Image of woman of different body types posing in clothing
Brands that pay attention to the body positive movement are reaping the benefits from consumers. (Illustration by Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University )

Nowadays, Body Inclusivity Sells, and Brands Will Ignore It at Their Peril

Ads and social media posts show that women’s fashion is turning away from fatphobia and body stigma.

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Image of woman of different body types posing in clothing

Ads and social media posts show that women’s fashion is turning away from fatphobia and body stigma.

Over the past five years or so, the “body positive” hashtag on Instagram has accumulated 13.5 million photos that facilitate user exposure to all kinds of bodies and the “imperfections” that aren’t acknowledged in professional photoshoots. Body positivity as a social movement is rooted in the belief that everyone deserves a positive body image.

Online platforms like Instagram and now TikTok have been a major vehicle for helping the message go mainstream. Users who confidently display their cellulite, tummy rolls, stretch marks and bright scars on these apps help de-stigmatize bodies that don’t conform to conventional standards of beauty and health. As one Elle magazine op-ed articulates, regular exposure to larger bodies, in contrast to the inundation of glamorized images of thin, white models, can help “break our fixation on the singular skinny ideal.”

Women’s clothing brands are feeling the pressure to respond to the movement’s radical redefinition of which bodies are worth celebration. While some companies are answering the demand for an expanded notion of what a “standard” body looks like with more inclusive marketing, others are collapsing under the weight of toxic body standards that just don’t sell anymore.

There’s no denying that there’d be little of the increased body inclusivity we see in the fashion world today without the adoption of body positivity in the mainstream. The goals of body positive activists have included gaining social acceptance for all bodies regardless of size, physical ability or appearance and empowering women by recognizing that extreme beauty standards are more prevalent for them than they are for men.

While fatphobia and body stigma remain entrenched in society, the body positivity movement’s celebration of bodies at all sizes, especially those that fall outside of rigid beauty standards, has paved the way for more diverse body representation in clothing campaigns and on online fashion websites. With more and more female consumers no longer seeing their regular, ordinary bodies as a pitfall, brands need to reform marketing that takes idealizing thinness for granted.

One large brand that answered the call for a different fashion industry culture is Aerie, the athleisure offshoot of teen fashion brand American Eagle. Aerie was first American Eagle’s lingerie brand, but the line has expanded over several years to include activewear, loungewear and a swim collection.

Aerie’s clothing is geared towards young women, a demographic known to be especially susceptible to issues associated with negative body image. This perhaps influenced the brand’s 2014 decision to stop retouching its photos. Aerie’s radical commitment to representing their models authentically breaks fashion industry norms by rejecting airbrushed, perfectionistic portrayals of the female body. While most of the campaign’s models remained very thin, individual skin differences such as tattoos, birthmarks and other imperfections were left perfectly visible to customers.

More recently, Aerie’s 2018 “Aerie Real” campaign, which featured ambassadors such as model and body positivity activist Iskra Lawrence and actress and activist Yara Shahidi, pushed the brand’s commitment to empowering women of all sizes further. The campaign’s slogan, “Aerie Real,” identified beauty with realness, rather than painstakingly edited pictures. #AerieReal has since grown from a no retouching movement to a brand philosophy focused on body positivity and young female empowerment. In an industry that idealizes unattainable bodies, Aerie is heralding change with body-inclusive images.

Aerie’s policies around photoshopping have created an online shopping experience for customers that is body image-affirming. Women of all sizes are represented on the site, and plus-sized women model more than just the brand’s baggy loungewear. In the lingerie section, larger women model size XXL bralettes alongside thin models and many sizes in between. Body diversity on the site is on full display especially when browsing the swim section. There is no one “bikini body” chosen to be the face of each beach look; instead, bikini models with a range of body types, with diverse skin colors and unique blemishes, suggest what an Aerie bathing suit might look like on a “real” person.

Sustainable fashion brand Universal Standard is also expanding fashion industry norms by making  “revolutionary inclusivity” part of its mission. On its website, Universal Standard identifies itself as “the world’s most inclusive fashion brand.” Expanding since its launch in 2015, the brand carries sizes 00 to 40, and its models are representative of this impressive range.

