American Eagle's underwear line has been awarded the National Eating Disorders Association's first-ever seal of approval for showing real bodies and unretouched photos on its website and in its ads.
NEDA announced on Monday that the intimate apparel line, called Aerie, has been awarded with its Inspire seal of approval. Aerie in 2014 launched its #AerieReal campaign, setting itself apart from other bra and underwear brands by leaving in models' blemishes, tattoos, cellulite and other imperfections. This year, it partnered with NEDA, becoming a key sponsor in its eating disorder awareness walks across the country.
"Unrealistic images in advertising and the media play a role in the rising epidemic of eating disorders and poor self-esteem," NEDA CEO Lynn Grefe said in a statement. "But Aerie's campaigns highlight a range of body types. Their approach is not only socially responsible, but also resonates with the public and is profitable. We hope others will learn by Aerie's outstanding example."
Model Hana Mayeda was one of the first models to be part of Aerie's new campaign, and she said the thought of not being retouched initially gave her butterflies. She said the experience forced her to deal with her own insecurities, and she came out embracing her flaws.
"I had to travel to the place of 'Oh my god, there's a huge billboard, and that's my butt and it's not retouched,'" she said, adding that she grew to realize the flaws make some of the photos more beautiful. "They were capturing essence of who I was in a moment as opposed to how I fit in a designer gown."
Jennifer Foyle, global brand president for Aerie, said the company is trying to create a movement, and showing unretouched photos is just the beginning.
"We just want girls to feel proud about themselves," she said.
Still, experts say there's a long way to go before we reach true acceptance.
Body image expert Tomi-Ann Roberts, who chairs the department of psychology at Colorado State College, said the first image she saw on Aerie's website was of a woman in a sexualized pose who had been cropped to avoid showing her limbs. This, she said, wasn't exactly realistic.
"She is not emaciated like a runway model, but she is the idealized thin, white, beautiful we see," Roberts said.
The site does have a page to show customers photos of every cup size on a real woman with that cup size, but it takes a few clicks to find.
Sara Ziff, a model who founded the advocacy group Model Alliance, said Photoshop is one of the many tools used to enhance photos to "promote an unrealistic ideal."
"For example, lighting, the angle of the photographer's lens, and make-up also play a big role," Ziff said. "So while it is refreshing and admirable that a company like Aerie has made a policy not to retouch their models' images to promote a more realistic body image, it is also somewhat naive to think that even these unretouched ads are unfiltered and, hence, 'real.'"
Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a senior medical contributor for ABC News and practicing OBGYN, said half of her patients are young girls, and body image is a frequent topic of conversation at appointments. She said whether it's the fashion industry or taking selfies that has prompted a young girl or woman to think about her body, it's important to focus on overall wellness rather than a number of the scale or jeans size.
"It's nice to say that you're not touching up any models, but there's no shortage of models who look spectacular untouched," she said. "Until we start seeing models of every size, every color, every age, you're not really going to see that change in terms of accepting imperfection."