The New Normal


This is an image from the Debenhams High Summer Lookbook. And so are these:



I love these images because they attempt to show diversity in different and boundary-pushing ways. Many retailers will throw in one standard size woman of color and call their ads a celebration of all womanhood. But the women in the ads shown above are tall and short and fat and thin and brown and black and differently abled. And, of course, it would be nice to see an older woman, someone with tattoos, anyone not dressed in extremely femme-reading garments, and many, many other overlooked groups. But it’s progress.

What I don’t like is this statement from the Debenhams blog:

Here at Debenhams we believe that anyone can look fabulous in our range—which is why we’ve decided to break with convention … By becoming the first high street retailer in the UK to promote its latest fashion collections by using models in a diverse variety of ages, sizes and looks—the imagery in our “High Summer Look Book” turns its back on the industry norm of young thin models. Featuring an amputee, three models over 40 (including one nearing 70), a Paralympian athlete and not forgetting our swimwear shot with a size 18 model to celebrate curvelicious women.

Aside from the fact that curvelicious isn’t a word, this text absolutely reeks of self-congratulation. Showing non-normative bodies and saying LOOK AT THIS, LOOK HOW FANTASTIC WE ARE FOR INCLUDING THEM … well, it’s a start. Especially since the alternative is showing nothing but tall, thin, hourglass-y white women who’ve been Photoshopped within an inch of their lives. But it sure does make a move that could have been a real step in the right direction look like a self-serving PR stunt. Instead of being a company that acknowledges the diversity of the world and naturally wants to include it in advertising efforts, Debenhams sounds like they created these photos mainly because they knew they’d grab loads of media attention.

I believe that one of the most powerful ways to support diversity is to show it and NOT comment. To create a visual world that includes a truly varied picture of humanity, and make that snapshot the new normal by acting like it’s totally boring, utterly expected, and exactly what we see everywhere. Because it is what we see everywhere. Except on our TVs, in our movie theaters, and on the pages of our magazines.

I assume some of you watched Sesame Street with me back in the 70s. There was definitely a “one of each” situation going on there, but the actual human beings on that show were African-American and Latino and Caucasian in equal part and no one acted like that was a big deal. The Muppets themselves had blue and green and orange skin and differently shaped bodies and faces as a subtle way of showing kids that people come in a huge variety of shapes and colors, and all of them are trustworthy and interesting and unique on the inside no matter what their outsides look like. That was groundbreaking, back in the 70s: Creating a televised world of diversity and not making a huge deal out of it. And it certainly influenced my own worldview. Along with several other influences and factors, exposure to that televised world helped me learn to expect the people around me to be the same as me and different from me in recognizable ways and in ways I could never anticipate.

So when I saw the Debenhams lookbook and observed the festival of gushing that ensued, I felt a little weary. I wonder why, after all these years, a company still gets to be lauded as groundbreaking when it includes members of its actual consumer base in its advertising materials. Why is it extraordinary to picture ordinary women in your ads just because they are not all exactly alike? And when will doing so become so normal that we no longer have to throw a big party whenever it happens?

Although I wish they hadn’t been so keen to pat themselves on the back about it, I do applaud Debenhams for making this campaign a reality. And I hope to live to see the day when ads like these are utterly, unremarkably, fantastically normal.

Images via Adweek

Originally posted 2014-01-29 06:25:40.

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25 Responses to “The New Normal”

  1. LK

    It’s nice to see but the company’s comment makes it clear its a PR stunt. Of course it. Diversity is the hot new thing to get your brand attention. Its never about people, its always about the dollar.

  2. A.B.

    That look book was also just released to the media and not to customers. So yes, it feels self congratulatory to me “Well show all these media outlets how diverse our models are. But who cares what our customers see in stores and online? LOOK AT HOW DIVERSE THEY ARE AREN’T WE WONDERFUL!”

    These women are also very stereotypically “Hollywood” beautiful. Not all fat women are curvy like the model is. I’m surely not.

    • Kelley

      In the article Sally says, “tall, thin, hourglass-y white women who’ve been Photoshopped within an inch of their lives” – I have been struggling to accept the irregularities of my own size, shape, coloring and *horrors* cellulite-pocked self. I’ve looked all over the internet and Pinterest and have noticed that what you say about “stereotypically “Hollywood” beautiful” models in the Lookbook is also completely true of almost all the “plus-size”, “Curvylicious”, “phat” women portrayed in about 97% of what I’ve seen. What is supposed to be about “acceptance” ends up being about bigger women, chosen for their conventional good looks, also being photoshopped within an inch of their lives. I get that these are models and as such they are meant to be inspirational, but come on, give me a break. We don’t need another reason to feel inadequate.

