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"Real Women, Real Bodies": Why the Lingerie Industry Has a Real Problem

Much like last year's post on "Why Doesn't the Lingerie Industry Like Women of Color?", today's article is on a subject very close to my heart, and I've reached a place where I can't be quiet about it anymore. As I said in the women of color piece linked above, "The Lingerie Addict is about all aspects of the lingerie community, even the parts I don't really like."
I'm sure you've noticed the media's obsession with "real women" lately. From Dove and Nike's ads in 2005 to Glamour magazine's incredibly popular "normal woman" of 2009 to the respective campaigns of lingerie companies like Cake, Bravissimo, and Ultimo (all in 2010), the public can't seem to get enough of real women. But here's the question no one's asking:
What in the world is a "real woman?"
I love the idea of celebrating curves, and I am all for more diversity in the lingerie industry, but why does it have to come at the expense of implying some women (usually, thinner women) are "fake?" Women come in all shapes and sizes, and they're all real. And there is nothing positive about saying otherwise.
Futhermore, these "real woman" campaigns don't expand our notions of what is beautiful. Take a look at the images in this post, taken directly from the lingerie brands mentioned above. There are almost no women of color. There's not a scar, tattoo, or piercing to be seen. And everyone has perfectly straight hair and utterly flawless skin.
Now, I understand that a big part of advertising is selling an ideal, and I'm okay with that. But what I'm not okay with is, as Jezebel so eloquently put it, "the somewhat creepy trend of casting real women to represent 'the rest of us' while still adhering to strict representations of what is traditionally considered beautiful." To be perfectly honest, I find that even more disingenuous than traditional advertising because at least then no one is pretending that the model represents me.
If lingerie companies really want to empower women, if they really want to broaden the definition of beautiful, then they should do that... not by promoting false and arbitrary distinctions like "real women," but by recognizing all women --- of every shape, size, and color --- are beautiful.
What do you think? Is there a problem with this "real women, real bodies" trend? Is it a non-issue? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Image Credits: Crystal Renn for V Magazine, Bravissimo, Cake Lingerie

Article Tags : ,
Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

64 Comments on this post

  1. Jessica Sager says:

    I’m trying not to burst out laughing over the fact that half of these “real” women are actually pregnant. That’s even more insulting to me than is omitting above-misses sized women. As another commenter noted, apparently the only acceptable time a woman can have a belly is when they are pregnant. So utterly disingenuous!! But I speak from experience when I say that the times I felt freest in my body were the first two trimesters of my pregnancies. By the time the third rolled around, I went back to feeling fat again. It’s a terrible, terrible thing, body-loathing.

  2. Colette says:

    As a photography student we are required to pass a three hour exam in photoshop where, among other things, we are required to give the model in the image the ‘ideal’ body shape. Because according to them, the model can’t be beautiful unless her body looks ‘perfect’…
    The amount of work they do toning down curves, flattening stomachs and enhancing cleavage is just ridiculous. Which is what they mean in terms of real women, real bodies (but you already know that). I think the movement needs improvement though. As people having been saying, where are the ethnic models (asian, african american, etc)? Why is there so much focus on removing every last birthmark and pimple? And real women can also have what is known as the industries’ ‘ideal figure’ so as well as featuring more petite women, the average woman and curvier women they should be showing them too. But real women with the ‘ideal figure’ not women given that figure in post production.

  3. Danya says:

    Thank you for this. I am 22, a size 0, and recently got a professional bra fitting for the first time. It turns out that my band size is a 28″ or 30″. Unfortunately, most companies do not go below a 32″ band, and if they do it is only online. I went to a specialty bra boutique which claimed to have every band size, and every petite bra they put me in had way too much padding and literally covered me entire boob. At the end of the session, I felt worse about my *mosquito bites* because it seemed like they weren’t right and the bras were trying to fix that. The worst part was that when I tried to explain this to the sales clerk, she implied that I was just being sensitive! I ended up getting a bra from VS with a 32″ band, but there is NO padding and the cups are relatively low. Now, when I look down and see my own natural cleavage (what little there is) I feel sexy! AA cups are just as sexy as DDs.

  4. Shawna says:

    I agree 110%! There are memes that float around Facebook celebrating “real women”, and I always question them, because they don’t represent true diversity, as you’ve succinctly pointed out. Love that you’ve written about it so publicly! :)

  5. Ksenia says:

    So true. These “real” campaigns don’t last very long. I don’t know why they don’t include smaller busted women, asian women, black women, short-haired women, hell older women! That’s the fake part.

    It all goes back to that blame game, the media tricking women into tearing each other apart for something that was never real in the first place. The set definition of “healthy” or “sexy” or “real” or “beautiful” or “normal” is driving us all crazy and stunting our appreciation for each other’s unique traits and wonderful bodies.

