Last week, the UK lingerie chain Ann Summers launched a new campaign using what the company claims are "real women" from across England as its models. Theirs is the latest example of authenticity advertising, a trend that dates back to 2004, when Dove launched its iconic "Real Beauty" campaign. In the 21st century, "realness" is now a marketing mainstay. But it's also become a divisive concept, as those who fall short of what's "real" are inevitably derided as "fake."
It's been nearly a decade since the release of 2002's Real Women Have Curves, the film that made America Ferrera a star and served as likely inspiration for what Dove would soon develop. As charming as the movie was, the darker implication of the phrase was hard to miss: if real women have curves, then perhaps women who don't are "less real." A new double-bind for women was born: those who met the skinny ideal could now be labeled "unreal," and those who were still shamed for being heavy were now encouraged to take some sort of comfort in being more "legitimate" than their slender sisters. As a result, the real/fake dichotomy became as common — and in some ways, as toxic — as the old virgin/whore dynamic.
For the teens I work with, "fake" has multiple meanings. It can mean someone who is smarmy or excessively nice. But it also is often used by young women to describe someone who is too concerned with external appearances. When I asked some of my students for explanations of how they use the word, Anna, 18, said, "A girl is fake when it's obvious she's trying too hard to be pretty or to fit in." When asked to define "real," Anna gave away another aspect of the problem. "To me, being real means showing you're comfortable in your own body. If you're beautiful, what makes you real is that your beauty seems effortless."
I've heard similar definitions of these terms from other students. If "real" means the apparent absence of anxiety about one's appearance, and "fake" means an obvious eagerness to look good and fit in, then women who — for whatever reason — can't pull off a show of "effortlessness" get labeled inauthentic. As my friend Shawna, 36, put it: "I can't help feeling that terms like real and fake are just new ways to make pretty people feel superior. I feel more comfortable wearing makeup when I leave the house; does that make me less ‘real' than the supermodel lookalike down my block who can get away with going out bare-faced?"
"Fake" and "real" are particularly common terms to describe women who have — or haven't had — cosmetic surgery. But of course, breasts that have been enhanced with silicone are still real, just as a molar with a gold filling is still a real tooth. Nonetheless, there's been a notable backlash against plastic surgery in recent years, with a dramatic drop in cosmetic procedures performed on teens. (The drop even slightly precedes the downturn in the economy, suggesting that the decline is as much due to a changing culture as to economics.) Good news, perhaps — but also another opportunity to use accusations of inauthenticity to criticize women who, for perfectly good reasons, choose to go under the knife. For women who do still choose boob jobs, for example, there's pressure to come up with a "real good" reason (other than vanity) for having surgery. Margaret, 40, wrote: "Sometimes I lie and claim that I had them done as part of a reconstruction from a mastectomy. That seems somehow more ‘legitimate' a reason."
Men are not immune from the pressure to be "real." It's been nearly 30 years since the tongue-in-cheek bestseller Real Men Don't Eat Quiche spoofed an earlier generation's Guy Code. But today, the "real men" trope is everywhere. "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" is Ashton and Demi's campaign to shame pedophiles, replete with the unspoken implication that "real men" never have to pay for sex with women of any age. On Monday, Herman Cain forgot how he was supposed to feel about Libya but did remember his firm conviction that real men like meaty pizzas. And in keeping with the title of the movie that started the authenticity craze, the slender-shaming Facebook group unhelpfully known as Real Men Like Curves, Only Dogs Go For Bones has well over 100,000 fans.
When I ask my students at the beginning of my Men and Masculinity course about "real men," I get responses like, "real men aren't afraid to show affection," or "real men like to dance," or "real men can cry in public and not care what anyone else thinks." My students want to subvert the traditional "sturdy oak" model of masculinity. They mean well. But all they're doing is swapping one unattainable ideal for another. Just as "real women have curves" delegitimizes countless slim women, "real men aren't afraid to cry" shames those men who for any number of reasons are awkward about public displays of emotion. The contemporary "real man" ideal presents itself as inclusive, but it's just another cultural straitjacket.
For teens and twenty-somethings raised on computer-generated images and "reality TV" that is anything but, authenticity is a particularly elusive and compelling ideal. When so many things — from politician's promises to their own Facebook profiles — seem fake to this generation, it's not surprising that the "real" has taken on a special allure. But like everything else, that allure has been commodified. So when a company like Ann Summers promises to run ads featuring "real women" who are not "professional models," it's worth remembering that all of the other models in the world — even those who wear size 0 —are genuine people too.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
Image via sniegirova mariia/Shutterstock.