Advocacy and Advertising

Contributor: Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

fashion_sketches_by_mangafox23-d580c7hPeople like to blame Kate Moss. The former supermodel and legendary waif in the 1990s epitomized heroin chic and spawned a new strain of skinny fashion in contrast to the taller, curvier models, like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell.

Moss was an easy target. She was super thin. And it was she who said: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

While Moss may have been falsely accused of causing eating disorders, models after her generally slimmed down their already thin frames until it seemed skeletons and skin were on catwalks and in fashion magazines.

Pushing Back Against the Thin Trend

Even some in the industry agree it’s gone too far, joining advocates for healthier female images in advertising. A few years ago, Vogue editors worldwide promised not to use models with obvious signs of an eating disorder1. France recently stood with Italy, Spain, and Israel up against super-skinny models and passed a law requiring a healthy Body Mass Index of its catwalkers.

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” turned upside down the advertising world, and Aerie, the undergarment sister brand to American Eagle, launched the Aerie Real campaign, refusing to retouch its models and promising its 15-to-21-year-old-female target group will finally see models without photoshop.

It’s an exciting momentum, driven by dogged media advocacy groups, to redefine beauty and send healthier messages through advertising.

Models Are Getting Thinner

catwalk 20Twenty years ago, around the time when Kate Moss and the waif model infiltrated advertising, the average model weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today she weighs 23% less than the average woman2.

In fact, many models these days are thinner than the criteria for anorexia, and this ideal is “pervasive, with fashion models, cartoon characters, and Miss America Pageant winners all having become increasingly thinner over the past decades,” according to a meta-analysis of women’s body image and media3.

Advocacy groups fight this trend because children starting at age 8 watch between 3 1/2 to 5 hours of television each day, according to the Center on Media and Child Health, aimed for children to positively consume media.

How Exposure to Media Influences Our Body Image

The average American is exposed to more than 3,000 advertisements a day and watches three years worth of TV ads over the course of a lifetime4 Why the worry? One too-thin model in one ad can snowball, and maybe it already has, into a threat for everyday women.

The more we are exposed to media, the more we begin to accept media’s portrayal as reality. When the media representations of women’s bodies are so skewed — an out-of-reach ideal for most — adopting this reality chisels away at women’s body satisfaction. About half of girls and young women are already dissatisfied with their bodies, regardless of body size and race, and body dissatisfaction is “one of the most consistent and robust risk factors for eating disorders and a significant predictor of low self-esteem, depression, and obesity.” (Grabe, 2008)

The Standoff Between Advertising and Advocacy

group-woman-talkingIt was once a standoff between the advertising and advocacy camps, but Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty proves it doesn’t have to be. The campaign started a decade ago when Dove searched for a way to rebrand itself. The company’s public-relations company studied more than 3,000 women in 10 different countries and found only 2% of women considered themselves beauty5.

Dove set off to embrace women’s differences, encourage self-confidence, and sell beauty products. The campaign showed the advertising world another perspective, lifted up women around the glove, and increased Dove’s sales by billions of dollars.

How Advertisers and Advocates Can Work Together

The Aerie Real campaign is also turning heads, especially that of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which a few months ago gave Aerie its first “Seal of Approval.” Companies may be catching on to what research already uncovered. Women had less body-focused anxiety after seeing attractive, average-sized models than after seeing no model at all — so seeing normal-sized women, even beautiful ones, could relieve anxiety (Grabe, 2008).

Advertisers may also note research shows when average-size models and ultra-thin models are equally attractive, they also appear to be equally effective endorsing a product6.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What changes have you witnessed in advertising today that have impacted your body image? Did these changes impact you positively or negatively?

About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


  1. Wilson, E. (2012, May 3). Vogue Adopts a 16-and-Over Modeling Rule. Retrieved June 18, 2015
  2. National Eating Disorder Association Unveils Powerful & Provocative Ad Campaign, National Eating Disorders Association. (2009, February 26). Retrieved June 12, 2015.
  3. Grabe, S., Ward, L., & Hyde, J. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 460-476.
  4. Kilbourne, J. (2000). Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. Free Press.
  5. Skene, K. (2014, April 11). A PR Case Study: Dove Real Beauty Campaign. Retrieved June 12, 2015.
  6. Dittmar, H., & Howard, S. (2004). Thin-ideal internalization and social comparison tendency as moderators of medial models’ impact on women’s body focused anxiety. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 768-791.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 1st, 2015
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