Visual Culture and Beauty Ideals

The broadsheets are getting excited. A wave of recent articles have been claiming that the beauty norms of fashion, advertising and women’s magazines are expanding (literally) to include something other than airbrushed images of skinny, tall, white teenagers that comprise our current “visual grammar”. Is the revolution really here? If not, why not? And does it really matter?

Most people know that the images of women used to sell things are unrealistic. I won’t bore you descriptions of thin models and airbrushing, (although for anyone interested Dove’s Evolution video here and this airbrush simulation provide compelling visual demonstrations). We all know, in theory, that the women we see on billboards and magazine covers represent an unattainable aesthetic. We also know that sex and beauty sell. Of course companies are going to use the images that produce the biggest profits. But over the last half century the representation of beauty have narrowed and shifted further and further away from anything that is attainable or realistic for the vast majority of women.

It is worth examining how contrived these beauty ideals really are and how our perception of what is normal can be heavily influenced by prevailing visual trends. What is now considered attractive does not represent an essential or definitive ideal. Only fifty years ago, for example, “skinny” was something to avoid (see the “wate-on” advertisements) as evidence of a poor diet. Within living memory it has been transformed into something desperately desirable with different associations: innocence, success, health, control… Why such a turn around?

By presenting and reinforcing an unachievable ideal we will always be kept safely at arms length from achieving satisfaction with the way we look. Then, crucially, the very same industries that are making us feel unhappy can offer us solutions to our various “problems”. The more “problems” they can invent (“bad knees”, “dry elbows” etc) the better. We absorb them, spend lots of money and are simultaneously made to feel that in doing so we are taking control of the source of our dissatisfaction. It is in the interest of the fashion, magazine publishing, diet, “health” and cosmetics industries to make this campaign for appearance dissatisfaction as widespread and pervasive as possible. So pervasive, in fact, that the ideas propagated become internalised and established as received truths. For example, it has become increasingly accepted over the last two decades that spending time and money on “ourselves” (i.e. our appearance) is a statement and reflection of our inner self respect and thus paramount to a moral duty. Not only are we convinced that beauty is limited to an unachievable ideal but we are also made to believe that is achievable and, furthermore, something worth striving for.

Cochrane writes in an article entitled Young, Fat and Fabulous, “Style blogs are democratising fashion, offering much more diverse images than we’re used to”. She goes on to cite more instances of change, such as recent photos in US Glamour featuring a plus-sized model.

Increasingly fashion blogs are offering convincingly beautiful images that do not conform to the mainstream “visual grammar”. It is testament to the blogs’ success that a few fashion magazines have run token “plus-size” features. It is also telling, but not surprising, that readers have responded with great positively. A recent study at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School found that most female consumers reacted more positively to ads featuring “realistically attractive models” rather than “traditionally attractive models” (UK size 4 or 6). However, Paddy Barwise, professor of marketing at the London Business School points out, “There is a gap between what they say, particularly in the presence of other women, and what they would do actually at the point of sale, and that’s a big gap, not a small gap.” (from an article in the Guardian – click here).

The fact that the majority of cosmetics companies have not followed Dove’s lead in its award winning “Real Beauty” ad campaign show that these companies believe “realistically attractive models” do pose a significant threat to sales. If we, the potential consumers, feel better about ourselves we will most likely spend less in the long term. Magazines are funded and controlled by advertising companies and change will only occur if these companies are convinced that a change in visual culture will increase profits.

As such I am not convinced that any such change will occur. But the material point is that a lot of “woman-hours” (to use Greer’s term), energy and earnings are being wasted. And many women are cripplingly unhappy with their appearance and increasingly obese, anorexic and unhealthy. Susie Orbach makes a convincing case in her book Bodies that these facts are not unrelated. The “gap” mentioned above between what women “say” and “what they would do actually at the point of sale” does not mean that women are stupid or liars when they say they respond positively to “realistically attractive models”. However, the visual culture of dissatisfaction is affective on a subconscious as well as a conscious level. They are bombarded by such incessant messages excluding them from thinking themselves beautiful, from being worth the gaze of the camera lens, worth the price of the products advertised that they are inevitably influenced to some degree. Worst of all is the fact that women are being made to believe that being looked and seen as beautiful by others is a validation and something worth aspiring to in the first place.