    All women are beautiful as God made them, we are all a blessing and we are wonderful as we are.
    God made us beautiful, and as a certain woman said, God doesn’t make mistakes. ;-)

  6. Cissy says:

    You know, I don’t agree with this need to label women as “Real” and “not-Real”, and it DOES bother me that there isn’t more ethnic diversity in the advertising industry as it applies to lingerie (or anything else, really). However what bothers me the most is that a LOT of companies falsely advertise their products. If you look at any “mainstream” lingerie retailer, you’ll see women who are well endowed, wearing (typically) beautiful bras. Some of them are wearing the right size, which is readily available in stores, and others (like the one on the Victoria’s Secret website, for example) are wearing a bra that fit in the cup and was taken in in the band. Ergo, they are advertising that their bras come in a size that technically it doesn’t, and offers more support than it actually does. Maybe no one else has noticed this, but I’ve had enough bras altered down to a 28 or 30 to be able to spot the difference. The “Real woman” campaign is politically correct in the worst way, but I’m more miffed over the lack of accurate marketing and quality product for women of my size than I am anything else.

  7. Meghan says:

    I fully agree with what you all have to say about the hypocrisy of all this etc. But the thing is, it’s not really the point. These companies exist to make money, and they can only do that by making you feel on some level that their models and the lifestyle they promote are better than yours. That’s how all of this works. If you think you’re just fine without their stuff then you won’t buy it. Sure it’s not sunshine and rainbows, but it’s the harsh, cold world we live in. Self-esteem is your own responsibility.

  8. Tricia says:

    I’m going to speak out in favor of Dove’s Campaign. When they refer to “real” beauty, I always took it to mean not airbrushed or touched up. And of course all the women have perfect hair and skin. They are advertising hair and skin products. You wouldn’t trust someone who said their acne treatment worked perfectly if that person still had acne. And in that particular campaign, they do show a wider range. Although even when they show different skin colors, people still find a problem with that because they don’t do it in the right way. I honestly believe that the people have more control over the media than the media has over us. After all, we’re bigger and we control the advertising power in where we put our money.

  9. the warrio goddess says:

    I am an impossible fit and impossible to label person to the point of loathing to shop. I see the beauty in all of the women around me and admire the things they are wearing, sigh that I could not and go on about my day. No shoulders whatsoever- forget gracefully tossing a purse strap over them and going, they just schlump to the ground. Huge breasts that threaten to smother me during yoga with an impossibly small band size- yes, I am the person who gets error messages when I use an online bra sizer EVERY TIME! I have also made a professional bra fitter come out of her tree and LEAVE the store. (That was a cheerful little moment) Weirdly nipped in waist gives way to the curve of hips that defy what I ask of them. Buying jeans is nearly as bad as buying a bra. Tiny feet keep me from blithely strolling into a store and grabbing the cutest things. Yes, I am what a friend has said ” a hot mess”. My point? I am just as real as the models I see and the women I shop with and the women I talk to online. Ladies? We are all goddesses. Whether we are delicate and soft, love goddesses or wicked and dangerous warrior goddesses remember this: Aphrodite had her vicious moments and even Artemis had a soft spot in her warrior’s heart….

  10. Katrina says:

    The real women advertising/marketing technique to better connect to the audience is in my opinion non controversial. What is controversial is the description and language used to convey the message of certain lingerie companies. A real woman is a woman, by the scientific definition…so my point is no one has the right to put labels defining a real woman because that is determined from the time we are born, simply put man or woman.
    Lingerie companies, such as Naomi’s Rose Lingerie,, which prides itself in showing women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicity, silhouettes is a prime example that real women are all inclusive and beauty is non definitive!!!

    All of us who have posted can attest to that! Happy Holidays!!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think the problem with any kind of advertising is the photoshop and the "flawless" look they give the models. This whole "real women" thing and thin models appearing everywhere is pinning women against each other. The bigger women are hating the thin women and the thin women are hating the bigger women. It's a never ending cycle and it will never stop. I'm a thin small breasted woman and I am like that naturally but because of the reputation that thin women get because of the media everyone assumes I have to stick my finger down my throat every day in order to maintain my weight which is not true. I have never once forced myself to throw up nor have I ever starved myself. When I'm hungry I'll eat and I won't stop eating till I'm full. I can't help it that I'm thin and honestly I'd love to gain some pounds. I think it would make me look so much better but I've come to the realization that it won't happen…at least not for awhile. I have friends out there that have tried to lose weight and tried to go on all these diets and counting calories and shoot I try to be there and support them but then they just shoo me away saying I don't understand because I'm thin and what we all don't understand is that we all struggle with our weight in different ways but it still hurts the same, it still feels the same, still brings us the same insecurites. If they got rid of photoshop and showed women of all shapes, sizes, colors, just as they are then things would be so much more peaceful.

  12. Kristina says:

    WELL "SAID"!!!

  13. Sharazade says:

    To me, what an "unreal woman" is–that's one who started out as real (whether thin or fat, big- or small-chested), and then once her photo was in the ad, it was photoshopped. So the resulting image is NOT the model. Sometimes it's not even physically possible. That is a "fake woman."