  3. coffeeaddict

    I feel bad for expressing negative opinion over this Debenham’s campaign, because it’s so easy, too easy to criticize instead of acknowledging the effort and progress.
    Despite that I have to say that this attempt to incorporate diverse women into an add campaign seems forced and a bit artificial. To me they look like they’re trying too hard.
    And thew other thing that bothered me, that despite different shapes and size of the women in the pictures, they were all given the same beauty treatment: hair, makeup, flawless skin,… making them conform to the Debenham’s standard of beauty that says regardless of your shape, size, disability you’re still expected to have perfectly manicured hands, hairstyle that reflects the lates fashion trend and wear makeup.

  4. Vildy

    I’m surprised to read in the comments that the lookbook was not released to customers. I don’t view their efforts as anything to do with diversity and everything to do with the self-congratulation that you mentioned. But I would think it would be designed to influence the consumer.

    I remember that Marie Claire used to always feature at least one horrifying article about women suffering somewhere in the world. I found this repugnant and stopped reading it. It seemed to me that it was an effort to relieve shopping guilt. Now that the reader has dutifully informed herself regarding the injustice in the world, it would be easier to spend on herself because she’s “proved” she’s a good person and is now allowed to think about herself and her desires.

    In the same way, the lookbook is meant, I think, to attract people who feel good about being aware of diversity and pride themselves on their high degree of awareness. So they will be more likely to shop the store because it makes them feel more of what they value themselves to be and maybe don’t always remember to be. It’s all aspirational one way or the other.

    • Rachel

      Vildy, I know exactly what you mean about the token hard-hitting articles in Marie Claire. Grazia magazine does the same thing – the magazine always starts with around-up of 10 things that happened in the last week, 9 of them will be fashion and celebrity trivia, but one will be a horrific story about human rights abuses. I interpreted it more as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the magazine editors; “See, we do proper journalism too, not just dresses!”

      I’m certainly not saying that fashion magazines shouldn’t cover real issues too, but I always found the juxtaposition of luxury clothing and gruelling real-life news to be an extremely queasy one. It seems in very poor taste to be advertising a pair of £800 shoes next to a story about women living in extreme poverty.

      About the Debenhams campaign, I did notice that the plus-size woman in the bikini is the only one wearing a sarong, as if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to actually show a plus-size woman in just a bikini. Which is depressing.

  5. Janel M

    Agreed. Like others, I want to encourage the effort. But I’m not really seeing it.

    I saw the photos a couple weeks ago. While I didn’t see the blog quote, I did google to find their website to take a look, only to be disappointed. While there was a slight variation of colors, everyone had arms, legs and was about the same size. If they really wanted to make an impact for change, they should have carried the trend to their website where folks could see it today as well as 2012.

  6. Jamie

    I think these photos are pretty upsetting actually. In two cases they’ve paired a white lady without a limb next to a dark skinned model as though they balance out.

    • Harriet

      Jamie, this has been bothering me, too! Wearing a size 18 or not being white is considered equivalent to missing a limb? Talk about left-handed compliments …

      • MLH

        I read Sally’s text the day it was published and I keenly followed the conversation that followed. I also read Jamie’s and Harriet’s comments and thought of letting them slide, but my thoughts kept on bothering me so I finally came back to write this.

        To put my thoughts shortly, I don’t think that standing next to a person who is missing a limb is worth any less than standing next to a person who still has all their limbs. If we really want to celebrate diversity and beauty in all its forms we must include women who have lost limbs. And we must accept them as equals to women with all limbs. We shouldn’t create (or sustain) a system where the top includes only white women, next layer down has plus-sized and black women, and the bottom layer is for women who miss a limb. In other words, we can’t try to push some women up by tearing others down.

        We are all worthy, regardless of our skin colour, height, weight or any other physical attribute. And we don’t suddenly lose our worth if we lose a limb or are born without. So yes, a black model, a plus-sized model, a white model and a white model without a limb all balance out nicely.

  7. Jean

    Ha, I thought I was the only one who stopped reading Marie Claire because of those articles. I stopped for the same reason as the fellow poster. Thank god for real-women’s fashion and body-image blogs. I truly feel these are what’s changing the conversation and retailers and fashion magazines are running to catch up, but are limited in doing so due to their advertisers not wanting to see anything but clothes-hanger models in the magazines.

  8. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Agreed that companies will “use” diversity as the Next Big Thing, whatever sells their stuff. But it still is some progress. I will be thrilled when using “mature” models (see Linda Rodin for The Row, et al) doesn’t result in a big self-congratulation.

