The Case for Real Beauty

We're seeing a revolution in how we view beauty. Here's why.

Posted Mar 20, 2014

Real beauty.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it is now a welcome message for many women. While the shift has been slowly building, we're witnessing a sea change in how beauty is viewed in our culture. One can almost map the evolution—which I believe is about to become a revolution—so let's take a look at our progress.

In 2004, Dove began its campaign for Real Beauty with what then seemed like an innovative idea; print ads featuring everyday women instead of models. Their now-iconic photo of six women with real bodies and real curves provoked a global conversation about female stereotypes, body image and the importance of widening our definition of beauty. In 2006, after gaining enormous approval from consumers, the campaign continued with videos related to the topic. The first, "Evolution," showed a model transformed from unadorned face to billboard perfection, using the magic of makeup, lighting and Photoshop. Another, "Real Sketches," compared two artist drawings of the same woman—one based on a self-reported description, the other on a stranger's—revealing women's tendency to be more critical of their appearance than others are. More recently, the organization Global Democracy created a time-lapse video with similar intent, demonstrating how digital alterations create an image that barely resembles its original model. All of these videos have gone viral, with millions of views on YouTube, signaling an eagerness by many to change the culture of beauty.

Others have followed: Last year, The American Medical Association (AMA) denounced the retouching of images in advertising, requesting stricter guidelines for the way photos are manipulated in ad campaigns. AMA physicians believe that portraying models with body types attainable only through editing could contribute to body-image problems for many women. Around the same time, members of the French parliament proposed a policy requiring that all digitally-enhanced photographs include a warning label indicating that the images may be detrimental to one's health. Failure to do so would lead to a serious fine.

The trend continues to spread worldwide. English officials chimed in after London magazines featured an Olay ad depicting 59-year-old Twiggy, Photoshopped without a single wrinkle. Member of Parliament Jo Swinson said, "Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable perfect images no one can live up to in real life. We need to help protect children from these pressures and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them."

In 2006, the Spanish government demanded a ban on overly thin women from fashion runways. Earlier this year, the media was abuzz when popular London clothing store Debenhams decided to use mannequins that look more like real women. They told reporters they believed that other stores in Europe would likely follow, since these new figures more accurately reflect their market.

It's a sentiment growing stronger and louder among women of all ages. Remember then-14-year-old Julia Bluhm? She inspired the "Keep It Real Challenge," rallying thousands of her peers to sign a petition against the use of Photoshop in teen magazines. Gaining momentum through social media, she staged a protest in front of Hearst Corp. offices, and got Seventeen editor-in-chief Ann Shoket to sit down and talk about the magazine's picture-doctoring practices. Shoket ultimately agreed to run at least one unaltered photo spread per issue. 

Encouraged by Bluhm's success, several other groups—Spark,, and I Am That Girl—joined together in a similar venture to reach other magazines. A three-day social-media campaign was launched with a Facebook event and tweets directly asking magazines to pledge to change their Photoshop practices. Participants were then asked to blog about how unrealistic images of beauty have impacted them. On the last day, girls were asked to post photos of "real beauty" on Instagram, with a selection featured on a billboard in New York City. The campaign was a wild success.

Verily, the first new adult fashion magazine launched in recent history, promises to forego all digitally altered images. Founders Kara Eschbach and Janet Sahm want to promote the idea that "the unique features of women, whether crows feet, freckles, or a less-than-rock-hard body, are aspects that contribute to women's beauty and should be celebrated—not shamed, changed or removed." The magazine has garnered enormous media attention and the support of women around the world.

We're seeing this trend elsewhere in the media. The HBO series Girls is a hit for lots of reasons; among them is very real-looking star/writer/producer Lena Dunham's willingness to portray herself breaking the stereotype of conventional beauty. Dunham takes great pains to display 20-somethings as far less than perfect. She almost exaggerates her physical flaws on camera to make the point; she is who she is and she represents how most "girls" truly are in the real world. Orange is the New Black, the Netflix hit series, stars a wide variety of real-looking women of all ages unadorned, with little makeup and wearing prison garb, but each growing more beautiful as the season goes on.

The hopeful news continues. Recently, California lingerie boutique Curvy Girl launched its "Regular Woman" campaign, in which women were asked to submit unadorned photos of themselves, regardless of their shape and size, to celebrate the beauty of average, non-model females. Some celebrities have done the same, posting their unaltered images online, just to make the point; they may be considered beautiful by many, but they're not perfect by any means.

Kate Winslet, 38; Rachel Weisz, 44; and Emma Thompson, 54, have all been quite outspoken about cookie-cutter beauty and its impact on aging stars. Winslet told The Telegraph, "People who look too perfect don't look sexy or particularly beautiful." Thompson has said, "We're in this awful youth-driven thing now where everybody needs to look 30 at 60." Surely these women can afford to take such a stand—being so young (it's all relative) and beautiful (yes, also relative)—but their attitude has been well received.

As I see it, the yearning for perfect beauty is beginning to lose strength among everyday women and celebs alike. Boomers may have been the first to feel what I call "image fatigue" as their attempts to appear like younger versions of themselves led to too-many inauthentic faces and bodies. This plastic, overly puffed-up image has become a turn-off to many, in part because such faces have all begun to look the same. The next generation is feeling it too: Millennials are experimenting with more fashion and makeup statements that express authenticity. For many young women, less is becoming more.

It seems as if women's voices are joining together and being heard: We want to feel and look attractive, but there isn't just one way to do that. We want to look like ourselves, not someone else.

Finally, real may be the new beautiful.


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

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