    I understand that the sizes that stores carry are the sizes that sell the best–I've had store after store explain that to me when telling me why they won't carry bras in my size (36A, which is apparently so unreal as to be downright bizarre). OK, I get that. That's economics. But the women in the ads… are they the sizes most commonly sold? Not once they've been photoshopped, I don't think.

    As "real woman" gets used out and about, though, it's come to mean "women larger than I am." And I assure you, I am perfectly real, even if I don't have a large chest.

    The whole point of lingerie is to look and feel pretty and sexy and attractive and special. When instead it makes women self-conscious and defensive… well, surely THAT is not a great marketing strategy, is it?

  14. Aimee says:

    I love the idea of using models of all shapes and sizes and as an owner of a large lingerie and swimwear store, I make sure our quarterly catalogues use models of all shapes, colours and sizes: and all live within 3km of my store!
    Although people have always commented (from how lovely to see a larger lady in the catalogue, to oohh how fat she is!!)I have recently been shaken by some peoples comments to using a girl with piercings and a more punky look: we have had calls of abuse from people to say there are more beautiful people out there and we should remove the posters! Although I have explained we make lingerie for types of clients and thus need promotional materials and models to reflect the wide range of products, they remain unconvinced! I am now wondering about my future direction in catalogues: do I only chose models who fit an ideal if this is what my clients actually want to see ?? I am working on the theory no publicity is bad publicity and at least I have got people talking and looking at what is actually "Real" !

  15. Eve says:

    I'm so glad that you wrote this article! As I'm bra fitting small busted and petite women every day, it saddens me to hear them talk or write about their low self-esteem and body image — all because their breasts are small! You wouldn't believe how good someone feels when they find out that their is lingerie for their body types and that they don't have to go braless or wear training bras anymore (you remember them, the white polyester bra with the three flowers in the middle). The issue is that society's perception of bra size is inaccurate. Many women who are small busted actually fit into B and C cup bras due to their breast shape (even though they have shallow breast tissue on top of their busts). Here's to women loving themselves. Self confidence is the best aphrodisiac.
    ~ Eve

  16. Anonymous says:

    This is totally true, and exactly the point I was hoping you'd make when I read the post title.

    About 10 years ago, The Body Shop put out a pamphlet about "Real Women". Frankly, some of the language was downright hateful. I was about 5'2" and 98 lbs. at the time, and had shopped at The Body Shop since they'd opened. And here was this booklet tucked into my shopping bag, ostensibly "celebrating" the "real" female form–as opposed to pathetic, contemptible thin women. And yeah, of course they were all white and airbrushed.

    I was so mad, I wrote about a 5-page letter and sent it directly to TBS headquarters.

    I absolutely hate it when companies present "Real Women"–and they look EXACTLY like traditional models, just a touch bigger around. There's nothing edgy at all about presenting women with Marilyn Monroe bodies as a fashion revolution. Curvy hips, large breasts, small waist–wow, I've never heard THAT referred to as beautiful before! I'm SO inspired.

    Women like that are worshipped in real life, too. Always have been.

    Where are women of color, disabled women, pierced and tattooed women, older women with fuzzy silver hair, plain women, flat-chested larger women, women with stretched baby tummies or acne scars?

    We're still all hiding "real women" out of sight. And they're beautiful in lingerie too. I'm still waiting for the actual revolution.

  17. Tiffany Rose says:

    aspyre: That is exactly the point I wanted to make! And how about those women post-pregnancy? I think that body would more accurately represent a large portion of the female population.

  18. aspyre says:

    I don't appreciate the use of pregnant women constantly in the "real women" campaigns. Yes, pregnancy is beautiful, but it's not the only time you're allowed to have a belly.

  19. ShanFace says:

    Here are a range of women who don't fully fit the 'model tick list' but they are still all beautyful and make the lingerie look very lovely

  20. Caroline says:

    Found the Jamie Lee Curtis pic with an excerpt from the article (More magazine, 2002), for anyone interested. Inspiring, and makes me happy!

  21. Sarah Baron says:

    You know this subject is near and dear to my heart. The title of the series I interviewed you for is called, Lingerie for the Rest of Us…

    GREAT post.

  22. Alicia says:

    Treacle, thank you so much for pointing out something that I think is an issue… I am of smaller nature (5'4", 120 lbs., but with a DD) and get tired of the real women thing. I am a mother of two little boys which means that I also have stretch marks, which is something that you will never see in these "real women" campaigns. Also, I do not go with the norm. I have a "punk" look is what I have been told. I have a few piercings and my hair is always dyed a different color… Am I not considered a real woman because I'll never see someone like me pictured in a lingerie advertisement?
    BTW, I LOVE reading your posts! Please keep up the fantastic work!

  23. joanshearer says:

    Treacle..sorry about the duplicates. Don't know what happened.