  9. walkercreative

    These images are very refreshing to me. I hate to be the voice of dissent here, but as someone who worked in advertising . . . I get it. Yes, they went over the top on the self-congratulations, but the bottom line is they have to create brand awareness and media buzz BEFORE it is normalized.

    Hopefully, in the future you will see their catalogs with similar diversity and refer to them in the same way we talk about Sesame Street now. Had they not done the media blitz to gain attention, this article would not have been written, and I WOULD HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THE BRAND. Now that I know about them, I will happily patronize their business for acknowledging that I too, and many others are women who desire to look and feel good.

    I am weary of looking at photo-shopped images and stick figures when I shop online. I usually end up looking for the item on Google, Pinterest or blogs to see how the clothes look on other (trying to avoid saying real) women before buying. Debenhams saved me that step up front, which would put me closer to to purchasing from them.

    It is not only about sizing either. I just bought a Dress Barn sweater dress that looked like a sack and boring on the model online — something I never would have never even tried on if the associate hadn’t suggested it. The CONTRAST with my skin and hair was stunning and the stripes on my curves were amazing. Had they shown that in a look book I would have bought it instantly.

    I am game for even more diversity in their ads, and I am okay with different levels of “beauty treatment” but I don’t want to see anyone looking sloppy, scary or unkempt. If they went too far I couldn’t relate. These could all be women I know or work with. Ultimately, they need to give me a reason and motivation to part with my hard earned money. . . which is how they will stay in business.

    Time will tell the truth about the intent of this company . . . anyone remember an 80’s company called BENETTON? — how much diversity do you see in their ads now? I can’t tell them from The Gap on their home page (*insert sigh and eyeroll here).

    • SamiJ

      Yes. Great response & I agree.
      Regardless of the benefit to the company, regardless of their motivation — the result is still pretty great, and hopefully will spawn plenty of copycats who feature more diversity in their advertising and maybe even influence what we see in magazines/on the runway both in product and in models. If you can see it, you can be it.

    • Chicken

      Great persepective. That said, I know plenty of amazing women who are sloppy, scary or unkempt.

  10. kathryn

    Preach it, Sally! Your commentary is spot-on.

    I will say, though, that those pictures are really beautifully done. The models look gorgeous, and not in an overly photoshopped kind of way. Makes the clothes interesting.

  11. Shawna

    Of course it’s a PR move. They have stuff to sell. So does Dove. While I want companies to make this change, I don’t expect them to do it for altruistic motives. The companies using the thin, white, photohopped models are making a PR choice too. In the end I don’t think it matters and in fact perhaps we are best served being reminded that these people are selling us stuff after all and are not our self esteem gurus. What matters is the image they present, because it is those images that are most powerful. What matters is that they feel they need to make this PR move because that says something about a culture shift. What matters is that this reminds us of our power as consumers to help shape our cultural norms.

  12. Annabeth

    Do I think they’re self-congratulatory about the inclusion? Yes. Would I rather see self-congratulatory inclusion than continued exclusion? Also yes.

    Don’t get me wrong – I totally get where you’re coming from. Mostly I agree! But it sometimes seems to me that (on many fronts, but especially with feminist thought) we spend more time throwing stones at those who try and get it wrong than at those who don’t try at all. That seems upside down to me.

  13. RM

    I have felt this way ever since the Dove “real women” ads. Thank you!

  14. Mary

    I thought it just me that was bothered by the self congratulatory tone of all these “real women” campaigns. Aerie recently decided to stop photo shopping their already very conventionally attractive models and have taken to every social media site to announce it. *eye roll* I’m still undecided whether I’m going to continue shopping there or not.

  15. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    I agree that the text is patronizing BUT as someone who’s worked in web journalism for nearly 2 decades & participated in website user testing, I have to say that an overwhelming number of people skim text & don’t really read it closely online. 80-90% will only look at the graphics.

    So the photos are what people see & remember, so in this case, that’s a good thing. The images are gorgeous & showcase the clothes, first & foremost. The eye secondarily notices things like amputated limbs or even size differences (actually, the plus-size model looks even better in her bikini than the other model, IMO – that print looks amazingly sexy on her).

    *shrug* Maybe not the best campaign, but in our fast-paced, visually focused online world, it’s a step in the right direction.

    • b

      What jumped out at me is how poorly the “curvy model”‘s top fits. That’s clearly not anywhere close to her size. Which means Debenhams is either going for major cleavage on purpose, or else they don’t actually carry her size. Neither one makes me believe they actually want to *make clothes for* women of all sizes–they just want to LOOK like they do.