Deborah Frances-White, comedian and host of The Guilty Feminist podcast, writes in her book of the same name: "I’m a feminist but when I was choosing a new headshot, I asked my husband, ‘Does this photo of me look a bit ‘Dove campaign for real beauty?’ And he said, ‘No, darling, you look lovely,’ and I thought, ‘Well, that campaign’s failed.’"
I started thinking about Frances-White’s anecdote when I read last week that Taylor Swift, a model of empowerment for many young girls, has confessed to struggling with an eating disorder. Her revelation came just a few weeks after the sobering news that there has been a 37% rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders in just two years, according to data from the NHS.
Knowing the body-image issues that plague every girl and woman to some degree throughout their lives, I suppose I shouldn’t be that shocked by those frightening statistics. Still, one of my first thoughts after hearing that news was: what about all those body-positivity campaigns? Maybe, as Frances-White so wryly suggested, they are actually failing.
Dove was a pioneer in championing so-called "real women" through its marketing and countless other brands have followed in its wake. Last year alone in the UK, Bodyform celebrated vulvas of all shapes and sizes; Tu reassured women that "all boobs are welcome"; and Mothercare showed unfiltered images of mums’ post-birth bodies, to name but a few.
I don’t doubt that these campaigns were part of a genuine effort to improve the representation of women in advertising. And as someone who remembers seeing Victoria’s Secret ads as a girl and how those made me feel about my own body, I believe that advertising and marketing have a powerful role to play in shaping women’s self-image.
Yet as the NHS’ data reminds us, there is clearly a disconnect between the body-positive messages that are now ubiquitous in advertising and the true experiences of girls and women living in our society. Why, in so many cases, is the message not getting through?
There will be many complicated reasons for this. But I have been considering a fact I learned when reporting on a recent ad campaign: the UK’s health and wellness industry is set to be worth more than £43bn this year. "Wellness" has replaced "body positive" as one of the most pervasive marketing buzzwords – First Direct applied it to money, Adidas drew on the theme to promote running, and so on. At first glance, encouraging people to take care of themselves seems like a good thing but there is also a dark side to the growing wellness industry.
This month Time reported on doctors treating cases of "orthorexia," or an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The publication cites the example of a young woman who, inspired by Instagram influencers who promote extreme diets, developed an eating disorder while following a diet of raw fruit and vegetables: "I was just being consumed by the idea of perfection, and being quite afraid of food," she said.
At the same time that women are being told by advertisers to love their bodies and embrace "inner beauty", they are also receiving an onslaught of messages about alternative diets, fitness and wellness that, if not managed responsibly, could feed a damaging mindset of comparison and control. Yes, those influencers who perpetuate unrealistic images on social media are partly to blame for fueling this culture. But brands, which have used said influencers in their campaigns and boosted the wellness industry through their marketing budgets, must also think carefully about the trends they choose to embrace. They have a responsibility to examine the deeper implications and long-term effects of the movements they join.
The advertising and marketing industries are obsessed with what’s trending, with staying relevant and on the pulse, but that can sometimes be to the detriment of lasting change. Today advertisers want to talk to us about wellness, but what will it be tomorrow? What of the "real women" who must relearn throughout their lives how to maintain a positive relationship with their bodies as cultural trends come and go?
"The reasons so many people hate their bodies go deeper than a Dove ad can explain," Guardian columnist Eva Wiseman wrote recently. She advocates for "a new era of body neutrality," one in which women won't be told, by brands or media, to obsess about their bodies at all – even under the guise of "positivity".
There's a danger we think it's 'job done'
It is a surface-level gesture to use an unfiltered image or empowering slogan in an ad, as Sport England, one of the beacons in the body-positivity movement, learned with its celebrated "This girl can" campaign (pictured, above).
When developing the next phase of the campaign, which is marking its fifth anniversary this year, Sport England’s agency FCB Inferno observed that the advertising landscape has become "cluttered" with images of "real" people, creative Sarah Lefkowith said. Yet many women’s body insecurities persist, as Sport England’s latest research shows, and positive images alone have not been able to meet the organisation’s goal of closing the gender gap in fitness.
That is why Sport England has made a deeper commitment to helping women get physically active, by partnering local organisations and launching a community fund to help set up activities, for example. Through its research and community work, it is investigating the deep-rooted causes that leave many women feeling insufficient and alienated from active lifestyles. "There is a danger that we think it’s job done with showing images," Lisa O’Keefe, director of insight at Sport England, told me.
Years after the first "This girl can" ad went viral, I was still moved when I watched the latest spot, which depicts a diverse group of women exercising and feeling comfortable and empowered in their bodies. It reminds me that words and images have power, but can only go so far. There is still a lot of work to be done.