    The Stylish Chick the plus sized model thing is just crazy. Even if the women are clearly above a size 8-10 US (LOL) most of them are still firmly in the Misses' range which tells you nothing about how something fits in the Women's range. It's just nuts to see how distorted this all is.

    Personally I've never knowingly seen a size 8-10 plus sized model, but fashion's just crazy enough to try this. LOL I appreciate SiL because they show middle range models of both their Misses' and Women's sizes. Their models are neither very small or very large, but give a good idea of how things will fit IMHO.

    I'd love to see some Boomer+ aged women in ads and catalogs. Many of them have it goin' on better than some of us younguns. Beauty, sex, and style are for everyone.

  24. Cheryl Warner says:

    I am glad you raised this issue. Basically this to me underlines the idea that 'real women' are actually just something (albeit slightly for now) deviating from the size 0 supermodel look made popular by the 90's. Pigeonholing women into these ideals is the issue here: yes bigger and smaller women can be and are beautiful, irrespective of their dress size and shape. I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago which (almost) gives the other side of this argument… the beauty world is changing slowly and for now i have to say change is good.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Nothing happens overnight and I think anything which deviates from the traditional skin and bones models is a positive step…

  26. The Stylish Chick says:

    This posting and string of comments has really started me thinking about my own website and the verbiage I use. To paraphrase I say something like " style for real women, like you…not celebrities". But after reading these comments I'm left hoping that I can come up with a better phrase that will resonate and not alienate the women I'm trying to help!!
    I totally agree with so many points made on here!! I am constantly disgusted with media's portrayal of women. What really hit home for me was an article (InStyle? or Marie Claire?) that talked about "plus size" models…then mentioned they were a size 8 or 10. Huh??? That's plus size? When the national average is a size 12 or 14? No wonder our view is so skewed. No one is willing to be honest and accept true "reality". Just like reality tv, it's all fake.
    BTW, I'd gladly take suggestions for other verbiage to use instead of "real women"!!!!!

  27. Treacle says:

    @FancyLingerieStore–I don't know of any "image suppliers," but if you're looking for models, I'd recommend Model Mayhem or OneModelPlace.

    @JoanShearer–Thank you for those thoughtful and articulate comments! It was a pleasure reading them. They were duplicated a few times, so I removed the repeats.

    @A.–Love that you brought up ageism in the industry! I, for one, would be ecstatic if a lingerie ad campaign featured women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond.

    @Carolina–Thank you for commenting. Great point about how women in the ad campaigns aren't so much real, as different…and even then, only a little different. Thank you for stopping by.

    @Emily–I appreciate the follow-up comment. The dialogue happening here is just amazing.

  28. Treacle says:

    @GR–Thanks for the update. I'll definitely take a look at those names.

    @Cupid–Thank you for stopping by, and for underscoring the simple truth that advertising, at its heart, all about the sell.

    @Miss Kitty Plum–Welcome! I'm happy we've got a retailer to weigh in on the conversation. I love that natural boobs gallery…we need more things like this.

    @daisychain–Thank you so much that. I'm very flattered that you like it. :)

  29. Treacle says:

    @Jeez Loueez–I absolutely agree. I love how the neo-burlesque is about celebrating curvy, full-figured women, but like you said, that doesn't require insulting thinner, petite women.

    @Catherine–I am looking forward to your next imaginary women editorial! I predict a viral sensation. ;)

    @Cynical Nymph–Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree that the "real women" campaigns probably came from a good, and I also agree that the wording is unfortunate…and maybe even hurtful. Now I need to find that Jamie Lee Curtis ad. :)

    @dottie's delights–Love that we have a lingerie designer here to contribute to the discussion! Thank you for offering alternative interpretations of the word "real." I hadn't thought of those before. And thank you as well for bringing some other research and studies into the conversation.

  30. Emily says:

    I just wanted to comment on my "size 2 with a D cup" statement. I never meant that it was not-existent.
    Jeez Loueez's response really highlighted a lot of the issues I wanted to say, but didn't.
    My issue is that I feel like petite woman are faced with two choices: they are either told they are unhealthy for being so thin based on backlash from this real woman movement or they have to be apologetic about their lack of breasts when buying lingerie.
    I just hear so much about how the models are unrealistic…tall, thin, large chest size. I'm just wondering what can be done to change that to represent all different body types. I'm not saying cut out all models with small band size and big breasts. I would just like to see some more petite models out there and lingerie designed for them that highlights their body instead of offering padded bras.

  31. Carolina says:

    Love this post and loving all the comments! I am skinny and white – but more stringbean than anything else – and I would LOVE to buy some of the beautiful lingerie that is out there. I am small-chested and small-waisted and can find very little in my size that doesn't look like a training bra or very vanilla or that doesn't cost an extraordinary amount of money.

    Putting out campaigns that promote "real" women is discouraging. As if I didn't already feel like I wasn't fitting into the "norm"! I understand that having models of all different shapes and sizes is what they're sort of attempting to do, but instead of actually DOING that (as others have said – women with imperfections or tattoos or what have you), what they're doing is making the "real" models go up a few sizes. I guess that's an improvement from the way it used to be, but in my opinion, these women aren't any more or less "real" than the others – just different.

