Above is a picture of the statement they released when this campaign started. Some of the other ads that they have up in-store say “This girl is a(n) [A/B/C/D] cup and has not been retouched], and the mirrors have “The girl in this mirror has not been retouched; the real you is sexy.” written across them. My personal favorite model is Amber Tolliver (the girl with the green bra and watermelon-patterned panties up above). I just think she really radiates happiness and confidence. She doesn’t have a flat stomach, and her thighs touch, and I think her body just looks absolutely beautiful. The other models are all gorgeous too, and I could probably go on and on about how much I adore all of the models from this campaign, but it’s probably not all that relevant.
Anyways. This campaign has been hailed as revolutionary
by journalists on websites such as the Huffington Post, whereas a writer for the University of Maryland Campus Life News outlines the problems
with the lack of any meaningful representation in these ads. Most of the models in these ads, while not retouched, are still just that—models. They still fit pretty typical societal beauty expectations. There are also very few non-white models featured in this campaign, and there are none (or pretty much none) who are honest-to-god overweight, “ugly”, or visibly disabled.
The other issue that I have with this campaign is the bags.
I bought stuff from Aerie today at the mall. Today, since it’s mid-November, the bag said something like “We believe in Santa, but we don’t believe in retouching” in honor of the holiday of Christmas, which of course all young women in the entire country observe and celebrate.
Anyways, though, the bags usually say “The girl holding this bag has not been retouched. The real you is sexy.” And to me, this is so deeply damaging. Yes, great, teach young women and girls body positivity. Teach us that our bodies are our own and that we are 100% beautiful and unstoppable and perfect in our own imperfections. This is all great. This is all stuff that we sure as hell need to hear more often.
But what we really don’t need much more of is being told how sexy we are.
Basically, what this ad campaign is assuming, is that all young women and girls consider it of the utmost importance to be perceived as sexy and to perceive themselves as sexy. In a way, this ad is just reaffirming what so many other ads tell us every day—our value is measured based on the sexual usefulness of our bodies. Yeah, Aerie is technically a lingerie store, but most of their stuff is pretty tame. And a lot of its customers are young teenage girls, most of whom only sort of have a grasp on the whole concept of sex and what it all means, and very few of whom actually have any meaningful understanding of it. The reasons that I like Aerie stuff are because most of it is well within a teenager’s price range, because it all fairly high quality, and because I’m one of those people who feels better about life when they’re wearing cute undergarments—not because I’m trying to present myself in some sort of sexual light.
These bags also highly promote erasure of young women and girls on the asexual/aromantic spectrum. In telling us that we’re inherently sexy, just by virtue of existing, it’s automatically invalidating those of us who maybe don’t particuarly want to be sexy (I know, it’s preposterous!).
And of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t girls who go into Aerie to buy bras for the sole purpose of sexing themselves up—there totally are, and that’s absolutely fab too. Body positivity is a great thing—but body positivity for young women doesn’t always have to involve sex, and we as a culture tend to forget that pretty often.
The other problem that I have with this campaign?
The word “girl.”
Aerie’s target demographic is young women and girls. Many women and girls wear lingerie, and many wearers of lingerie are women and girls. These things are all true. However, the key word here is “many”—not necessarily “most”, and certainly not “all.” In assuming that all Aerie customers are girls, it leaves out all of the Aerie customers who are, well, not girls. And while I feel like that’s far too obvious for me to actually have to say, I feel as though it’s necessary to say it nonetheless.
And I’m not talking about the straight dudes who are buying cute lingerie for their girlfriends or whatever. Y’all are also fab and deserve body positivity, but this is (sorry) not about you. This is about those people whose identities don’t necessarily match their physical appearance. Female-bodied people who identify as male but present as female, for example, still might wanna wear Aerie’s bras, because sometimes a guy just needs a little support. Male-bodied people who identify as genderfluid might want to rock some cute watermelon undies or a lacy thong. And, really, who said that the manliest of men aren’t just as deserving of some cute silk polar bear pajama shorts as us ladies are?
And, of course, those are only a few examples. In confining lingerie and “feminine” sleepwear to only girls (and, based on the majority models, confining it only to cisgender able-bodied skinny white girls), we’re continuing to impress the rules of the gender binary onto everyone in the mall who sees these bags. Most dudes my age wouldn’t want to be caught dead being near Aerie without the excuse of shopping for their girlfriends, let alone carry around a bag proudly proclaiming them as a girl.
It’s easy to say that it doesn’t matter. It’s one lone shopping bag among a gazillion other shopping bags. It’s one lone ad campaign among a gazillion other ad campaigns.
But Aerie’s latest campaign does not exist in a vacuum. Shopping bags might not be the first example a person would jump to when we’re talking about internalizing gender stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not prevalent. We read these bags, and look at these advertisements, without even fully registering their meaning. But the meaning is there, in the back of our minds, stacking up with all the other meanings that we may not even be consciously accepting. The people in Aerie’s target age group are still in the midst of figuring out who they are and who they want to become.
Basically, this campaign is a step in a great direction. But it’s only a single step. We’ve still got a long way to go.