can underwear brands truly be empowering?

Following renewed backlash against the Angel fantasy, we take a look at the strides being made by a few bold brands in creating functional, beautiful, inclusive underwear that serves all women’s bodies.

by Jane Helpern
19 April 2016, 3:05pm

the lonely girl project

Earlier this month, former Victoria's Secret angel Erin Heatherton spoke to TIME about her trials as a Victoria's Secret model. She revealed that the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards led to depression and, ultimately, her split from the lingerie behemoth in 2013. "I got to a point where one night I got home from a workout and I remember staring at my food and thinking maybe I should just not eat," she confesses. Heather's battle is a reminder of the fraught obsession with weight that has been endemic to the fashion industry for decades, infecting models and consumers alike.

As the internet becomes the battleground in the charge for diverse representations of women, emerging underwear and intimates brands are in a unique position to show skin without exploiting it — to answer the call with a commitment to body positivity, inclusivity, and un-airbrushed femininity. As Aerie gets heat for its April Fool's hoax, #AerieMan — the backlash suggesting that perhaps the next frontier of body positivity really might be male — and Thinx makes panties for people with periods and now pee leaks, we look at how the underwear industry is showcasing the revolutionary realness of womanhood by forgoing Photoshop, shattering stigmas, and innovating new designs, sizes, and technologies that wearers actually want, and more importantly, need.

But first, how did underwear ads become so synonymous with non-representational images of women? It began, perhaps, in the 90s, with the moral panic surrounding the strung-out look made popular by underwear provocateur Calvin Klein, particularly in his 1992 ad featuring a waifish Kate Moss. Termed "heroin chic" by the media, willowy and aloof models were snapped splayed out in dimly lit basements, hipbones and collar bones jutting. Scathing headlines accused these controversial ads of promoting drug abuse, anorexia, and child pornography.

The unedited authenticity of Calvin Klein's 1992 underwear campaign was a rebellion against the glossy glamazons who tromped down the runways of the late 80s. "Before that, a lot of women were getting breast implants and doing things to their buttocks. It was getting out of control. I just found something so distasteful about all that. I wanted someone who was natural, always thin. I was looking for the complete opposite of that glamour type that came before Kate," said Calvin Klein in a 2011 interview with WWD. While CK certainly sparked dissent, Victoria's Secret's been the gold standard of impossible beauty standards for as long as we can remember.

Since the 90s, laws banning too-thin models have become an ongoing industry debate. Yet, until recently, the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty had been one of the only case studies of body-positive advertising. Last year, however, retailer Lane Bryant bypassed subtlety in favor of a buns-blazing attack on homogenized Victoria's Secret ads. The "I'm No Angel" campaign, for its underwear line Cacique, launched a black-and-white spot celebrating all bodies, with spokesmodels Ashley Graham, Marquita Pring, and Candice Huffine coquettishly inquiring, "Have you seen all this? Hot." The campaign went viral, inspiring thousands of women to share images with the hashtag #ImNoAngel. Victoria's Secret — which has nearly 1100 stores in the US, Canada, and UK, and reports billions in annual revenue — is arguably the most influential lingerie company in the world. Lane Bryant's public and widely supported subversion of the pervasive angel fantasy is a sign of the changing times.

The inclusive underwear movement is about more than just game-changing shifts in advertising strategies; it's also about a new wave of body-positive brands including Me And You, Baserange, Dear Kate (whose campaign featuring prominent women of tech in underwear was especially conversation-starting), and Thinx, for whom diversity is a business model, not just a fleeting trend.

There's also the New Zealand-based Lonely Lingerie, founded by designer Helene Morris in 2009. The brand, she says, was born of a need for beautiful, technical, and comfortable intimates that truly resonated with people. "We wanted to take away all expectations of how you 'should' look in a product, and focus on how our lingerie makes you feel," explains Morris over email. In an ongoing photo series entitled the Lonely Girls Project, the label celebrates the real women of Lonely: a breast cancer survivor, silver-haired jewelry designer, and glowing pregnant mama replace prototypical models.

The brand's latest campaign shows artist Arvida Byström and psychology student Paloma Elsesser lounging in softly lit bedrooms and bathrooms, their body hair and bellies refreshingly unadulterated. "With marketing we are consistently seeing a portrayal of a certain traditional — even cliché — body type or tendency to assume the customer must fit into a particular mould, which we feel is very narrow approach," writes Morris.

And Lonely isn't just committed to diverse imagery. Since launching, they've expanded their size range from accommodating 10 to 23 different sizes, no small feat for a start-up. "We believe our company should be as diverse and inclusive as the messages we speak. When we talk about diversity in product, for us it's not simply having a range of cup sizes, but a selection of styles to fit differing body shapes and sizes, a color palette that works on as many skin tones as possible, and prices that are obtainable at many levels."

There's perhaps no bigger name in the underwear disrupter game right now than Thinx. Led by social entrepreneur Miki Agrawal, the company is on a mission to de-stigmatize periods with its patented period-proof technology. "Body positivity starts from the inside out. What better way to learn to love yourself than by starting with this totally normal, beautiful, and powerful thing that we've been taught to be ashamed of?" she tells us over email. She also recently announced the launch of another Thinx brand, Icon Undies, which makes pee-proof underwear for the 1 in 3 women who experience light bladder leaks.

But inclusive undies aren't just for Instagram artists and fourth-wave digital feminists — as Thinx's multi-million-dollar investor funding and American Eagle's latest numbers point out. Since Aerie vowed to stop retouching models in 2014, the brand saw a 20% increase in sales in 2015, and a 26% increase in the fourth quarter. "The core of what's happening here in Aerie is really this marketing campaign that's really starting to take hold," Aerie's Jen Foyle said recently. "Our customers want honesty and they want to be heard [...] We don't believe in flaws and believe real beauty should be shown in a natural unaltered way," adds Foyle. Earlier this month, Aerie infuriated the internet with #AerieMan, a prank campaign mocking the idea of male body positivity. Though it was apparently an ill-conceived April Fool's joke, the brand confirmed that it would indeed forgo retouching on male bodies beginning with the holiday 2016 season, proving that it's not just women demanding that underwear ads start getting real.

But as body positivity picks up momentum and corporations catch wind of its marketability, bandwagoners and half-assers will inevitably capitalize on the moment and use diversity as a gimmick, not a tenet. "We do think the industry is starting to take notice and we believe there will be more awareness from the big players, as consumers need changes," explains Lonely's Helene. "However, if companies see this new awareness of feminism as simply a means to re-invigorate marketing and open up new markets without truly supporting the message, then it comes off as trend-based, which can ultimately cause more damage than good."

If visibility is the first step toward a real paradigm shift, the ultimate measure of change will be when body positivity becomes the norm, not the exception. While the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show drew 9.1 million viewers in 2014, 2015 was reportedly it's worst year ever, with viewership falling by 32%. Perhaps the people have already spoken.


Text Jane Helpern

Body Positivity
victoria's secret
Lonely Lingerie
Erin Heatherton
Miki Agrawal
helene morris
inclusive underwear