    I do, however, think that Dove has done a tremendous job with trying to change our perception of beauty – and showing how these models are prepped before they get photographed.

    Thanks for posting!

  32. A. says:

    i definitely agree. if the lingerie industry really wanted a "real woman" campaign, they would go to the supermarket and pick the first twenty women who came through the door, and photograph them without touch ups, just as they are. one of my big pet peeves (aside from the lack of diversity, which as a native american black girl really sets me on edge) is the ageism. women don't stop being beautiful or stop wearing lingerie after twenty-three. i personally know some VERY sexy women over the age of forty, and it makes me so angry that you never see a model–not even one–in this age range. it's ok for Megan Fox to model panties but not Emma Thompson or god forbid Helen Mirren…

  33. joanshearer says:

    Given that so many women wear the wrong bra size, I suspect there are more women who have larger cup/smaller band sizes than they may think. The "size 2 w/ a D cup" may not really be THAT rare. LOL It's just that women have so few band/cup options, esp in the smaller (A/AA…or less than 34 band) and larger bust sizes (D/D+ in any band).

  34. joanshearer says:

    Part 2:

    As for non WW models, there's a serious lack. I've had convos on other sites where people seem to assume that non WW (esp BW) simply don't wear lingerie! LOL They seems shocked to find that BW are a real market for stockings, girdles, high end bras, vintage/modern repro, and standard modern stuff. The many times use Michelle Obama has the example of a BW who doesn't wear stockings and seem to assume that BW take her cue like lemmings. :(

    The sum of this is that too many folks have VERY limited ideas about what other people do and/or what's "normal". It's a shame so many are so narrow minded.

  35. joanshearer says:

    Great topic, this conundrum has been on my mind lately as I've been trying to get a cute sexy bra for a large cup size on a Misses' body! LOL

    Lots of women are extremely ambivalent and hypocritical on this matter themselves. Recall the Dove campaign? I'm really of the belief that most women don't want to see "real women" and given how much WW are the great consumers of media, they also don't want to see WoC (or more bluntly, Black women). The companies merely respond to those prejudices more than create them, methinks. The feedback they use is how much revenue is gained or lost in various campaigns…the results speak for themselves. It explains why we see what we consistently see. :(

    As for what "real women" means in these times, it's usually an extreme between Olsen twins skinny OR Queen Latifah/Beth Ditto fat, depending on who you ask. The truth is, more American women are leaning towards the Latifah/Ditto side of the extreme, but women who are in the middle get left out of the whole pic.

    So many groups aren't catered to or not catered to well…tall women (the clothes are scaled down from the model's to average height for retail), Misses' sized women w/ large breasts (large breasts don't automatically equal large body overall), women who aren't hourglass shaped (bigger in the middle than busts/hips), petites, pregnant women, etc….huge segments of the population aren't being served well because too many folks have only 2 conceptions of what "real women" are.

    I think "real women" is becoming code for "fat" because much of the population is far larger than most of the models portrayed in either fashion/lingerie-swimsuit campaigns. These campaigns ignore this reality most times. One reason I like Secrets In Lace is that they tend to choose the middle range models for both their Misses' and Curvy lines…their models are more realistic representations of the sizes both ranges encompass.

    As for non WW models, there's a serious lack. I've had convos on other sites where people seem to assume that non WW (esp BW) simply don't wear lingerie! LOL They seems shocked to find that BW are a real market for stockings, girdles, high end bras, vintage/modern repro, and standard modern stuff. The many times use Michelle Obama has the example of a BW who doesn't wear stockings and seem to assume that BW take her cue like lemmings. :(

    The sum of this is that too many folks have VERY limited ideas about what other people do and/or what's "normal". It's a shame so many are so narrow minded.

  36. FancyLingerieStore says:

    Yes, we would love to see suppliers provide images of "real" women for their products. We do have some in the plus size category but they should definitely be more. We try not to use images of ultra thin models we do not want to promote young women into anorexia. If you know of suppliers that provide "real" women images – we would love to know.

  37. daisychain says:

    I have no real words, other than A+++ for this fantastic post x

  38. Anonymous says:

    What in the world is a "real woman?"

    – A woman who is pretty happy as she is, rather than chasing an androgeneous look?

  39. Miss Kitty Plum says:

    So many interesting point here. I am constantly surprised how low women's self esteem about their body image is. I think most women have some idealised idea of what they are supposed to look like and what is normal. In my lingerie boutique I see an awful lot of women's breasts and I have yet to see any that aren't normal looking. I am not sure how we can change this negative trend but even if advertising changed it would need additional support through from government education programmes. Thought you might like this link of how different normal boobs can look.

