By Sean Connolly, editorial columnist
I have recently seen the appearance of American Eagle advertisements on Boston trains. Many of these feature conventionally beautiful women with the caption “the real you is sexy.” The photos are apparently not airbrushed. The implication is that American Eagle is defying unrealistic beauty standards placed on women by supporting something more “real.” While this is a step in the right direction, there are many things inherently wrong in this campaign.
It’s good to stop the airbrushing of models. But you don’t get to start an advertising campaign because you’ve done an easily accomplished moral act. Indeed, neither corporations nor individuals should expect rewards for doing the right thing. And you, dear reader, are not a good person just because you support a social movement. But what in an individual may be an annoying case of pride – and in most corporations an obvious grasp for profits – is more insidious in American Eagle’s case. Most companies which support gay rights likely have impure motives, but they usually haven’t played major roles in creating the American culture of homophobia. However, American Eagle, even as it now pretends to follow some semblance of morality, has historically been part a major contributor to our culture of oppressive beauty standards.
Of course it’s good that the goal being presented for physical appearance is no longer completely warped by airbrushing. But there is still a goal being presented. Young girls and women shouldn’t need to have any goal in terms of physical appearance. Airbrushing is simply a way to perpetuate unfair physical norms; getting rid of the airbrushing does not replace the norm. Today’s oppressive standards were created because the male libido was considered more important than female self-esteem. This is still the case, and American Eagle is apparently telling us it should be. “Don’t worry,” they seem to proclaim, “you can be sexually appealing to men without airbrushing.” But women shouldn’t need to be sexually attractive to men to start with. Being able to satisfy male desire without airbrushing doesn’t solve the problem, because male desire, and the harsh rules it has placed on women, is itself the bigger problem. The issue is an entire society which tries to control the female body for the sexual pleasure of men.
We don’t need to live in a world where women can be sexy without being airbrushed. We need to live in a world where women don’t need to be sexy to start with; where women aren’t denied jobs because of a lack of makeup; where a failure to conform to a narrow expected appearance does not mean both personal and professional ridicule.
As feminist writer Andrea Dworkin said, “Being female in this world means having been robbed of the potential for human choice by men who love to hate us. One does not make choices in freedom. Instead, one conforms in body type and behavior and values to become an object of male sexual desire, which requires an abandonment of a wide-ranging capacity for choice. […] Men too make choices. When will they choose not to despise us?”
An important question. For when men, as happens often, snicker or scoff at women who do not meet the standards of being “attractive,” is this not a form of hatred? As men, we must at every turn accept women who do not conform to conventional beauty standards, and we must never demand alterations of the female body for our pleasure. Corporations, at the same time, should promote images of women even when these women are not conventionally attractive, and they should be able to do this outside the bounds of an advertising campaign. You are not rewarded for practicing basic humanity, and doing something good for a reward rather undermines the point.