I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to unlearn the lessons that the advertising industry taught me as a teenager.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, fashion and beauty brands were only just beginning to include more ethnically diverse models in their imagery and runway shows. But scanning through ads in glossy magazines, the women highlighted by almost every brand–from Victoria’s Secret to Neutrogena to Diane Von Furstenberg to Sephora–were always young, in the pink of health, and without the slightest blemish. What did this mean for me, as I got older, experienced illness, or otherwise bore the marks of life on my body? There was no room for me in this narrow notion of beauty.
Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie brand that targets teens, wants to explode this narrative. The brand imagery in its newest advertising campaign and e-commerce photos, released this week, goes deeper with its representation of diversity than any other mainstream brand. As you scroll through the brand’s bra selection, you’ll spot a woman with a colonoscopy bag, one with crutches, and yet another who is attached to an insulin pump. Aerie doesn’t specifically call attention to them, but their bodies appear alongside other real women of many different skin tones and body types, as well as women who appear to be professional models.
The campaign is built around the idea of role models. The eight-person main cast includes progressive actresses Jameela Jamil, who has used her platform to talk about body positivity, and Samira Wiley, who is openly gay. There is also Paralympian snowboarder Brenna Huckaby, whose leg was amputated at age 13. Joining them are gymnast Aly Raisman, poet Cleo Wade, actress Busy Phillips, and plus-size model Iskra Lawrence. On social media, reaction to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive, although some women argued that there were not enough large women, particularly at a time when brands like Universal Standard and J.Crew are representing women up to size 40 in their ads.
The campaign is shot with the dewy lighting and familiar poses of a typical lingerie spread. Like a Victoria’s Secret ad, the women stand in a line, affectionately touching one another and linking arms. But while Victoria’s Secret ads showcase women in sexy underwear, the women in Aerie’s campaign are all clothed. And there’s no vamping. The vibe is about female solidarity and empowerment, rather than appealing to the male gaze.
Judging by reactions on social media, many young women seem to be more affected by the women featured on Aerie’s website who casually model bras while in wheelchairs or attached to ostomy bags or insulin pumps. For many women, this was the first time they’d seen women who looked like them while browsing for a bra online.
Aerie has been at the forefront of the body inclusivity movement for years now. Back in 2014, the company pledged to forgo all retouching in campaign imagery, and in 2016, it began featuring role models rather than traditional fashion models in campaigns. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, not just from critics, but from the brand’s target audience of young women.
But perhaps the most encouraging thing is that this shift towards inclusivity is not just brand-led. In my interviews with American Eagle’s leadership, it’s clear that the company has been studying gen-Zers (people currently aged between 3 and 23) for years. It conducts extensive focus groups among young people and systematically gathers feedback from customers. If the brand is pushing the envelope when it comes to diversity, it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because they’ve determined it makes good business sense, because this is what today’s youngest consumers are looking for.
And this strategy is working. American Eagle consistently outperforms its competitors Abercrombie and Urban Outfitters, which are moving towards diversity but not as radically. Aerie is also thriving at a time when Victoria’s Secret, which is still the most dominant player in the lingerie industry, is on the decline and has earned the nickname “Sears of Brassieres.”
Gen-Z, many of whom make up the next generation of bra wearers, aren’t impressed with Victoria’s Secret’s strategy of selling underwear by pandering to male fantasies. Aerie’s insights into what gen-Z women want, coupled with its willingness to reflect a diversity rarely seen in advertising, puts the brand on track to become the lingerie of choice for young women.
This gives me hope that my own daughter won’t have to retrain herself to understand that all women are beautiful when she’s an adult. For her it will be obvious, right there in the glossy images of underwear brands.