  40. Cupid says:

    The use of so-called "real women" in lingerie advertising is just a marketing strategy. It is a response to the negative press which is resurrected each year about the use of "perfect bodied" models (heavily photoshopped of course) in lingerie advertising. Marketing people are not out to change the world, so it is not a response designed to change attitudes, it is designed to sell you more of their particular brand of lingerie. All they want to do is to connect with you on a personal level – so that you will feel positive towards them…and buy their lingerie. But they still need to follow the golden rules of advertising – That is why you will see lovely, smiling, happy "real women", nicely photographed with good lighting (and possibly a touch of photoshopping). You will never see an unattractive, unhappy, "real woman" who makes their lingerie look bad! Companies are only there to make money – they have to appeal to a sufficiently big market to be viable, and their advertising has to appeal to the market they are targetting. They want you to think how much better you will be, and how much happier you will feel, with their product.
    No-one should be made to feel they are somehow worth less than, or are not as good as, someone else. We are all individuals. We are all beautiful in our own right. There is no right shape or wrong shape. And it is none of anyone else's business anyway.

  41. GR says:

    BTW, re the Fat Acceptance movement, you will find that its smartest, most rigorous thinkers – e.g., Lesley Kinzel, the Fat Nutritionist, Kate Harding, etc – very explicitly support all women, fat and thin.

  42. dottie's delights says:

    I have always had an issue with the use of "real women" in casual conversation, for the same reasons everyone else does. I've also put a lot of thought into "real women" ad campaigns both from a designer stand point and consumer. I have mixed feelings all around but always find the topic interesting and more complex than I can possibly express here.

    An important note I would like to mention is that while I do agree the use of "real women" is offensive in casual conversation, I like to think that in advertising they are referring more to “real” as the amount of post-production retouch, so that the woman in the ads actually resembles the woman that was at the photoshoot. Also, possibly “real” as in women that are not professional models make sense in this context.

    A major problem with pushing this sort of sentiment is that it draws attention to anything you are leaving out (though I will mention the 2nd round of women from the Dove campaign did include a elderly women, and women with scars, tattoos, piercings, etc.). It lends to the psychology that “well I STILL don’t look like these women, so I must be [fill in negative self-esteem here].” I know they have done studies that seemed to find that despite women saying they preferred a healthy body image campaign, they subconsciously seemed to prefer the more traditional model images.

    I personally am constantly struggling to find professional models that know how to move, but also have balanced curves. Not ground-breakingly different in the lingerie world, I know. But you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find. The “lingerie” models I am shown may have a larger cup (not huge mind you, maybe a B or a C), but then they still have protruding hip bones. Even harder – almost non-existent — for women of color. For shapewear this just does not fly! Even the smallest change can be a challenge.

    I have no real answers. All I know is, I have always wanted to do a burlesque targeted ad featuring this Burlesque Queen (Miss Satan’s Angel): :)

  43. Cynical Nymph says:

    I do so enjoy when you tackle this issue.

    Despite the "cynical" in my online moniker, I have to imagine that the "real women" campaigns originated from a good place, with good intentions. Thin privilege is a real thing in our world, if not quite as pervasive or potent a privilege as white privilege or male privilege.

    But I totally agree with you that, whatever the intentions that aren't directly attributable to money, the wording of the thing is unfortunate. As someone with an eating disorder, my mind wars with itself along the fat/thin binary, and your point – that the "real" women in these campaigns still conform to the greater standard of beauty in most ways but size – really resonates with me.

    You know which campaign along these lines I *did* appreciate? The one Jamie Lee Curtis ran that was a picture of her in a sports bra and spandex shorts. You know why I love that shot? There she is in her sagging, pear-shaped, un-Photoshopped glory, wrinkles and dimples and shadows – and her big trademark grin. I love that campaign.

  44. Catherine says:

    Many years ago I worked in an inpatient Eating Disorder Unit.
    People have too be extremely obese before its as dangerous as Anorexia Nervosa. Its arguably the mental health problem that has the highest mortality rate.

    I still maintain that the opposite of real women is imaginary women :)
    I am totally going to have imaginary women in my pictures. I think I can get them to do impossible things :)

  45. Kelly says:

    I apologize. I think I was slipping in and out of responding to you, and responding to other comments before me. All of it was swirling around in my head and I hit "Publish" before actually going back to check who said what.

    Of course now I am reading back through the comments and struggling to figure out who I was trying to paraphrase there…I'm afraid maybe I misunderstood someone the first time around.

  46. Jeez Loueez says:

    sigh. I'm a size 1, 99 pound burlesque dancer and I know the issue of body image and advertising all too well. I have been told many times that I'm not a 'real woman' even though I'm pretty sure I was born with ovaries and tits. It hurts, and I constantly feel like my body type is looked down upon. Or i'm insulted by bigger and curvier women for being one of those 'skinny waifs' you see in ads. Even having a career in burlesque has opened my eyes to even MORE women and men who are turned off by my size. I don't have the hourglass figure, and that's the image that is generally promoted in the burlesque community. The 'real women have curves' mentality completely leaves women like me out of the equation. And it's just as wrong as making curvier and bigger women feel less than.

