!).
2. Sports Illustrated (owned by Time Inc.)
The swimsuit edition of the male-focused magazine always makes a splash, but the 2016 cover choice hit home for body positivity proponents. It featured plus-size model Ashley Graham (a size 16), and muscular MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. While women’s magazines obviously have much to gain by promoting diverse body types, it wasn’t so clear at the time that male audiences wanted to see anything beyond the standard bikini-clad size 0. SI editor M.J. Day said at the time, “Beauty is not cookie cutter. Beauty is not 'one size fits all.' Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year's issue." Then, this past July, Sports Illustrated released a line of inclusive swimwear for curvier bodies.
Finally, the award for trying, but still missing the mark goes to…
3. Dove (revenue: 52.7 billion euros in 2016)
Dove (owned by Unilever) has been guilty of body-shaming advertising long before it was spurned for its pro-whitewashing 2017 commercial, which was eerily remniscient of Jim Crow-era advertisements for soap that suggested black skin was dirty. The company later apologized. Dove’s intentions may be good — at least, in the name of selling bath products, mind you— such as its “Real Beauty Sketches” commercial series in which women are shown artist-rendered portraits of themselves and are astounded by how attractive they’re perceived as compared with how critical they are of themselves. But as hard as the brand tries to be an advocate for women, it makes continuously off-color moves, like earlier in 2017 when Dove produced a limited-edition set of body wash bottles meant to evoke different female body shapes. If this is Dove’s solution to body shame, it needs to find a better way.
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