The ethical fashion brand brings body inclusivity to every aspect of its business model, from the sizes offered to the models it employs. The company was started by two women, who say in a letter to customers that they “wanted to innovate” and “set new standards.” They address the scarcity of fashionable options for plus-sized women — even in light of the fact that 67% of U.S. women wear a size 14 or above — as one of the motivating factors for starting a brand all about breaking the idea that “standard” equals thin.

Calvin Klein is another brand that had a groundbreaking ad campaign related to the appearance of its models. In 2019, the company sparked controversy online when it displayed a photo of Black plus-sized rapper Chika on a massive billboard in Soho for its #MyCalvins ad campaign. In the photo, Chika sits on a couch in her underwear with her large stomach visible. Interestingly, however, all of the 12 featured #MyCalvins photos on the brand’s website feature subjects that are thin and white. Though the Chika billboard was an unprecedented, norm-shattering step, the company clearly still has a ways to go when it comes to elevating bodies that differ from an exclusionary archetype of thin and white.

Brands that do not heed women’s empowered relationships to their body’s appearance may fall behind. The consequences of pushing outdated, exclusionary images of photoshopped perfection are the loss of cultural popularity and plummeting sales.

Unlike teen retailer American Eagle, Victoria’s Secret, a ubiquitous mall store and lingerie leader notorious for its “angels” — towering, rail-thin underwear models — has been in decline over the last several years. For several decades, Victoria’s Secret has been the largest lingerie retailer in the U.S. There’s no doubt that the brand’s recent and significant demise is in part attributable to the tone-deaf, appearance-based comments made by its former CEO, but also communicated by the brand’s consistent advertising.

Controversial former CEO of Victoria’s Secret Ed Razek is described as the man responsible for the brand’s “homogenous, airbrushed and sexualized image.” Before his departure from the company in 2019, Razek sparked public backlash when he responded to a question about the casting practices of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, an annual spectacle of underwear runway models and pop performances that has now been discontinued.

Razek answered that the company should not include trans or larger women in the fashion show “because the show is a fantasy.” Razek’s assumption that potential consumers of Victoria’s Secret products — overwhelmingly women — prefer a “fantasy” rather than authentic and diverse representation is an irresponsible delusion, one that has had serious consequences for the brand.

This history of body and appearance homogeneity in its advertising has meant Victoria’s Secret no longer resonates with enough women to remain an industry leader in lingerie. The cultural and financial consequences for the brand have been significant. The famous fashion show had run annually since 1985. It was officially cancelled in 2018, likely due to a sharp and steady decline in ratings since 2013, despite the show’s inclusion of pop stars like Shawn Mendes and Bebe Rexha. Financial losses have been even more dramatic, including a decrease in the brand’s lingerie market shares from 33% to 24%, and the waning of its line geared toward college-age and teen women, Pink.

Pink, one of the brand’s biggest assets, was quoted as being “on the precipice of collapse” in 2018. Unlike Aerie, which has seen a significant uptick in in-store sales, Victoria’s Secret saw a 7% decrease in store sales as of 2019. Multiple analysts have linked the brand’s demise to the out-of-touch, limited definition of “sexy” put forward by its marketing. Failure to adopt a new philosophy of body inclusivity may mean the downfall of some established brands.

If Universal Standard and American Eagle, two brands that appeal to different age ranges and price points, are any indication, then fashion brands that embrace the idea of body confidence at any size have rapid-success potential by virtue of resonating with contemporary women. As a result of the popular body positive movement, women today are better equipped to disavow the harmful beauty standards entrenched in the fashion industry. It takes boldness and risk to reject the standards of physical perfection foundational to the industry, but, for Aerie and Universal Standard, the payoff has been ample.

The body positive movement has mobilized women’s exhaustion with bargaining with a “fantasy” — they want realness in the mirror and in the fashion catalog. Today, if brands want every woman buying their products, they will have to prove that they’re serious about body inclusivity.

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