  47. Treacle says:

    @Charley–Thanks for commenting. It's always good to hear other perspectives.

    However, I don't really agree with "slippery slope" arguments like the one you presented…mostly because they treat the problem at hand as an impossible goal (which I disagree with) and ignore the possibility of a happy medium (which I also disagree with).

    And I absolutely understand that advertising isn't meant to represent the real word, but "real women" campaigns are marketing as exactly that…a representation of the real world that is anything but.

  48. Treacle says:

    @Kelly–Glad you're here! However, I don't recall saying anywhere in the article that "since they [advertisers] aren't showing all varieties of women, they might as well not show any."

    My issue is with using terms like "real women" (which by necessity implies that there are fake women) to describe women who only fit a certain body type or have certain body features.

    As I said in the article, I am all for diversity and that includes curvy women, but it shouldn't come with the hefty price tag of denigrating other women…even unintentionally.

  49. Charley says:

    I agree with many of the comments here: the idea of a 'real' woman exists just as much as the idea of a 'fake' woman does.

    However, it is advertising, and advertisements have to portray an intended market in some way. In order to represent womankind as a whole in their adverts, lingerie companies would have to line up a woman of every colour, shape, size, with every hair colour, and with tattoos, scars, piercings, etc. etc. There are lingerie brands that appeal to different markets – Bravissimo praise large-busted women in their adverts, is that not discriminatory against small-busted women? Obviously, this is taking the argument a bit far, and this is precisely my point – where can it stop?

    I don't believe that adverts will ever truly represent the real world – if it did, why would we buy into something we already have?

    • Kayla Rae says:

      About the buying something we already have bit- the fashion industry isn’t selling us models. They’re selling us clothes.

  50. Treacle says:

    @Petra Bellejambes –Thank you so much for stopping by, and for leaving a comment that connects the issues in this post to larger ones of marketing and advertising. Always a pleasure to hear your thoughts.

    @Carrie–Thanks for commenting, but I'm afraid I have to disagree here. I don't think "real women" ad campaigns are portraying obesity as okay. In fact, I've never seen an obese woman in any kind of lingerie advertising campaign. And I'm extremely uncomfortable with automatically equating curvy women or plus sized women or big women with obese women.

  51. Kelly says:

    I have to respectfully disagree.

    I don't like the term "real women" because ALL women are real, like you said. I don't like the concept that these women are supposed to actually represent what I look like, because I *don't* look like any of these models. They are still an "idealized" version of a woman (I put "idealized" in quotation marks because I don't want to imply that these women are everyone's ideal at all – but they're "ideal" in the eyes of the advertiser).

    But I *do* like the trend of using a wider variety of woman than white/skinny/big boobs. I disagree with the terminology, and perhaps the driving concept, but I can't complain about the results. And while I do NOT look like these women, I do look more like them than I look like a Victoria's Secret model. So it is *closer* to what I actually look like. And I like that.

    Like you said, these "real" women do still conform to certain standards of beauty. Their straightened hair, lack of scars, skin color, etc. are pretty uniform. And that is disappointing. But I don't think it's fair to say "since they aren't showing all varieties of women, they might as well not show any." I think it's a stepping stone sort of process. Just like when a brand picks up a non-white model, I don't think "well they might as well not even bother with that if they're not going to show plus-sized women too because this woman's looks are still too unattainable." I'll take diversity wherever I can get it and I think the only way to get to a place where a great variety of "real women" are accurately portrayed in this sort of medium is for retailers to distance themselves from the standard, one step at a time. I'm thankful for the steps, even if I don't think we're at the "final destination" yet.

  52. Treacle says:

    @PaintedPinup–I really enoyed this comment. I'd like to be an ally of the fat-positive movement, but one of the things that really bothers me about some of it's members is the constant degrading of thinner women. Like you said, invaliding other people is just sad…all women are awesome.

    @Seven–You're very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    @Doug Tingvall–YES! You hit the nail on the head. A couple of times. I mentioned on Twitter a few days ago that I don't understand all the breast implant hate. Almost every woman alters her appearance in some way; it's just a matter of degree.

    • squeeky says:


      I believe the main reason behind breast implant hate is that women have always been told (especially in the last 50 years or so) that is, the message that always gets rammed into women’s heads by the media is that women have to be a particular breast size in order to be attractive to men. That’s why breast implants get all the hate, because it’s all about having to live up to this image or fit into this idea or what men supposedly find attractive. Plus, if it wasn’t for men, woman wouldn’t all that concerned about the size of their breasts anyway if it wasn’t for men (except for trying to nail down the right fit for a bra,especially if you’re got big breasts like myself—I’ve had issues with that for years).

