Full-bodied Models Firm Up Support for Ad Campaign

By Jennifer Siegel

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.
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Women of the world, unite — and have a bite!

A new advertising campaign from the makers of Dove beauty products features women — real women, curvy women, women in all their un-airbrushed, everyday underwear glory — in the name of celebrating a more rounded version of beauty (and selling firming cream).

Dubbed the “campaign for real beauty,” the publicity effort was unveiled earlier this summer in a series of national television and magazine advertisements, as well as on billboards and buses in major cities across the country. The ads, which have been sparking headlines in recent weeks, depict six “real life” women, who wear sizes from 4 to 12, in the service of selling a line of “intensive firming” lotion, cream and body wash that are said to include glycerin, seaweed extract and elastin peptides with skin-firming properties that reduce the appearance of cellulite.

The women — both voluptuous and proud — appear in nothing but utilitarian white underwear, with such accompanying slogans as, “Let’s face it, firming the thighs of a size 2 supermodel is no challenge” and “New Dove Firming. As tested on real curves.”

The ads have touched a nerve: In recent weeks, the “real beauty” models have appeared on “Today,” CNN and as the subjects of a number of news articles. And if Dove’s use of larger models to sell anti-cellulite products seems a bit dubious — using idealism to push merchandise, hailing zaftig poster girls but reportedly paying them less than regular models — the reaction in many circles has been overwhelmingly exuberant.

“I’ll give them my $5.79. Hell, yeah!” said Wendy Shanker, the 33-year-old author of last year’s “The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life.” Shanker is a national spokeswoman for Love Your Body Day of the the National Organization for Women Foundation.

“I’m going to buy their lotion… because they’re trying to get my dollar by making me feel good instead of trying to make me feel bad,” Shanker said. She added that Dove, which is owned by Unilever, recognizes that “there’s a backlash from people who are getting really tired of hearing how fat, ugly and disgusting they are all the time.”

The campaign also has won a stamp of approval from none other than “Star Trek” star Leonard Nimoy, a fine art photographer since the 1970s. Nimoy’s series of extremely full-bodied nudes, titled “Maximum Beauty,” was on display in New York earlier this year. After learning of the campaign from the Forward and checking out the Dove ads online, Nimoy told the Forward that the ads are “a step in the right direction” which send the message that there is “more than one acceptable body type.”

In addition to the advertisements, Dove has embarked on a kind of global consciousness-raising campaign that includes a Web site, www.campaignforreal-beauty.com, that invites women to send in photographs that depict them living life to the fullest. Through the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, the company hired leading academic researchers to conduct a study of conceptions of beauty around the world. Earlier this year, the company held an essay contest, inviting girls ages 11 to 17 to submit a photo of a woman they know that embodies “real beauty,” along with an essay explaining why. Judges included Naomi Wolf, leading feminist and author of “The Beauty Myth.”

The “real beauty” models — who include two students, a kindergarten teacher, a manicurist and an administrative assistant — speak of their participation in the campaign as more of a mission than a job. In a recent interview with CNN, one of the models, Gina Crisante, a busty Texan with curly brown hair, said that the participants in the multimillion-dollar ad campaign were only compensated for time and travel. But Crisante told CNN that she’s “happy to help Dove launch their new line of firming products since they’re using it as a means to a really positive end.”

Still, the campaign has its critics. Susan Wiedman Schneider, founder and editor of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, pointed out that for all the talk of “real” women, the ads sort of have it both ways. “What they suggest,” Wiedman Schneider said, “is that these big women, however lovely they may seem to us, are still somehow imperfect and risible. I mean, otherwise, why would Dove have bothered to invent a so-called ‘firming’ cream in the first place?”

Shanker — who, in a forthcoming essay, asks, “Can you picture Golda Meir drinking Slim-Fast during lunch at the Knesset?”— said that the ads present an altogether different, and unexpected, challenge.

“The women I speak to seem to be very excited about it and a little scared,” Shanker said. “It’s easy to write yourself off when you feel like you don’t fit the image of popular beauty.” But when “all of a sudden you see a girl who looks like you and she’s hot enough” to be on a billboard, “it’s like, ‘Oh, wait, now I have to actually work on my personality and my self-esteem.’”

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