Wednesday, 15 May 2013

In the eye of the beholder

Plus-size model Jennie Runk says she is surprised by the amount of attention her beachwear adverts for H&M have attracted, but I can’t say that I am.

The size-16 model tells the BBC: “When my Facebook fan page gained about 2,000 new likes in 24 hours, I decided to use the attention as an opportunity to make the world a little nicer by promoting confidence. I've since been receiving lots of messages from fans, expressing gratitude.

“Some even told me that my confidence has inspired them to try on a bikini for the first time in years. This is exactly the kind of thing I've always wanted to accomplish, showing women that it's OK to be confident even if you're not the popular notion of ‘perfect’.”

Runk describes a childhood full of self-loathing: of large thighs, braces and wire-rimmed glasses. “Having finally survived it, I feel compelled to show girls who are going through the same thing that it's acceptable to be different,” she says.

“You will grow out of this awkwardness fabulously. Just focus on being the best possible version of yourself and quit worrying about your thighs, there's nothing wrong with them.”

I think it’s great that H&M has chosen such a beautiful, inspirational woman for this campaign, and I’m delighted that she has inspired women to get back in their bikinis.

But it seems that there is still something of a disconnect when it comes to women and body image. Because although we like to identify with these adverts and similar ‘real woman’ campaigns from Dove and M&S, research shows that when we buy clothes, we want to see them worn by slender models and mannequins; even if we’re carrying a few extra pounds ourselves.

While we take comfort from models that look more like us, we still aspire to look like the airbrushed models shown in Vogue and Cosmopolitan. We admire natural beauty but still lust after perfection.

It’s also interesting to note the way we see ourselves compared with the way other people see us. As the latest part of its Campaign for Real Beauty, Dove hired a forensic sketch artist to draw several women, based only on their descriptions of themselves. The artist then draws a separate portrait of each woman based on descriptions of them from relative strangers.

The resulting sketches are displayed side by side and in every single case the ‘stranger’ portrait is more flattering than the woman’s own version. A tagline of “You are more beautiful than you think” is then added. (You can watch the YouTube video here.) 

However many campaigns we see that tell us ‘it’s ok to be normal’, they will always be futile if we are unable to accept ourselves as we are. Often we think it’s ok for our friends to be a little overweight, have a giant spot or start going grey, but if it happens to us it’s panic stations!

I don’t really know what the solution is, apart from praying about it and being the best versions of ourselves we can be. That means looking after our bodies but not having unrealistic expectations of them; seeing beauty in others but also in ourselves; and working on being beautiful (kind, generous, truthful etc) on the inside too.

If you’ve got an extra minute, it’s worth checking out this short blog entry from photographer Jaime Moore about real princesses. And (completely off topic, but amusing none the less) if you have an additional ten minutes, watch this video of two Dutch guys experiencing simulated labour pains!

Read more from Joy in the next issue of Liberti magazine.

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