Getting Real About Being a "Real Woman"

By: Emily Algar, Regular Contributor

The phrase “real woman” gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s everywhere: plastered across adverts in magazines, on billboards, across buses; it’s talked about in the office and in your local coffee shop; it’s the go to buzzword in beauty campaigns; who can forget Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty as well as the various other imitators that appeared. It’s insidious, it gets into every fiber of our being and keeps us awake at night with all of us asking the same question, “what is a “real woman?” and then the inevitable, “am I a ‘real woman?’”

From what I understand from trawling through the various marketing campaigns and asking friends and colleagues what comes to them when someone says “real woman” is this: a “real woman” is a she, she has curves, sometimes a bit of a tummy, large breasts, broad shoulders, a prominent bum, big legs, and no thigh gap to speak of. If this is correct and this is the criterion by which we have been measuring what constitutes a “real woman,” then I’ve been lying for the last 27 years when I ticked the female box.

Unlike these “real women” I do not have curves, I have a reasonably flat stomach, my breasts are not particularly large, my bum is small and inconspicuous, and yes, I have a thigh gap. I also have a molecular density and am made of blood, flesh, and bone, which according to science make me just as real as the women in the Dove campaign. I am fully aware that this phrase “real woman” doesn’t have anything to do with science or whether a woman exists in the natural world, but rather what it means to be a “real woman” in today’s society. However, just because the concept was not created to be scientifically sound, it does not mean it’s any less influential or any less powerful/hurtful to girls and women.


The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and The Body Shop’s Ruby – the Anti-Barbie campaigns came to fruition in part because of a backlash against the fashion and beauty industry’s penchant for featuring pre-pubescent girls and lean women in their campaigns and on their catwalks.

In doing so, Dove and The Body Shop essentially replaced one type of female body (lean) for another type of female body (bigger). Effectively pushing the same message it was trying to eliminate: that there is only one type of female body that is accepted in society – the bigger one.

The crucial flaw in this narrative of what a “real woman” is telling girls and women that they should aspire to be anything but themselves – healthy, happy and unique. By holding up Adele, Beth Ditto, Gabourey Sidibie, or in The Body Shop’s case, Ruby “the Anti-Barbie” as the ideal “real woman” and telling us that they are healthy inspirations is just as dangerous as telling us that we should aspire to be the same size we were when we were eleven.

Obesity is a global problem; 30% of the world is overweight or obese: that is 2.1 billion people. These statistics speak loud and clear and dressing up obesity as being curvy or as being a “real woman” is irresponsible and very, very stupid. To put this growth in obesity into a historical context today’s average American woman is 5’4,” has a waist size of 34-35,” and weighs between 140-150lbs with a dress size of 12-14. Fifty years ago, that’s 1964 to your parents, the average American woman was 5’3-5’4,” had a waist size of 24-25,” and weighed 120lbs with a dress size of an 8. Now, a size 8 from fifty years ago is not the size 8 of today, without getting too historical and detailed, a size 8 from 1964 is basically a size 4 by today’s standards. That means the average American woman’s dress size has gone from a size 4 to a size 14!

Of course, averages are averages and don’t speak to the whole United States or the whole world for that matter. They also don’t take into account genetics or illness, so the average woman both in 1964 and 2014 will not be every woman. Similarly, every woman will not fit into the narrow category of what a “real woman” should be but that doesn’t make her any less real. The obesity issue however, is a real concern and can be attributed to poor nutrition, not enough exercise, faster paced lifestyles, and the growing number of people who drive everywhere. Basically we are eating more and moving less compared to 1964.

What I am trying to convey in essence is that the ideal should be loving your body for what it is: curvy or lean, muscular or soft, tall, short or somewhere in the middle, freckled or scarred, big, medium, or small breasted, black, white or brown, thigh gap or no thigh gap. All these features equate to being an actual real woman not this “real woman” bullshit Dove and The Body Shop thought up in their back offices. With this acceptance, comes caring for our bodies like we would our little sister. We need to nourish her with good healthy food whilst still having that delectable chocolate, moving however feels good and soothing her when she needs some love. Above all we need to listen to her and what she needs. We all know deep down when we’ve overindulged or when we’ve been too strict with ourselves. Throw out the scales and the BMI table (muscle weighs more than fat after all!) and ask her what she needs. 

Let's Chat!

Body shaming can come in many forms. Let's talk about it!

  • Have a real conversation with your friends about your attitudes and ideas about YOUR bodies, but also about the types of bodies you see every day (in your life, online, on television, in the movies). Be respectful, but be honest. Use your potential critical attitudes to dig deeper and start to change the conversation!

About Emily

-1.jpgEmily Algar is an International Relations graduate who has just completed her Masters in International Security. She lives in a small town in Oxfordshire, UK where she writes, listens to music and walks her dogs. Since completing her studies, Emily is trying to figure out where she fits in the world and until she does, she is enjoying the ride.


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