  53. Carrie says:

    I always hated the "real women" campaigns, for multiple reasons. The first is that it demonized thin women as unhealthy, unwomanly, and unnatural. The second reason is that it portrays obesity as ok, which can be just as bad for your health as anorexia. The biggest problem though, is that they will always put only attractive people on ads. Both men and women will look at an image of a beautiful women longer than any other form of being. I think that the largest of corporations will have a difficult time putting up *all* types of women on their billboards for a long time.

  54. Petra Bellejambes says:

    Love this post Treacle, and the comments too. As much as you love the things that go on the skin, its the issues that get under your skin that really bring out your best posts.

    I am not sure that vendor use of the word "real" really has very much to do with a desire to change body image ideals. I think it has a lot to do with incentivising consumers to feel good about the brand and buying more because of its putative "realness".

    It seems that in the fashion biz that "real" (in the context of "real woman") is thrown about as a marketing slogan in the same way as "organic" is about food.

    So much of what is labeled organic in my supermarket is virtually indistinguishable from mass produced synthetic stuff, but we feel better buying and consuming it, yes?

    I think that "real" has the same sort of virtuous feel to it as "organic". It feels like it is not synthetic, it feels natural, it feels unaltered …

    And it is delivered to us largely by many of the same companies who have been bringing us un-real and inorganic products for an awful long time.

    I don't see the fashion leopard changing its spots too too much here. So, yeah, I get why this is under your skin.

    Thanks for sharing.

    xxoo – Petra

  55. DougTingvall says:

    "Real women" is offensive, divisive, inaccurate and exclusionary; I prefer "voluptuous" or "big," as the case may be. BBW is just as bad.
    While we're on the subject, I think "real boobs" is a misnomer. Implants are "real," but they are not "natural."

  56. Seven says:

    I rarely even look at lingerie ads anymore, actually. I've found almost all lingerie that I've tried to be so far out of touch with a body such as mine (small, bony, sensitive-skinned, and aging) that the garments are unwearable. So I gloss over the standard advertisements.

    The thread and lace scratch, the elastic is latex-laden, the wires dig painfully into my bones, and invariably, someone thinks that the top of panties should accent (not conceal) that belly of mine.

    Thanks Treacle for calling out the kind of disconnect the industry exhibits.

  57. Paintedpinup says:

    As a size 6 who doesn't posses a "perfect" body (I always love the assumption that size correlates in any way to SHAPE), I'm often dismayed at the lack of realism in the lingerie (and fashion) world. Like you said in your article, no tattoos, piercings, scars, or even "different" body types. How about a nice pear shaped girl, or a stocky girl, or a plus sized girl?

    That said the trend that…I'm sorry…but bigger women seem to have embraced is that "real women" are not a size 6. "Real women" are not the industry standard. That offends me just as much as feeling like there's ANY "standard" for beauty. How would plus sized women felt if the world called only size 2-8 women "real"? The truth is women ARE real, no matter what size they are, how much they diet, or if they've had plastic surgery. The idea that women need to invalidate another group of women to feel good about themselves is just sad. Can't we just embrace the awesomeness that exists in all women?

  58. Treacle says:

    @GR–Yes, you are absolutely right. There are a lot of concepts tied up in "real woman" advertising, and I find them to be incredibly exclusionary. And yes,I also agree that labeling women "real" and "not real" is very, very divisive.

    @Emily–I'm glad you commented. When I tweeted that article yesterday, I think I mentioned how the comments were more interesting to me than the actual piece, and it's for precisely the reasons you mentioned. Not every petite woman wants a large chest, so what are their options? And of course I concur that we need a much broader view of beauty.

  59. Emily says:

    I'm really glad you brought this up. My issue with lingerie advertising is that it caters to an unrealistic market. Plastic surgery aside, most women do not have natural large breasts and a thin body frame. Discrimination against curvier women usually comes to mind when this subject is brought up (and is an extremely important topic), but I want to offer my perspective as a petite woman.

    You linked an article called "The Most Flattering (and Hot!) Lingerie for Your Body Type" on twitter the other day. I was dismayed to see that the small chested option offered was to wear padded bras. Is it so insane to assume that small chested women might actually like their size? I feel like the lingerie industry wants me to be apologetic about my small chest size. I touched upon this on your fb wall when someone made a statement about how only large breasted women look good in corsets. We need to have a broader view on what beauty is and celebrate all different body types in lingerie.

    What I would like to see is more diversity and more accurate representation of females in ads. If you are going to put a thin model in your ad, have her be small chested woman to reflect the market. I want to see models that are proportional. It is very rare to come across a woman that wears a size 2 and is a D cup.

    • KittenHips21 says:

      I’m a size 2, and a DD–and I agree with you, I am unique and rare; however, I need to know where to find bras too. How about a little diversity, and everyone will be happy. :D

  60. GR says:

    Yep, totally agree – 1) these "real women" weigh a few pounds more the standard fashion model. But they're still pretty much all able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, feminine, – and *young*. 2) do not dare to tell me that any woman is not "real" – that is just a newer version of the way that sexism has always encouraged women to compare themselves with each other and, essentially, compete with each other for who can be most attractive.

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