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Are we really ready to take a look at 'real women'?

By Lesley Kinzel, Special to CNN
September 27, 2012 -- Updated 0025 GMT (0825 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Ralph Lauren brand is attracting attention for hiring a "plus-size" model
  • Lauren's company previously drew attention for digitally altering bodies
  • Lady Gaga's weight gain has been the subject of much scrutiny
  • Gaga has launched a "Body Revolution," sharing photos and revelations about her own body

Editor's note: Editor's note: Lesley Kinzel is an associate editor at xoJane.com and the author of "Two Whole Cakes: How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Love Your Body."

(CNN) -- Designer Ralph Lauren is making model-related headlines again.

The last time this happened, it was when the iconic American brand digitally altered model Filippa Hamilton into a biologically impossible state, rendering her waist and pelvis in miniature and leaving the rest of her body normal-sized.

Astute critics noticed and spoke up. It didn't help matters when Hamilton herself stated that she was allegedly fired by the brand for being "too fat" by fashion world metrics.

More recently, however, the Ralph Lauren brand has made attempts to improve its image and hired Australian plus-size model Robyn Lawley, who stands 6-foot-2 and wears a size 12, for a print campaign. After the public relations nightmare with Hamilton, many have heralded this choice as a positive sign of improvement in a fashion industry that overwhelmingly hires and promotes models who are far thinner than the average American woman.

We asked, you answered: Are we really ready to take a look at 'real women'?

As is often the case when any plus-size model makes news, many are eager to hold this up as a victory for "real women," that anonymous majority who so rarely get to see themselves portrayed in fashion images.

Author Lesley Kinzel
Author Lesley Kinzel

But don't get too enthusiastic with the back-patting just yet.

This is not a revolutionary moment, any more than it has been any other time a mainstream designer has plucked a nonwaifish model from the depths of the plus-size-modeling dungeon and made her, however briefly, a public curiosity. Fashion is famously fickle, and if Ralph Lauren has chosen to showcase this particular model at this particular moment, it may have nothing to do with making some grand political statement or a significant change of heart and everything to do with generating buzz.

Of course, I can't know the brand's intentions for certain. But in the larger context, even widespread use of plus-size models doesn't signal the evolution of a movement away from the impossible feminine physical ideal; it's just taking that ideal and making it a tiny bit bigger.

It is the business of both fashion and its models to represent fantasy, and even plus-size versions are regularly digitally altered. Like their smaller peers, these models also have their skin smoothed, their waists and thighs whittled and their many human imperfections, from cellulite to flyaways, fully erased long before their image ever hits the side of a bus or the page of a magazine. Even plus-size models are still perfectly proportional and almost impossibly beautiful. They still present an aspirational standard that is unattainable if only because the resulting image doesn't resemble the real-life model.

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So Lawley is slightly more accessible than Hamilton. This is like observing that it would be easier for us to flap our arms and fly to the moon than it would be to fly to Mars; the moon might be closer, but we're still not going to get there. And neither are the vast majority of American women.

There's nothing wrong with fantasy. Fantasy is fun, and the fashion industry does it as well as Hollywood. Why can't we relate to fashion images for what they are -- imaginary worlds with beautiful people who don't really exist? Why insist that they represent reality in some way? Why are we so in love with the idea of seeing "real women," whatever that represents?

Gaga blames dad's food for weight gain

We've all seen what happens when actual "real" bodies make news.

The most recent whipping girl for the crime of failing to be perfect is Lady Gaga, whose recent photos from a concert in Paris have had practically everyone on the planet hypothesizing how she could allow herself to suffer such a horrible fate as to put on a few pounds. Critics and fans have suggested everything from drug abuse to pregnancy. Gaga, for her part, simply credits eating a lot of tasty food at her father's restaurant.

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Lady Gaga has unashamedly shown off her body onstage in spite of her changing weight, refusing to apologize, and the response has ranged from shock, to disgust, to "concern," to schadenfreude-driven laughter. Gaga has since responded by launching a new section on her website entitled "Body Revolution," kicking things off by sharing pictures of her own body (and acknowledging the eating disorders that have shaped her) while soliciting fans to share their own insecurities.

It is telling that the initial public response was not to applaud Gaga for being "real," but to shame her for being imperfect. We don't like to be reminded of how much effort it sometimes takes to meet the ideal, even for those whose profession hinges on maintaining a certain appearance. We like to think it's easy and natural; we like to think anyone who fails at it just didn't try hard enough.

But real bodies, like reality itself, are complicated and diverse, as well as unpredictably changeable. 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.

Real women are everywhere. The biggest problem with this nebulous concept of "real women" and our desire to see more of them is that it is intrinsically hypocritical.

The truth is, we want to see "real women" when they look like Robyn Lawley in a Ralph Lauren ad, coiffed and digitally altered into that brand's iconic and immaculate horse-riding fantasy world. We don't want to see "real women" when they look like us.

Maybe that's the disconnect we ought to be working on, instead of applauding Ralph Lauren's choice of models on one side while condemning Lady Gaga for being, well, "real" on the other.

Do you think the public really wants to see non-model types in ads and entertainment? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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