Of Angels and (F)aeries

Here’s the thing. I love food. My desire for looking great in a bikini has always been superseded by (recurring) carb cravings.

So, in Spring 2012, when I realised that I was losing weight rapidly despite not having to cut down on my calories, I was elated!

Eating cake and losing weight? The existence of this sort of boon has been as dubious as the myth surrounding the existence of mermaids. And let me debunk it right away (unless you belong to the .0000000001% of the population that can actually, healthily, eat to their heart’s content while still being able to shed pounds. In which case, don’t come near me if I’m holding a sharp object!!).

Seriously though, I wasn’t in a very good place in my life in 2012, which I later realised was the cause of the temporary hormonal change that I initially thought was a blessing. This extremely delayed realisation was almost a year in the making.

I was losing weight so rapidly that from December 2011 to July 2012, I lost about 30 pounds. No exercising. No kale-ing. And definitely no starving myself. In fact, I’m a binge eater, and I tend to eat my feelings. And I was going through a lot of feelings at the time.

In June 2012, I was visiting New York City. It was my first visit to the city as an adult, so it was the first time I was really able to comprehend what all the flashy billboards and colourful posters were telling me.

Victoria’s Secret was on an aggressive advertising spree that summer. So, wherever I went, I saw supermodels Candice Swanepoel, Adriana Lima, and Miranda Kerr, all dubbed by VS as their “angels”, staring down at me blissfully from their beachy-billboard abodes in the newest VS collection of lingerie and/or bikinis.

Now, let’s take a second to reflect on the genius move that was branding VS models ‘Angels’. As angels, they’re immediately better than the rest of us ordinary human beings. They’re heavenly creatures, they embody perfection, but most importantly, they make us want to be Angels as well!

That summer, Victoria’s Secret had me thinking that if I wore their products, I would be a part of their Secret, their ‘angel’ club. It helped that my hormones at the time had me dangerously underweight. I thought that I looked better than before, rather than recognizing my weight-loss as the health issue that it was. And Victoria’s Secret did nothing but confirm in my mind that unhealthy-skinny was attractive. I can admit to having contributed to VS’s $4.9 billion in-stores profit that year.

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But eventually summer came to an end, I realised why I wasn’t in a good place in my life, and I resolved it. And just like that, the ‘boon’ that I had been bestowed with became a bane.

I was happier and more relaxed. Which meant that my body was happier and more relaxed. I felt better than I had in months. And so, the hormones that had lost their balance decided to regain their footing.

I slowly started putting on all the weight I had lost, and VS garments no longer made me feel like an Angel. To compensate, I tried reducing my meal portions to lose a few pounds, even though I was at a healthy weight.

I can’t speak for any of the Angels, but I soon found that eating lesser to fit into my VS products was just not worth it.

And slowly (partly due to the fact that VS has no marketing presence in India), Victoria’s Secret’s brainwashing began to come undone. I realised that they were supporting and propping up an unhealthy ideal of what desirable women should look like.

In 2013, VS and several fashion magazines came under the radar for excessive photoshopping of images of their models.

In March that year, L’Oreal pulled an ad campaign after rival brand Cover Girl said that the ads were misleading.

The November 2013 issue of Vogue had airbrushed and photoshopped Kate Winslet’s cover to the point where she looked only vaguely like her actual self, and the public called it out.

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"Labor Day" Press Conference

More and more people were beginning to realise the unhealthy impact these images and campaigns had on young girls in a society where there is already so much pressure on them to conform to beauty norms.

Enter aerie, American Eagle’s sister brand for lingerie and swimwear.

When I moved to NYC in Fall ‘15, I was debating whether or not I should make a trip to VS. As I was entering Broadway in SoHo I saw an aerie poster outside American Eagle, and decided to enter.

