This story is part of “Uninterrupted,” a series in which female leaders — who also happen to be friends — talk to Moneyish about the issues that matter to them.
The new Role Models are ready for their close-up.
An array of women came on board Aerie’s #AerieREAL Role Models campaign Thursday, taking on the intimates and swimwear brand’s mantle of promoting body positivity and fighting impossible beauty standards: YouTuber and motivational speaker Molly Burke, author and E! late-night host Busy Philipps, “The Handmaid’s Tale” star Samira Wiley, “The Good Place” star Jameela Jamil and Paralympian Brenna Huckaby.
The American Eagle sub-brand’s #AerieREAL campaign, launched in 2014, began as a commitment to abstain from image retouching. (Brands like Dove, CVS and ModCloth have also kicked Photoshop to the curb.) Aerie’s ever-expanding lineup of Role Models, according to a new press release, will “share their stories and create awareness to the causes they stand behind,” appearing in unretouched images in both digital and in-store marketing.
Burke, 24, dreamed of being an actress and model before she went blind 10 years ago; she later reignited her passion for performing through motivational speaking and creating YouTube videos that educate and inspire nearly 1.8 million subscribers about her disability. Burke, who had also considered branching out into fashion, leapt at the chance to work with Aerie — a brand she says makes up about half her closet.
“My community, who’s so rarely represented, is actually represented … Most brands who tote around those words, they show diversity in skin color, in size, in all of these different things, but they never show disability,” Burke said. “Now in a group of eight or nine girls, we have myself and Brenna, who are both physically disabled. And I think that’s incredible.”
Thirty-year-old Wade, author of the poems-and-advice book “Heart Talk” and influencer of 474,000 Instagram followers, echoed that sentiment. “I think that the one thing we all have in common is that when we were all younger, we never saw people like us being celebrated or being on billboards or being the face of a brand,” she said.
Moneyish caught up with Burke and Wade the day of the campaign launch for a chat about insecurity, beauty standards and social media. (The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.) Here’s what they said:
On setting an example for young girls:
MB: I’ve always said I want to be the role model that I didn’t have when I needed it. … When I was going blind, when I was being bullied and lost all my friends, I slipped into a really dark place. I battled severe depression, and I didn’t have at that time back in 2008 anybody who was really vulnerably and authentically sharing their dark moments. This phrase ‘It gets better’ is what everybody just said. But nobody was showing me why it gets better, or how it gets better. … Now I get to help pull people out of that dark place the way I needed somebody to do it for me.
CW: It’s so hard to be a young person in this day and age with social media, and I think that so often social media is used as a weapon against young girls rather than a tool for them to see themselves and build community and feel safer rather than more insecure. … Whenever you can do a project as a person who’s not a teenager that helps benefit the hardships of your teenage years, especially having gone through them and knowing how hard and challenging they are, then we should always do that.
On Photoshopping and retouching:
MB: I’m lucky that I really strategically choose to work with brands who share the same message as Aerie. When I worked with Dove, they’re also very passionate about empowering women and representation and having real women. So I think I try really hard to work with brands who I know won’t do things like that, and align with my same messaging.
CW: I would never do anything that didn’t look like me — so I wouldn’t ever be in a photo where I was Photoshopped to look like a completely different person. I wouldn’t straighten my hair; I’m a proud woman of color and I’m proud to have the features I have and look the way I am. And I also don’t want young girls thinking that the way they look is a problem. … For me, it’s really important that young girls are able to see women embracing what they look like.
On fighting insecurity:
MB: One thing that is a huge part of my daily routine is affirmations. Every single day, I tell myself, “You are beautiful, you are strong, you are talented. You deserve success, you deserve happiness, you deserve love.” … All the time, I get the comment on social media: “I wish I could be as positive as you.” And I’m like, you can! I wasn’t born this way. You know, 10 years ago I wanted to end my life, and now I’m the first person to find the positive in a negative — because I worked really hard on reading self-help books; going to therapy; fueling my mind, body and spirit; and on training myself to become this person.
CW: I definitely, given my work, am someone who works very deeply with mantras and affirmations. … It’s important to remember that everything’s a habit. Our negative thinking is a habit — we can always rewire it and replace it with positive habits. Fear is a habit, but so is bravery. … There is no controlling a negative thought that comes up, but we have a lot of control over how long it stays —
MB: And how you react to it.
CW: And also whether you decide that it’s a houseguest or a permanent fixture. We can decide that these feelings or ideas or negative thoughts move through us; don’t live in us.
MB: I love that. … That’s a great line. You can tell you’re a poet.
CW: Oh, thanks, girl.
On unrealistic beauty standards:
MB: As somebody who went blind in 2008, I haven’t caught up with what’s OK now. In my mind, stick-skinny and big fake boobs is still what’s beautiful, because Paris Hilton was what I saw growing up. … I can’t see women now, and I can’t see myself now. So it’s still a struggle for me to be a woman who is small on top and curvy on the bottom. And I still struggle with those kind of things, because I can’t see that the Kim Kardashian body is OK and accepted now, and I don’t know what that looks like. So it’s one of my own personal demons that I battle with self-love and self-confidence, is what is stuck in my mind as beautiful, and what is accepted and seen as beautiful now, and what is the progressions that we’ve made.
CW: But also when you have Victoria’s Secret still parading women who look like what you’re saying, and most runways and things in fashion do still look that way, you’re not alone in that struggle — because so many young girls are still growing up with that as the template of what’s right or good and correct, and I think that the more people who follow Aerie’s lead, the better off all of our young girls are.
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