Layla Morrell lives a short walk from Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles, but she would never dream of a day at the beach. Self-conscious of her size, she says, “I wouldn't wear a bathing suit.”
Morrell, 33, has hovered between a size 12 and 14 for most of her adult life. And like many women north of size 6, she has spent decades stuck in a soul-destroying psychodrama of dieting and self-loathing.
Today, she is one of the stars of Lifetime's How to Look Good Naked, which premiered earlier this month to record ratings. “I feel like a different person,” she says. The unscripted series, hosted by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Carson Kressley, advocates a new form of female empowerment that is gaining momentum: accept yourself—cellulite and all. The novel if obvious tenet: Beauty comes in many weight classes.
“America has an ideal of beauty—the size 2 woman who has the perfect body,” adds Morrell. “It's the type of [women] we see in magazines every day. It's the type of people we see on TV every day. And I felt so bad in my body. I felt so bad in my skin.”
Morrell echoes a growing refrain among women. So, after decades of selling fantasy, companies are now capitalizing on the growing social trend of female empowerment that recognizes beauty in all forms and ages.
The timing couldn't be better, with a woman as one of the leading Democratic contenders for the White House in 2008; Hillary Clinton's historical presidential bid has put feminism back on the front page.
Oprah Winfrey, whose brand of self-acceptance and self-affirmation have been the backbone of her billion-dollar business empire, last week struck a deal with Discovery Communications to launch OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. Scheduled to bow in 2009, the network was created, says Winfrey, as an empowerment destination, adding she wants viewers to feel like “this is the place to go if I want to feel better about myself, my life.” Her public battle with weight has only further endeared her to millions of women.
The beauty and diet industries, long complicit in mining women's insecurities to move product, are now preaching self-acceptance, declaring wrinkles and curves acceptable. Revlon has a stable of fuller-figure and mature celebrity spokeswomen including Eva Mendes and Susan Sarandon, who is 61. Olay counsels women to eschew Botox and collagen injections, and “love the skin you're in.”
As celebrity spokeswomen for the Jenny Craig weight-loss chain, Kirstie Alley and Valerie Bertinelli peddle an attainable you. Standing next to the picture of her svelte self circa 1980, Bertinelli says, “I'm not saying I look like I did back then, but I feel great.” Queen Latifah, a plus-size rapper and actress, is a spokesperson for both Revlon and Jenny Craig.
A new Slim-Fast campaign also features women more in line with the national average, which according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is about 5 feet 4 inches tall and 152 pounds. The company's slogan—“Stick-thin models aren't our inspiration. You are. Slim-Fast is weight loss you can live with”—taps into universal female frustrations.
The rise in popularity of a more Rubenesque figure can be traced to a backlash against the fashion industry, which once held up a curvy woman as the ideal but now features relentlessly thin and often pre-pubescent-looking models. “Our sex symbols went from women in their 30s to women in their 20s to women who are 18,” says Andrea Gardner, a reporter for NPR's Marketplace and author of The 30-Second Seduction: How Advertisers Lure Women Through Flattery, Flirtation and Manipulation.
Computer technology has heightened the unobtainable, says Gardner. “It's not just airbrushing anymore. We can lengthen a woman's neck. We can make her eyes bigger. We can make her hairline different. It's taking the unattainable to a whole new level.”
Dove kick-started the empowerment movement in 2004 with the Campaign for Real Beauty. The ads feature photographs of normal women, ranging from size 6 to 10, in their underwear. There were no protruding ribs or collarbones, but plenty of curves—tummies and hips and butts. The ads immediately hit a nerve with women.
The Dove campaign grew out of a global study conducted by the company that quantified the depressing truth about female self-image: Only 2% of respondents said they considered themselves beautiful, and almost half said they considered themselves overweight.
During the 2006 Super Bowl, the company unveiled its Evolution TV ad, a clever deconstruction of the computer technology used to render models' faces nearly perfect. The tagline: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.” A YouTube sensation, it has since drawn nearly 6 million hits on the site.
Equally popular was Dove's Onslaught ad, which premiered in October. The spot begins with a freckle-faced little girl, her red hair blowing softly in slow motion, then giving way to a fast-cut montage of beauty industry imagery including Botox needles jammed into frown lines, bikini-clad rump-shakers in music videos and anorexic underwear models. The film's tagline: “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”
The point of the ad, according to Kathy O'Brien, Dove's marketing director, “is a call to action for moms and mentors to talk to their daughters and educate them about what is real versus what is Hollywood magic.”
