Why Aerie’s ‘Body Positive’ Campaign Isn’t

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It’s been a dynamite couple of years for Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie and intimate apparel sub-brand. Their Aerie Real campaign, launched in 2014, has received almost universal accolades, with a number of media outlets praising the brand’s “refreshing” approach and “realness.

TLA covered the Aerie Real campaign back in January of last year. While I commended the campaign’s ethnic diversity (always a welcome sight in the lingerie world), my general feeling was one of ambivalence. “Is this really the ‘brave new world’ Aerie is ushering in?” I asked,  “A world full of unphotoshopped models… who are identical in every way to traditional models?” Aerie Real felt in many ways like an easy win, a plucking of the very lowest of low-hanging fruit. After all, it’s worth remembering “that a teenager or twenty-something model is still pretty normal by fashion industry standards. There’s nothing radical, free-thinking, or forward-moving about using conventionally attractive people to sell lingerie.



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At the time, many people suggested that the brand was just testing the waters and that they needed more time —  a proof of concept, as it were — before they pushed in a more inclusive direction. And to be fair, I understand that perspective. Change is hard. Everyone is risk averse. No one wants to be the first to do something new. It makes perfect sense, from a business perspective, to start small and expand the scope of a campaign later. However, with nearly two years between Aerie Real’s launch and today, I believe it’s time to revisit the brand and re-examine their campaign. Is Aerie Real leading the industry in body positivity? Or are they simply doing what everyone else is… only with better marketing?

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1. Was the Aerie Real campaign a success?

Because we’re discussing business, we have to talk money, and the biggest metric of success a store looks for is sales. In terms of revenue, Aerie Real has been an unambiguous win. Mic.com reported a second quarter sales increase of 9% in 2014 (compared to a 2% increase the previous year), and American Eagle’s interim CEO reported higher sales and earnings for Aerie in early 2015. In addition, the PR value of all that unreservedly positive press cannot be underestimated. Aerie has emerged from the lingerie shadows as a serious player in the lingerie industry. No longer are they are a forgotten mall store; many regard Aerie as a legitimate competitor to Victoria’s Secret, especially for the teen and young adult (i.e. millennial) market.

2. Has Aerie fulfilled its brand promise of not retouching models?

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I admit, I fully expected the Aerie to walkback the Real campaign after a season or two. “Real woman” marketing has been popular in the lingerie industry for years now, but Aerie was the first major brand to commit to a “no photoshop” policy on what appears to be a permanent basis. As I’m not a photography professional, I have to take them at their word. But I do know you can do lots of things with lighting. While it is a good thing that Aerie isn’t retouching their models (insofar as they’ve said they won’t retouch them… I don’t actually think Photoshop is some great social evil), these are still professional, high-quality photos using young women who are closely aligned with normative standards of beauty. And that’s fine, but it does mean I believe Aerie’s braggadocio around Photoshop is a little overstated… and that the media’s emphasis on it is a little misguided.

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3. Has Aerie expanded the conversation on body positivity and inclusivity?

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Because this campaign positions itself as a body positive one, this question has to be addressed outright, and I believe it’s the most important one. There is no room to sidestep or pretend it’s unfair. And the unfortunate answer to this question has to be an emphatic no. If anything, I would assert the Aerie Real campaign has actually taken a step backwards.

As you can see from the photo above, Emma Roberts is the latest (and certainly highest profile) model for Aerie Real. Her debut garnered the predictable press blitz with such bombastic headlines as “[She] Proves Nobody Needs Photoshop to Be Beautiful.”  But how does using a traditionally beautiful woman become a radically divergent statement on beauty? This is almost Orwellian doublespeak.

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Because it has to be said, this segment is not an attack on Emma Roberts. Rather, it is worth noting that there is nothing the least bit diverse, inclusive, provocative, or groundbreaking about using a young, thin, white, blonde, conventionally attractive woman to sell lingerie. The Aerie Real campaign has been packaged, deliberately so, as a beacon of relatability, a portrayal of the way women “really are.” The value of the campaign has been in a certain (tightly edited, pre-processed, yet still accessible) rawness, and it’s hard not to see this celebrity-focused campaign as a significant step backwards.

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In addition, this article is not about “shaming” Emma Roberts for being thin or white or young (a common derailing tactic when criticisms of mainstream beauty standards arise). However, the body positivity movement was founded as a direct response to a culture that only tells young, thin, white women they’re worthwhile. Aerie’s version of body positivity is a corporate repackaging of the exact same beauty standards we’ve always had, the exact same beauty standards the body positivity movement is trying to expand, with literally no deviation. Writ large, it’s a perfect example of how the body positive movement has been co-opted, degraded, and watered down to the point of unrecognizability. The message is clear: you don’t actually have to do anything diverse to be praised for diversity.

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While it’s obvious that anyone of any size or shape or ethnicity deserves to feel good about themselves, Aerie’s campaigns are a body positivity fiction. A press release does not magically transform the norm into the extreme. For Aerie to position their latest lookbook as some sort of exception to industry standards is disingenuous, but to have that message disseminated without criticism by major media outlets is damaging. There are companies doing genuinely diverse and inclusive campaigns because they want to change what’s “normal” in the lingerie industry. So far, Aerie is not one of those companies, no matter how often they say otherwise. It’s hard not to see their connection to body positivity as one of convenience, existing solely because the movement is currently trendy — and therefore profitable — not because they’re interested in promoting potentially profitless body positive values.

