The Lesser of Two Evils: aerie Real and Feminist Capitalism

Recently I spent an exorbitant amount of money on pretty underwear from aerie in an attempt to cure a broken heart through consumer capitalism. I have shopped for lingerie exclusively at

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Models for the aerie Real campaign.

aerie, the sister brand to American Eagle, since their aerie Real campaign launched in 2014. aerie Real proclaimed to “challenge supermodel standards by featuring unretouched models”, and featured a variety of unmodel-like bodies shown wearing their products (1). From curves of fat and love handles to dark skin to wide waists and shoulders, the aerie Real campaign excited my feminist instincts and won me over. But was I trying to heal more than just a broken heart by buying the new lacy underwear sitting on my desk?

Neoliberalism is the concept that human activity can be shaped by individual choices within the free-market. Meeta Rani Jha discusses neoliberalism and how it relates to feminism in her book “The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body”. She describes the targeting of women by beauty companies, luring them to purchase goods through the guise of “changing and empowering themselves by consuming beauty products” and  appropriating feminist themes, as “feminist consumerism”. Feminist consumerism involves corporate strategizing to employ feminism to market products and prey on the neoliberalist conception that individual consumption can incite social change. It can be argued that aerie, by marketing its products using body positivity, has employed feminist capitalism and should not be receiving the accolade it is receiving (or my hard-earned money.) (2)

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aerie breakout model, Iskara Lawrence. 

Furthermore, as the campaign fervor has slowed, fewer and fewer models of color or models of varying body types, have been featured on the page. And the ones who have stuck around, such as the hugely famous Instagram star Iskara Lawrence, still fit society’s common conceptions of beauty. The overwhelming popularity of Iskara Lawrence, with her tiny waist and blond hair, over other more diverse models that were featured is evidence enough that aerie Real, and society, are still not ready to embrace diversity and true body positivity without the impetus to  satisfy their neoliberalist guilt.
So why do I still choose to shop for underwear exclusively at aerie? Better something than nothing, I suppose. It may be neoliberalism’s voice in my head, but why not shop from a company that is at least trying to show more diverse body types, regardless of motivation. Aerie can of course do better, but it has less far to go than other competitors such as Victoria’s Secret and their infamous ‘Perfect Body Campaign’. I may have satisfied both a broken heart and my feminist neoliberalist instincts by purchasing aerie products, but when you are left with two evils, might as well go with the lesser. 

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Victoria’s Secret ‘Perfect Body Campaign’. 

References:
(1) Krupnick, Ellie. Aerie’s Unretouched Ads ‘Challenge Supermodel Standards’ For Young Women. 25 January 2014. 

(2) Jha, Meeta Rhani. The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body. Taylor & Francis. 2016.

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5 thoughts on “The Lesser of Two Evils: aerie Real and Feminist Capitalism

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  1. This is a really good example of feminist consumerism. You defined feminist consumerism as “corporate strategizing to employ feminism to market products and prey on the neoliberalist conception that individual consumption can incite social change” and that Aerie “by marketing its products using body positivity, has employed feminist capitalism.” You also point out how Aerie’s “body positivity” discourse is limited in that it lacks body shape diversity and racial diversity. From the photos you’ve included in the post, you can also see that although the ad campaigns include models of color, they are still very light-skinned and still have features that are considered beautiful by Euro-centric beauty standards. I wonder if this “real” discourse has the potential to be more oppressive than editing photos in the fashion industry, because if I conceive of the bodies in this campaign as more “real,” then I think that that is what I could or should aspire to look like. But in reality, none of these models look like me, and even though there is no retouching, the models are still selected based on Euro-centric beauty standards that value whiteness and thinness and the lighting in the photo and the styling for the shoot actually continue to create an unattainable standard of beauty. Iskara Lawrence is literally sucking in her stomach in that photo. Yet this guise of “realness” has the potential to create victims of false consciousness.
    In addition, I think this post ties into the idea of the commodification of diversity that Mears’ brings up in her “Size zero high-end ethnic: Cultural production and the reproduction of culture in fashion modeling.” Companies include diversity in commercial ad campaigns in order to make money. So then the question becomes is using diverse bodies within ad campaigns more exploitative than good?

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  2. While Minh Ha-T. Pham’s blog post “Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to Be Diverse” is about the fashion industry and not commercial advertising; she brings useful considerations to the topic of representation. Jorleee ends with the important and difficult question, “is using diverse bodies within ad campaigns more exploitative than good?” What both jorleee and bellekinder have identified within Aerie’s Real Bodies Campaign is that the models’ bodies still mostly “fit” within Western beauty standards. The choice and representation of the models presents minimal difference. But the inclusion of this difference perpetuates what Pham criticizes about the fashion industry. She says that, “the standards of beauty—as well as the standards of unconventional beauty—are established and contained by white perspectives and white needs for racial difference.” The media portrays these “real” bodied models as breaking the typical mold of clothing advertisements. The beauty industry and media labels their bodies as “unconventional,” rather than the norm, defining their beauty from the white Western vantage point. Any differences are thus “contained” by whiteness. Resolving the problematic commodification of diversity that jorleee points out requires structural change. As an individual embedded in these structures, it’s hard to decide what to do.

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  3. Since I first heard about the concept of body positivity during my freshman year, I have wondered if there are some aspects that can be more damaging than promoting products (or anything else) with normative/traditional views of beauty. Promoting products with models who are clearly displaying seemingly unattainable standards of beauty is no doubt problematic. However, it can be easier for the consumer to view these models as just that: models. Consumers can be more okay with their own bodies if they understand that models are people who are considered to be incredibly beautiful (in a way that is of no fault to the consumer–i.e. it’s okay that the consumer does not look like a model and they never will), and that is the reason that they are models. When the narrative moves from beauty to body positivity, I fear that it changes the models displayed from something that is outside of everyday life into something more normal. That is to say, if companies are promoting the models they are using as everyday people (who are still undoubtably beautiful, as you mentioned), what does it tell consumers who do not look like those models?

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  4. This was so interesting! I have been following Aerie’s campaign for a bit, and I too, have been persuaded by these campaigns for body positivity and the idea that women can be beautiful in advertisements without airbrushing. However, I think that these campaigns really demonstrate what’s so problematic about white feminism: continuing systems where white women continue buying into ideas of white beauty, white ideals, and white values, allowing women to feel better about themselves (feminists!) while continuing to reinforce a system that only values whiteness and capitalism.

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  5. American Eagle, like many companies, trying to stay relevant in the age of internet have commodified issues of social justice.In this case, body positivity is being used to sell products. Connecting back to the question jorleee asked, “So then the question becomes is using diverse bodies within ad campaigns more exploitative than good?” I thought of Aerie’s #AerieMan campaign, last April Fool’s Day. They released a series of ads featuring a diverse set of men, wearing the AE underwear talking about the importance of body positivity, retouching, and confidence. The ad bothers me because it seems unnecessary to make a joke out of the situation, which I see as exploitative. The use of these bodies could have been used to talk about the way in which anorexia and bulimia are not gendered or racialized illnesses, but no. Don’t get me wrong I’m happy that, as a brand, the are foregoing retouching both male and female models, but I just question the intentions behind this decision. The inclusion of diverse bodies is important, but as a consumer, I am still left wondering if it is more exploitative than good.

    Link to the commercials: http://www.tvcommercialspots.com/retail-and-stores/aerie-tv-commercial-discover-the-new-selection-of-aerie-man-the-real-you-is-sexy-you-know-youre-curious-get-up-close-and-personal-with-the-guys-full-version-waves-warm-speakers-aeriema/

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