Perhaps we can start to resist this by pushing for tighter control over the distortion of ‘real life’ images in advertising and by calling for a lower limit on the age of models being used. But, unconvinced as I am that anything will be changed significantly without commercial incentive, we need to become more aware of the ways in which visual culture is used to manipulate us. The links included in this article offer further links for those interested. By becoming alert to these tactics we may have a better change of resisting them and challenging the underlying ideas surrounding these issues: The oppressive critical focus on women’s appearance and the supposed importance, for women, of achieving self-worth and validation through feeling ‘beautiful’.

Please note: A lot of the information and ideas included in this article come from Bodies by Susie Orbach and which Orbach also contributes to.


  1. caitums

    I think the dove evolution video link might be broken – or just search for the title in Youtube.

  2. clementineb

    Fascinating stuff. But is it true that in the long term Dove, for instance, would lose sales? Are there any stats on that? Personally, since their ‘real women’ campaign I’ve been buying a lot more Dove products than I used to.

  3. caitums

    I’m pretty sure that sales did initially increase. According to this blog ( they increased sales for the products featured in the ads increased 600 percent in the first two months of the campaign. I can’t find much data on how those sales have worked out since then, but I’ll keep looking. I think it’s possible that whilst some companies may see Dove’s campaign as being successful for that particular brand (which up until that point didn’t stand out in that saturated corner of the marker) they daren’t take the risk with their own product.

    The article “Will The Fashion Industry Ever Listen” on (search for it on the site) gives a pretty interesting picture of the consensus in the fashion/advertising/showbiz world that “realistically attractive models” would be a threat. It’s the account of a former Marie-Claire editor who was forced to resign after other editors and agencies turned against her and refused to work with her. She had produced two copies of an edition of Marie Claire – one with (the then size-16) Sophie Dahl and one with Pamela Anderson and was attempting to use the overwhelming sales of the Sophie Dahl edition to show that women wanted realistic models.

    I think the Dove Campaign is pretty interesting anyway because it is such an obvious compromise. The women used are all pretty blemish-less and very beautiful by realistic standards. Also, they are being used to sell beauty products that women don’t really need and probably don’t really do what they claim (firming, for example). I suppose the question that I’m grappling with is whether this is better than nothing and whether small-scale reform is the way to go. Ideally, I’d like to see a turn away from this visual culture. We seem to be so bombarded with images that we are increasingly forced to see and define ourselves from the outside.

    Another problem I have is that whether you have realistically or idealistically attractive models, some women are just not going to measure up to either of these standards of visual beauty – and where does that leave them? I just hate the hypocrisy of the whole “everyone’s beautiful” dove line, when they are still defining beauty through appearance. Their models are more diverse in terms of age and ethnicity, which should be applauded, but still all have a range of common features – straight teeth, clear skin etc. And, in reality, not everyone is physically beautiful when judged on appearance alone. Some people have crooked teeth, acne, a-symmetrical faces, massive blemishes etc. It’s just a fact. And why should be made to feel miserable about it?

  4. Hannah

    Hadley’s Freeman’s ‘Ask Hadley’ column in the guardian deals with readers’ questions about fashion. Recently, a woman asked why designers created clothes which were impossible to wear for women who have breasts. The response – ‘Is there not something marvellous about an industry that has so little interest in the one part of a woman’s anatomy that the rest of the world is obsessed with? One of the truly commendable things about fashion is how little interest it has in appealing to straight men, or making women look attractive to them.’ (the whole article is here –

    I’ve got a massive problem with this – firstly, the fashion world is still holding up an impossible image of beauty, and the fact that it is deliberately unattainable doesn’t make it any less dangerous. But also it’s a huge problem that these figures, who are supposed to represent a beauty ideal, are also being held up as free of any sex appeal. To find images of that, the straight men the article talks about have to go not to vogue but to nuts. And there women can find other other models they are supposed to be matching up to.

    My point isn’t so much about the danger of magazines or the fashion industry, but the fact that the press and the fashion industry is forcing women to be defined by their body types – either as flawless dolls who don’t do much other than pose, or as a sex object that has not aesthetic value and only exists to please men. Not only are these two dangerous extremes, but the suggestion that women would have to choose between the two – it’s the madonna-whore complex served up to both men and women by the images they see on a daily basis.

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