I was surprised to see a large poster of one of their models— she was gorgeous, but she had freckles on her face, and visible stretch marks. My first thought was that it must have been a mistake, and that the people at aerie must have accidentally rolled out a new ad shoot without editing the pictures first. But, as I made my way through the store, I found that this was a pattern. Unlike at VS, I wasn’t intimidated by the posters; instead, I could instantly relate to them. Intrigued, when I went home I read up on aerie and discovered #AerieReal.

In Spring 2014, aerie launched aerie Real, a campaign in which no model’s images would be photoshopped or retouched to depict an unreal standard of beauty.

This move, in itself, was hailed as a brave one, because it meant relying on real, unedited images to sell the products. But, it paid off— aerie’s sales grew by 20 percent in the 2015 fiscal year, and by 32 percent in the first quarter of the 2016 fiscal year.

Soon afterwards, aerie announced that it would no longer photoshop or retouch any of their models, not just for one campaign but for all the ones to follow.

Aerie’s move is worthy of being lauded because it can go a long way in instilling a sense of self-worth in the minds of the young women it caters to. However, this move was also a very smart business decision.

Essentially, aerie built #AerieReal off of the narrative (that was already building and gaining momentum) around having a healthy body image, and celebrating one’s real body instead of starving oneself to attain the unhealthy body that is considered the beauty norm. It skillfully fed into this narrative so much so that aerie is now almost synonymous with ‘real’ women.

It didn’t feature famous top models like Adriana Lima or Behati Prinsloo. Aerie still featured models, but those that looked more like regular people, more relatable, more grounded.  

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“We’re not altering the girls in any way,” said Dana Seguin, Aerie’s senior director of marketing. “Nothing is covered up—tattoos, stretch marks, scars, freckles—what you see is what you get. We’re not altering their bodies in any way. The product fits them as shown and no alteration to them at all.”

It started a hashtag campaign, encouraging girls to tag pictures of them celebrating their real bodies with #Aeriereal, a campaign that is still in swing, even 2 years after initially being launched. The hashtag also has a nice ring to it (it sounds like ‘very real’). It also has a social cause behind it, meaning that the hashtag gets more traction. And aerie comes off on top, at once getting higher profits and also promoting a message for social change.

Aerie showed its commitment to portraying real bodies by announcing that this is their brand now. This summer’s campaign was “Share Your Spark”, and featured ‘real’ women who had been recruited by aerie, some of whom had never modeled before.

Aerie products aren’t supposed to make you feel like an angel; instead, they’re supposed to make you feel grounded, happy in your skin, and not ashamed about not looking like a supermodel.

And that’s exactly how they make me feel.

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Aerie’s posters don’t make me feel as if I have to comply to a certain body image, or that I have to wear lace to feel good. They make me feel good about myself, and comfortable in my own skin.

Aerie is for women who love to eat, who don’t want to give up on food to force their bodies to look a little more like the socially constructed body ideal, and, most importantly, for those who want to love themselves.

I’ve never gone back to Victoria’s Secret ever since I chanced upon aerie. (Coincidentally, the word ‘aerie’ derives its roots from the Latin word ‘eyria’, meaning ‘level piece of ground’. It seems as though their brand signifies groundedness, while VS Angels symbolise the act of descending from the skies.)

In my opinion, if there is a wrong turn that aerie can take, it’s sounding too preachy. Everything said and done, it is still a business, and customers don’t want to be preached at by the people they’re giving their money to. Its message thus far has been very successful at not sounding preachy, but instead invoking a desire to be true to oneself. If aerie continues building on this message, I think they will continue doing a good job.

I also think that the lingerie brand should be wary of featuring celebrities. If the point of #AerieReal is to embody yourself, then having a celebrity do a shoot for them, even if the pictures are untouched, can have a negative impact. As a customer, I would relate more to aerie products modeled by women I haven’t seen elsewhere, than I would to a famous person.

For example, in August ’15, Emma Roberts modeled for aerie.

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In terms of social change, we need more and more celebrities to use their influence to change perceptions of body image by asking for unedited pictures of them to be published.  But for aerie the company, I think  having relatively unknown people model is a better idea than celebrities doing it.

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