When ads went up in the London Underground asking women if they were "beach body ready," the backlash came hard and fast.
The full-scale rejection of the impossible physique portrayed by the (almost certainly airbrushed) bikini-clad woman in the poster – big boobs, tiny waist, "thigh gap," and so on – unequivocally demonstrated just how fed up we’ve become with the narrow and unattainable standards of beauty that have been dictated to us for so long.
Women, it’s time to move on. And I would argue that since brands first perpetrated this myth, it's their responsibility to bust it.
The "beach body" incident is the most notorious example of a larger sea change. Call it beauty fatigue. A global study, "iBody: The New Frontier," found 69% of global respondents agreed that "the world would be a happier place if we weren’t so obsessed with physical beauty." Seventy-three percent of the global sample said it worries them that "external beauty is more highly valued than character." And 79% believe that the common practice of Photoshopping celebrities to make them appear thinner — and "more perfect" — is harming society.
It’s clear that we are pushing back against old notions of physical beauty and perfection. Yet even if the old standards have been rejected, there is still not widespread acceptance of a new and more encompassing idea of what it means to be beautiful. Brands and marketers, who are partly responsible for creating the beauty myth, have the opportunity to play a key role in dismantling it.
The experiment at the heart of Dove’s recent Choose Beautiful campaign is a perfect illustration. Women were asked to walk through either a door labelled "beautiful" or one labelled "average." Watch the video, and you’ll hear some startling statements coming from the women who initially chose the "average" door.
"’Beautiful’ to me is too far out of reach," said one woman. "I chose average."
Dove’s insight was that only 4% of women worldwide would choose to describe themselves as "beautiful." It is Dove’s ambition to change this, so the end of the now famous Dove "Choose Beautiful" film was the beginning of our journey. It enabled women worldwide to make the choice between "beautiful" and "average" and served relevant content to support them with their choice. By a simple click engagement on YouTube, women across the world were directed to the Dove Tumblr page full of films showing real women explaining their choice. Women across the world were prompted to share content, thoughts, and opinions across social channels. To date, the film has been viewed more than 100 million times, with more than 5.5 billion media impressions, and more than 360,000 women have made their choice – with 75% choosing "beautiful."
However insightful or beautifully crafted, one brand film alone will not solve the problem. We as marketers need to fuel the movement by empowering women to destroy the old beauty myths. With recent research suggesting that plus-size models sell more lingerie than skinnier models, it’s not just our societal duty to bring this issue to light, it’s in our own best interest to give the consumers what they want.
Some have already started on a tentative journey to address body-image issues by introducing a greater variety of models in campaigns. Calvin Klein is a notable example. More radical approaches are also available to brands. For instance, French MPs recently voted to ban "super-skinny" models from catwalks in Paris. The move attracted a predictable backlash from modelling agencies; however its bold statement resonated on a higher level than its naysayers ever could.
These acts of brand bravery inspire women everywhere to redefine beauty in their own terms. Many marketers have brushed the issue, but the world is ready for that next big brand(s) to step up and tear those standards down, for good.
Tash Whitmey is group CEO of Havas helia UK.