In 2014, American Eagle’s underwear brand, Aerie, announced that it would no longer be airbrushing its models. “We want to help empower young women to be confident in themselves and their bodies,” Jennifer Foyle, who is now the brand’s global president, said in a press release at the time. Sales have soared ever since, and the brand never looked back. A slogan on the website today reads: “Girl power. Body positivity. No retouching.”
How did these ads, with their more realistic depictions of bodies, affect the teen girls who shop at Aerie? Researchers have attempted to suss this out. A team at San Diego State University used photos of a model from the Aerie ad (for the purpose of the study, the researchers changed the name of the brand to the fictional “Anea”) to assess what signals in the ads—the image itself, or text describing how it was created—left an impression on the consumer. The young woman in the ad they selected is thin, white, with effortlessly wavy hair, lying on a bed on her side in a pink bra and neon green undies. One version of the ad bears the words, “The girl in this photo has been retouched”; a second reads, “The girl in this photo has not been retouched.” (In a control, there was no text.) In each case, the photo was otherwise exactly the same: The model is well-lit with smooth skin. To my eye, the only difference between this and a traditional ad is that you can see a little bit of the outline of her abs.
The researchers showed a version of the ad to 230 female college students (the majority of whom were happy with their appearance, had high self-esteem, and “appeared to have a healthy BMI”). After seeing it, subjects rated both their own appearance and their interest in purchasing the featured lingerie. There wasn’t a significant difference between the results for the ad with no text and the one with the disclaimer that the ad was retouched, a finding that has been borne out in other research. Millennials, the researchers concluded, are familiar with the fact that much of the stuff they see is a poreless, airbrushed fiction.
Interestingly, though, the condition in which the ad noted that it had not been retouched correlated with the women in the study saying that they were more satisfied with their own looks (they rated their own appearance 10 points higher on a scale of 0 to 100 compared with those who viewed the “retouched” ad). This suggests that, via its no-photoshopping policy, Aerie may be making tangible improvements to how advertising makes us feel. At the same time, these results are a positive only if we take advertising that deploys women’s bodies as a given; the study did not address if the “unretouched” images improved self-esteem versus viewing nothing, or how the women would feel about themselves if the ad, say, featured a picture of the undies and bra laid out by themselves. And even in the context of traditional ads, the wider literature is inconsistent on how much good labels can do: In a 2013 study, researchers at Flinders University in Australia found that showing unaltered images of a fashion shoot with and without a label resulted in the same thing: body dissatisfaction.
What’s clearer is how a vocal-but-flimsy (the model was still a thin, conventionally attractive brunette woman*) social effort plays out for a brand. In the Anea study, participants liked the labeled ad more overall and expressed a greater interest in buying undies from the fictional Anea. The same happened in real life with the Aerie campaign: Sales have increased since 2014, and at a faster pace than for the mothership brand, American Eagle. “Aerie is simply on fire,” Foyle told investors, Business Insider reported earlier this year. The brand continues the practice of not airbrushing and, this spring, ran a campaign centered on role models who, in addition to posing in Aerie undies for photos, gave motivational talks in—where else?—Aerie stores.
That even just a small note about no airbrushing was enough to make participants in that study, and presumably in the real world, feel warmer toward the brand suggests advertisers can capitalize on body positivity without fundamentally changing much about the ad itself (moreover, it is not enough to simply do the right thing; you have to be loud about it). Aerie’s “unretouched” lingerie ads are still in principle the same as other lingerie ads, offering a fantasy of attractive and relatively skinny folks wearing their goods. When the brand made very white and thin and smiley Emma Roberts a spokesmodel (sans airbrushing, of course), one writer noted with frustration, “Aerie’s campaigns are a body positivity fiction.” Sizing for the brand still tops out at 40DD for bras and XXL for briefs. Larger sizes are available online only; it was a shock for me to walk into an Aerie store several years into the campaign and find that I could still not try on bras that fit me. Overall, the addition of token flaws and loud campaigns about diversity seems to have allowed the brand to sport a label of authenticity while still in key ways adhering to a societal norm.
“Authenticity” got a boost last week when Jameela Jamil, an actress on NBC’s The Good Place, made headlines by announcing that she, a conventionally attractive person, wants to ban airbrushing too. She detailed her reasoning in a BBC opinion piece: It’s used to lie to consumers, it can contribute to eating disorders, and it whitewashes away ethnicity. She’s not wrong, and her candor about how these images affect even her, a successful, powerful person, helps to underscore the scope of the problem. Her insistence on going airbrush-free in ads and magazine covers is a positive choice against unrealistic standards, even if it’s a pretty small one.
But it’s worth realizing that her wider call against retouching feels a little bit limp when you realize that Jamil is a woman who doesn’t need to be airbrushed to grace magazine covers or sell things. Indeed, in committing to the ideas espoused in her op-ed, she seems to be fashioning herself into a human version of Aerie: She’s a pretty and professionally styled person for whom a performance of authenticity might also, conveniently, be used to sell things. As she told Nylon in a December cover story: “I’m about to shoot a swimwear campaign without any retouching, which will be the rare opportunity to see cellulite on the side of a bus or building.” Small win for improving beauty standards, big win for Jamil.
None of this is to criticize Jamil for modeling bathing suits. It is pretty much in the job description of a modern famous person to produce images to sell goods and magazines, and even if her efforts are frustratingly small, she is at least attempting to change the broader narrative while still holding down a career. The real problem, according to mental health professionals, isn’t so much the airbrushing of the media that we constantly see, but the prevalence of media that is perpetually centered on women’s bodies as props in a fantasyland of products and editorial spreads.
When I asked psychologists who work with teens with eating disorders whether going airbrush-free could help their patients, they agreed that it was technically better than nothing. But really, limiting media consumption is the preferred route. “Ideally, none of us would engage in comparisons, period,” said Deborah Glasofer, a psychologist at Columbia, who advises paying attention to what kinds of media make you feel good vs. crappy and curating a selection along those lines. When it comes to comparison-inducing images, “we’re bombarded,” says Michelle Miller, a psychologist at NYU.* She further pointed out that eating disorders, like unrealistic images, predate airbrushing. Miller encourages patients to skip beauty magazines altogether.
Even if images from Aerie and Jamil track a bit closer to reality, they won’t necessarily help women who are struggling the most. As the lines between real life and fantasy life blur on sponsored Instagram posts and in campaigns that play up realness, it is important to understand what these images are: attempts to invoke the desire to be better and prettier and now a tad realer through buying things.
What Jamil is successfully doing is positioning herself to be the kind of cover girl who’s friendly in a post-Aerie advertising world. This trend is visible more broadly: Victoria’s Secret is on the downswing, while ModCloth, which sells a more inclusive look that is still uniformly pretty, is gaining popularity. “Millennials are skeptical,” says Erlinde Cornelis, an assistant professor of marketing at San Diego State University and the first author on the Aerie/Anea study. “Traditional advertising doesn’t have much of an effect.”
Companies know this, and they’re getting craftier. An open letter in the New York Times lambasted Victoria’s Secret’s chief marketing officer for proudly putting on a fashion show as fantastical and harmful standards–packed as possible. Sounds cool. But the open letter was printed on paid ad space: It was a stunt from ThirdLove, a bra company. Jamil has fashioned herself as a rebel boldly speaking out against beauty standards, but as companies increasingly move to apply a sheen of authenticity atop expert lighting and makeup, she’ll fit right in.
Correction, Dec. 10, 2018: This piece originally misidentified the model in the Anea study as blonde. The model was brunette. It also misidentified Glasofer and Miller as psychiatrists. They are psychologists.