Popular entertainment also has helped erode the stick-figure ideal. The ubiquity of reality TV has in part readjusted the lens, imprinting the images of real people on the Zeitgeist. Initially dismissed as another unscripted freak show, NBC's The Biggest Loser has become one of the biggest hits on the network's schedule while spawning a best-selling book series, multiple No. 1 DVDs and an online fitness club.
Tyra Banks has become an unlikely cheerleader for fuller-figure ladies. When she's exorcising a career in the modeling industry, with its tacit acceptance of eating disorders, she becomes a one-woman female empowerment cottage industry. A Gen-X Oprah, she regularly preaches body affirmation on her daytime talk show, where she donned a fat suit to feel the pain of discrimination and held a plus-size model competition where contenders weighed at least 200 pounds. She has also featured plus-size contestants on her CW show America's Next Top Model. And when pictures of her in a bathing suit appeared in the tabloids with nasty stories about her dramatic post-modeling weight gain (she's 160 pounds), she went on the offensive, appearing on the cover of People next to the headline “You Call This Fat?”
Comedian and actress Mo'Nique has truly democratized modeling competitions with Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance (“F.A.T.” is an acronym for “fabulous and thick”), a plus-size runway derby on Oxygen. Mo'Nique instructs contestants to revel in their zaftig status.
Women's cable networks also have pushed empowerment advocacy campaigns even if the programming more than occasionally contradicts the message. “Seven years ago we had a campaign about self esteem [Be Your Own Hero] that long preceded the Dove campaign,” said Meredith Wagner, executive VP of public affairs at Lifetime Networks. “And it was simply because we knew it was an important message to get out there.”
Lifetime has enlisted Queen Latifah for its Election '08: Every Woman Counts initiative, which asks celebrities and ordinary women what they would do if they were president. The interviews began airing this month on the network.
This year, WE TV launched its first “WE Vote” campaign, with the goal to get 1 million women to register to vote ahead of the 2008 presidential election.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Of course, programming does not always fall into line with the positive public message. Oxygen—which has a wide swath of women-behaving-badly programming including Bad Girls Club, Snapped, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency and a caught-on-film series called (what else) Girls Behaving Badly—has an ongoing public affairs initiative that has included mentoring for girls.
The inherent contradiction of presenting programming such as Top This Party on Lifetime and Bridezillas on WE is the reality of doing business. “Our programming is about entertaining our viewers,” says Kim Martin, executive VP of WE TV. “Public affairs is about speaking to issues and causes that are important to women. Sometimes when you put programming on that is public affairs-oriented, it doesn't always get the best ratings, so it's easier for us to address that as part of a public affairs initiative and really to let a lot of it live online.”
But Lifetime's How to Look Good Naked has proved that empowering television can get ratings. The show became the most-watched reality series premiere in Lifetime's 24-year history among key female demographics.
Self-acceptance is a touchstone for companies searching for meaningful connections with consumers in a hyperactive market. Moving product is the endgame, and fostering goodwill and loyalty is invaluable.
Since the debut of the Real Beauty campaign, Dove sales have increased significantly: 12.67% in 2005 and another 10.65 % in 2006, according to data provided by product sales tracking company Information Resources Incorporated. (IRI data does not include sales at Wal-Mart and club stores.) The latest figures from IRI put Dove sales at more than $600 million for 2007.
As more companies try to capitalize on the movement, a contradiction emerges. These campaigns, says Rick Mathieson, marketing consultant and author of Branding Unbound, “equate the idea of rejecting society's conventions of beauty by buying products from the beauty industry.”
Few companies embody that paradox as well as Dove. Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns Ponds, SunSilk, Vaseline and male grooming line Axe.
AxeVice is marketed with the tongue-in-cheek assertion that women lose control around men who wear the products. In a raunchy video on the AxeVice Website, a “special correspondent” investigates an “alarming new trend in society: squeaky-clean nice girls who turn into lust-crazed vixens” upon meeting men who wear AxeVice.
For advertisers, it's more important that the women embrace the message behind the product. Says Mathieson, “Dove is trying to express its understanding of today's woman and become an empowering agent for them. But Axe has a different job to do.”