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The issue of co-opting and reframing the language of social movements is a constant one; however it’s vitally important that the words “body positivity” mean something. Inclusivity and diversity in the media isn’t just about the warm fuzzies; it can influence how people, specifically, children, view themselves. Nor is it acceptable for others to dismiss the cognitive dissonance these campaigns can elicit as unimportant or a sign of being “unappreciative.” If companies want to take up the burden of body positivity and diverse representation, then we, as consumers should hold them to that. The stakes are too high and the cause is too important for imposters.

What do you think of Aerie and the Aerie Real campaign? And how do you feel about the state of representation in the lingerie industry?

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Cora
Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. I started TLA in a small studio apartment in 2008. Since then, it's become the leading lingerie blog in the world, and has been featured on the websites for Forbes, CNN, Time, Today, and Fox News. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that every who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

13 Comments on this post

  1. denocte says:

    first: yes. to all you said. this is just, ugh.
    second: maybe that’s a bit far fetched, but for me this is really doing more harm than good. Their campaign gets praised as depicting the “real” and “beautiful” woman that we all are/should be. Ahm. Yeah plz raise your hands if you look like that. I guess a LOT of hands won’t shoot up in the air. What does this say to them? (I’m one of them.) For someone already struggling with body image issues this can be all the more a punch in the face: look, we use “normal” models and “no photoshop” and they are perfect and this is what a “real woman” looks like – and now I’m looking at myself, no resemblance (except skin colour) and just feel all the more hideous or wrong – because not even “real” ads include people like me.
    And I’m white, young, and average weight. That is just not ok.
    /rambling over

    • denocte says:

      I just read my comment again and wanted to add to my last statement:
      even for a person with so much fucking privilege than myself this is just not obtainable.

  2. “Orwellian doublespeak” is the absolute perfect phrase to use for the celebrity turn this campaign has taken. As you deftly point out, it was fraught before – not nearly the radical beacon it purported to be. But to suggest a no photoshop/super inclusive/diverse/”real you” policy and then to put someone who is the embodiment of mainstream society’s beauty values at the forefront of that campaign … deeply out of touch, at best. Telling of how very not-committed-to-body-positivity they are and how much they don’t understand the core of the actual movement.

  3. Amani says:

    As a fat girl, I think they did what they said. This is what their lingerie looks like on small people. Two of those girl would be considered fat by the fashion industry. Their breast are not popping out in front. It does not bother me. It would be nice for my young daughter that is just starting to wear bras. They do not sell my size so it does not bother me. I think it a move in the correct direction.

    • Estelle says:

      I had a quick peek at their website and Aerie sells lingerie up to a US 18 / UK 22 and bras up to a 40DD, so their audience isn’t exclusively ‘small people’.

      I am glad to see things like moles, tummy folds and wrinkly elbows which are totally normal yet always photoshopped away in fashion imagery, but I definitely think they should have used some larger models in there when they’re saying they promote diversity and catering to a lot more than just sizes 2-6.

      • Dee says:

        Although the website SAYS that they go up to that size, I have not fit into their lingerie in years, and I am a pretty darn consistent 18 in bottoms. Calling something an 18 does not mean that it’s actually SIZED to fit 18. And that’s one of the big issues I have with this company and this campaign – they’re getting sales off of being diverse, but their sizing is so bloody small that any of the “plus sized” models (that are often like, size 12s in US sizing) would be at the end of their size range. If you’re actually diverse, let’s see some 2XLs, and up!

  4. Funsies says:

    I really like Aerie Real. I know some people don’t have a problem with photoshopping, but I think it creates impossible body standards.

    I like that Aerie does it as a permanent policy, and I do think that changes what’s normal. Much more so than brands that do one token “body positive” attention grab (often an ultra-photoshopped plus model whose proportions are even more unattainable than a thin model’s) and then go straight back to what they were doing.

    It’s certainly not groundbreaking or a big deal, and it’s stupid that media outlets treat it that way. But I’ll take subtle and permanent over splashy and temporary any day.

  5. Seline says:

    As an employee of Aerie, there has been a lot of diversity of body types in our marketing. Most of the time it is in store and the website does give a limited perception of what the company really does to promote body positivity. (ex. training employees on the importance of body positivity, NEDA walks). As an employee (of color), I’m super proud to work for a company that embraces the beauty of the female. Seeing women of color and women with muscle, cellulite, tattoos, piercings and everything that I see everyday is really a step in the right direction and personally, I feel that this branding is a huge step forward.

  6. […] Cora Harrington of the indie blog The Lingerie Addict puts […]

  7. oohlookasquirrel says:

    I’m a 31 year old woman, but I recently discovered that I love Aerie panties and bralettes because they are cheap and comfy while still being flattering and cute. I recently placed an order there and was given a free selfie stick with my $80 box of underwear. I can’t imagine what the parents of a teen would be thinking of a company sending their daughter a selfie stick with her new underwear. I mean, I’m all for body positivity, but it did seem like it was encouraging me to photograph myself in my underwear.

    The way I see this “no retouching” campaign is that they’re only getting away with it because they are marketing themselves to teens, with teen models. If your models are all near-perfect examples of the human form, you don’t really need retouching, even though you can be sure they had stylists around to fix their hair and makeup between pictures. Yes, photoshop can be awful, but even without it, there’s plenty to be done to make sure the publicity photos look nothing like I look when I get dressed in the morning. I’m used to that, just as I’m used to body positivity campaigns that still manage to make most of us feel bad about our bodies.

  8. […] And as The Lingerie Addict blogger Cora Harrington wrote, specifically about Aerie’s “Aerie Real” campaign: […]

  9. Michael says:

    Isn’t makeup just photoshop in real life lol?

    As a guy, I don’t really see the difference between this and Victoria’s Secret. These girls are still young, white and hot.

    It’s kind of like a company polluting a river, only to stop after public pressure and claim credit for stopping polluting the river.

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