There's something kind of nice about using the word 'real' to describe something in a time when so much seems unreal. But using the word 'real' to describe women, to me, is all wrong. Well I should say, it's gone wrong. While the phrase 'real women' is used in a number of context to acknowledge the rich diverseness among women, thanks to our appearance obsessed culture, it usually comes back to how they look. Based on this idea a real woman can be short, tall, plus-size, average, black, brown, white, middle-aged, senior and so on. Sounds great in its own way but unfortunately it's become a catch-all phrase, or label as I like to call it, used to refer to any woman that isn't youthful or of fashion model proportions.
Reality TV like [insert country] Next Top Model, Make Me a Supermodel, Elite New Face, What Not To Wear, Project Runway, Fashion Star, etc. have hijacked the label so we've come to associate the image of real women with their visual opposite. You know: fashion models, glamorous celebrities and hip socialites. Tyra Banks of America's Next Top Model fame meets her philanthropic quota each season by selecting one 'fiercely real' girl to 'represent'. In her world that means plus-sized which can be as small as a size 12. Just one of these fiercely real ladies, Whitney Thompson, won the coveted crown in the entire 20 seasons of the show; just saying. Project Runway, another example, almost always has one or two designers each season who react to real women in the token fan challenge as if they're from another planet. Confusion turns to anxiety turns to melt down over having to design for a body with short legs or wide hips or big boobs. Women's glossy magazines are the longest running offenders. More often than not they feature real women made over as better versions of themselves as if to say that being real isn't so fierce after all.
Here's another problem, 'real women' also suggests that those who fall outside what constitutes 'real' are unreal, i.e. nonexistent, bogus, pseudo, fake and so on. There has been some skinny girl backlash to this and I'm not surprised. In an article for CNN, Lesley Kinzel says, 'for all our vocal support in favor of seeing so-called "real women," we forget that all women are real, no matter their size or their shape or their age or whether they are conventionally attractive. All this label manages to be is another way to divide women and value us based on how we look. Instead of being inclusive it's patronizing and offensive. Labels never fail to get us in trouble and why the media insists on slapping them on anything and everything and we continue to buy is beyond me.
Still, if we must use the word 'real' to talk about the female body then maybe some good can come of it. My Body Gallery is an online project that features women who do just that, call themselves real. Personal stories and tasteful images comprise the project which also invites new viewers to contribute their own content. The primary goal is to encourage women to see themselves objectively; as they really are and not as they aren't or should be. It's not a bad idea but I do have some concerns worth mentioning. On the website viewers can look up images of women with body measurements similar to their own which in a roundabout way encourage objectification and comparison. This not only distances women from their own bodies it perpetuates the visual spectacle of female physicality. Also, the project doesn't seem to include disability, this is a big problem as far as I'm concerned. If 'real' simply means 'every' then it really needs to include everyone. The project does aim for a positive message and it does do its best to represent a wide variety of women whose different shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities and appearance styles are celebrated as they are, unaltered, unfettered, flaws and all. My Body Gallery project is one way that women can challenge mainstream labels. There are other ways as seen with The Real Women Project and Real Women on Health who go beyond the idea of real as a way to think about the body or appearance and instead consider the diverse contributions of women as artists, writers, politicians, business people, health care providers etc. This would be more my idea of real.
Tara is a researcher and writer with interests in gender, disability, the body, and media.
She received her Masters degree in Sociology of Health and Illness from UCD, Ireland. Her research explored how media representations of the feminine ideal affect body and self image of visually impaired women. She's currently pursuing her PhD in similar areas. Her other (diverse) interests include the social and cultural significance of food and the history and myth of the American Dream and its relationship to contemporary American life.