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COLUMN: Retouched Beauty: Changing Bodies And Saving Face

Wiley's Follies

Arts & Review Editor

Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 23, 2014 00:01

Starting this spring, women shopping at Aerie, American Eagle’s intimate division, will be interacting with the new face—or perhaps more accurately, new body—of the brand. The Aerie Real campaign marks a shift in the brand’s philosophy, away from the airbrushing practices which have become a broad standard of fashion industry. “No more retouching our girls and no more supermodels,” states one ad. “Because there is no reason to retouch beauty. The real you is sexy.”

The Aerie Real campaign reflects a trend in retail toward advertising with models that more closely represent the people walking into stores. In many cases, customers are becoming more sophisticated advocates for themselves and rejecting brands that come across as mean-spirited, the prime example here being Abercrombie & Fitch, the largest competitor to American Eagle. Oddly, Abercrombie has recently been receiving an onslaught of bad publicity for comments made by CEO Mike Jeffries in 2006—the height of the brand’s appeal—about its practice of marketing “to cool, good-looking people.” Public backlash over social media, surrounding the company’s exclusionary marketing tactics, could arguably be a cause in last year’s dramatic decline in Abercrombie stock, which dropped 28 percent in value over 12 months.

To tie Abercrombie’s poor performance to the controversial remarks of its CEO, however, is a very nearsighted view of the retail industry. The decline of “aesthetic” brands has been the reality of retail over the last decade—put simply, fashion is no longer about keeping up with the cool kids. The rise of highly responsive brands like Zara—which use technology to keep up with whoever happens into their stores—means the success of fashion lines now has less to do with forecasting and preserving a certain image and more to do with relating to customers, polling them for opinions, and presenting what seems like an ethical brand.Aerie Real isn’t just an ethical decision for American Eagle—it’s smart business.

Retail, however, necessarily tends to be the more loving arm of the fashion industry. High fashion, on the other hand, is by definition an art of exclusionary. The content of women’s magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan has long been the fodder for feminist critics, who have seen in the extreme photoshopping practices of these magazines a war on female anatomy.

Recently, feminist blog Jezebel offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could produce the non-photoshopped versions of images of Lena Dunham featured in Vogue. The website racked up over a million views with the alternate images of the Girlsactress, but ultimately, it saw the incident turn into negative press for Jezebel—the move was widely received as a bullying tactic that targeted Dunham, rather than Vogue.

The outcome of the Dunham incident presents an important insight into public attitudes toward photoshopping in magazines—by and large, it’s something readers are still willing to look past. Fashion magazines and runways have long served as a source of fantasy, and though they maintain a scant illusion of it, the avenues of high fashion are not catalogues. The more the runway looks like Main Street, the less we see reason for it to exist. It’s difficult to imagine high fashion existing without its destructive practices, like airbrushing and dehydrating models, and while the culture of the industry has seen some reform over the past few years, the visual language of the art is synonymous with the absurdity of it all.

Dress it up however you like, but high fashion’s obsession with impossible standards is a fatal love affair. Runway fashion isn’t just unhealthy, it’s dying. If the popularity of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and alternate sources of style like Humans of New York indicate anything, it’s that the fashion bubble is bound to pop. Movements such as Aerie Real are doing something more than just cleaning up the ethics of modeling practices—they’re refocusing fashion on the individual. Modeling, as we know it, is a dated practice.

The new face of fashion is less a mannequin and more a mirror. It’s less Abercrombie’s marketing strategy to target the “cool, good-looking people,” and something more to the tune of Aerie’s new catchphrase, “The real you is sexy.” The retouchers of the human body will continue to make profits while they can, but at the end of the day, they’re riding a dinosaur to extinction.

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