Do 'Real' Women Models Make Real Women Shoppers Feel Worse?


When Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" started incorporating women of all shapes and sizes in 2005, many applauded the appearance of full-bodied ladies posing in their skivvies. Following in Dove's footsteps, magazines such as Glamour and companies like British lingerie retailer Bravissimo, also started featuring women with a little extra meat on their bones.

The push to show "real" women seemed like a victory for womankind. Rail thin models have long been blamed by psychologists for lowering women's self-esteem and sparking eating disorders. But new research from Arizona State University suggests that all of those ads and magazines featuring everyday women can sometimes backfire. In fact, the study found that featuring heavier models actually makes some women feel worse about themselves.

Some consumers "look at a moderately heavy model and think, 'That could be me,' and it lowers their self-esteem," says Naomi Mandel, marketing associate professor at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business who worked on the study with two colleagues from Erasmus University and University of Cologne. The paper, which will be published in the April issue of Journal of Consumer Research, explored the psychological theory of social comparison. In this case, how women of different body mass indexes -- thin (BMI below 18.5), normal (BMI of 18.5 to 25) and overweight (BMI of 25 to 30) -- reacted to ads with models ranging from very thin to obese.

While normal-weight women fretted that they looked similar to the overweight models, heavier consumers felt worse no matter what the model's size. They saw themselves as similar to the larger models and vastly different from the skinny ones. Thin consumers, meanwhile, felt better looking at any model since they identified with the slender models while realizing they looked nothing like the fat ones.

Does Using Real Models Mean Losing Real Profits?

Given that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, are advertisers putting their profits at risk by using zaftig models? Maybe not in every case, Mandel says. "My intuition says lowering a woman's self-esteem is not naturally a bad thing if you're selling a beauty product or weight loss product," she says. "It can help if your product is supposed to help the problem."

Exploiting women's insecurities has long worked magic for companies selling skin creams and diet pills. In fact, weight-loss ads may be one of the few places where consumers encounter truly overweight models, says Jessica Weiner, the author of Life Doesn't Begin 5 Pounds From Now and a member of Dove's self-esteem fund advisory board, which helps run self-esteem workshops for women and young girls.

In the case of Dove, however, Mandel says she's skeptical that the Campaign for Real Beauty continued to boost sales after its initial positive reception. Dove, however, says the campaign has worked well. "While we cannot disclose our sales figures, we are confident that our approach has been successful," Stacie Bright, Unilever Senior Communications Marketing Manager for Dove U.S., wrote in an email.

A War of Perception

"This country is at war with its own image right now," says Weiner. "There's a war on obesity, but why can't there be acceptance and a focus on health? We talk about fat and thin, but there are millions of people who live in-between those definitions."

That war landed in Mandel's email box this week. "I've been getting some hate e-mails," she says. Some accused her of advocating the use of anorexic models, which isn't what her research suggests, she adds. In fact, she says her research supports the use of moderately thin models -- instead of the fashion industry's emaciated extreme-- because most consumers can identify with those models.

"We would recommend using moderately thin models, a size 6 or 8 or 10, which is realistic" and represent sizes many overweight women can visualize achieving, Mandel says. "The silly thing is that plus-sized models are only a size 10. That's not even close."

Weiner says it may take years before women fully accept more realistic images in advertising. "Decades of seeing only thin models may have conditioned consumers to accept that as the norm," she says. "You have to take into account what's familiar. If we had five, 10 or 20 years of more realistic imagery in advertising, it would be interesting to see the consumer loyalty around that."

Originally published