What a Woman is Supposed to Look Like [Take notes, ladies! There will be a test... called "the rest of your life"]

by Charlotte on January 15, 2013 · 43 comments

Hey girlfriends! Remember the good ol’ days when men were men and women were… prepubescent children? Like the time the fashion world crowned Elle Fanning the new “It Girl” at just 12 years old?

The Daily Beast wrote unironically,

“Though she’s still missing five teeth, Elle has shot up to 5-foot-6, and dresses look good on her ballet-dancer frame. “More designers are going to want to dress her because she’s tall-it’s sounds crazy to say someone has a good figure at 12-but she captures a youthful spirit,” says Interview’s entertainment director, Lauren Tabach-Bank.

That’s right – smile with your mouth closed sweetie! Don’t want to remind anyone that you’re still of an age to be losing baby teeth.

Okay, wait. How about the good ol’ days when men were men and women were… men? One of the hottest models for women’s couture is Andrej Pejic. Long blond hair, colt limbs, tiny waist, high cheekbones – there is nothing particularly surprising about his popularity except for one thing: he’s a he.
Photographic proof that even dudes duck-lip!!
The problem isn’t that Elle is a remarkably mature looking young woman or that Andrej is a very effeminate man – the problem is that Elle looks exactly like a child and Andrej looks every bit like man (google him and look at his regular pics if you don’t believe me) and yet they’re trussed up and displayed to women who are told that this – the tall, slim, unformed body - is the standard of female beauty.
But that’s old news (Elle is a matronly 14 these days!). Now we are being offered a new standard of beauty and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Meet Jelena, an IFBB (international federation of body builders) “figure” pro and the star of the new MAC cosmetics “strength” ad campaign:
I have to admit the ad made me smile at first glance. You go girl, with your guns and black leather! I’ve seen first-hand how much work a figure competitor has to put in to look like that and that kind of dedication is impressive. But the more I looked, the more unsettled I felt. And I finally realized: It’s because I know how much goes into that physique that I’m bothered. For most women, Jelena’s body is every bit as unattainable as Elle’s, Andre’s or your standard catwalk model. Removing the child and the Y chromosome from the equation, both fitness and catwalk models have to eat a very strict (some would say restrictive) diet, exercise a ton and be born with awesome genes. (Oh and there’s equal parts photoshop mixed in for good measure.) True, the end result differs but the means to that end are  not as different as we’d like to believe. And yet, she’s so different from the normal bill of sale! It’s refreshing, right?
And what does it mean to “look like a woman” anyhow? For each particular woman it means to look exactly how you do – because you are, by definition, a woman. But if we’re talking ideals to aspire to then what? As I contemplated whom I would consider an icon of feminine beauty, I came up with several for me. Audrey Hepburn. Anne Hathaway (seriously I’ve been singing I Dreamed a Dream for a week now, that movie was SO GOOD). And, as a testament to my new TV-crack, Once Upon a Time, Ginnifer Goodwin.
At first I thought I loved her because she once said this in an interview: “I’ve never had a dramatic weight problem, it’s just that I tend to indulge, and then I need to get back on track so I can button my pants. It’s my hips and my upper thighs. Even at my crazy skinniest, where I’ve looked at myself and been like, “Ginny, you’re too skinny,” those are still there. And I think it might be … permanent?” Girl: WORD. I have the exact same thigh issue.
But then I realized, all the women I picked look a lot like me – albeit a million times better. Dark hair and eyes, pale skin, an affinity for quirky dressing; I wasn’t trying to find an example of beauty, I was trying to find me represented as beautiful. Which of course I won’t because finding yourself represented as beautiful doesn’t sell product and magazines. Dissatisfaction does. Wishing to be someone else is a goldmine for advertisers and the products they represent. But what we want and need is exactly the opposite of what they want and need… which is why we’re given children and young men as standards.
So back to the bodybuilder. Which one is she, for you? Does she help you see your best and strongest self? Or is she one more mythical creature to tell you you’re not good enough? Also, I have the privilege of interviewing her for Shape about the back story of the ad – What q’s should I be sure to ask her?
How would finish the sentence “A real woman looks like…”?? Do you have the confidence to simply say “me!” (“Me” meaning you, of course, and not me-me. This post is not a plea to have everyone tell me how fetching they find me!)

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

sarah January 15, 2013 at 12:16 am

“But then I realized, all the women I picked look a lot like me – albeit a million times better. Dark hair and eyes, pale skin, an affinity for quirky dressing; I wasn’t trying to find an example of beauty, I was trying to find me represented as beautiful.”

Word to this. I’ve done this since I was a kid. Actively seeking out redheaded dolls, barbies, characters on film and in books (holla, Anne of Green Gables!). The first time I saw a redhead on a makeup ad, I was like 8, and I said “why did they get rid of her freckles?” Clearly I had an intuitive sense that some airbrushing had done on! I thought my freckles were badass when I was a kid, but then I started to feel like they were ugly because they were always getting airbrushed out. At least in Emma Stone’s recent ads they didn’t completely wipe out her freckles. My inner self-confident chile believes she looks just like Emma Stone ;-)


sarah January 15, 2013 at 12:18 am

Sheesh, sorry for the typos – self-confident child, not chile. And gone on, not done on!


Happier Heather January 15, 2013 at 11:28 am

Emma Stone is gorgeous and one of my favorite actresses! I LOVE her red hair, even though it’s not her natural color (though I will continue to believe it is).


shayna January 15, 2013 at 1:18 am

Sophia Loren…smart, Italian, charming. Just like me ;)


Naomi/Dragonmamma January 15, 2013 at 6:31 am

Not exactly the same but: My son was 14 when I lost weight (went from 180-ish to my current 125) and he was not happy about it at all. He said that I “didn’t look like a real mother” any more. ??? He’s 24 now, and he’s still of the opinion that I’m too skinny. (As far as I can tell, his personal taste in females is average weight.)


Barb January 15, 2013 at 7:14 am

This is fantastically written. Brava! ::Claps wildly::

If there was a follow-up I missed it and my apologies for the redundancy, but how is your plantar faciitis?


Jeanette January 15, 2013 at 7:48 am

I never thought of myself as a very beautiful woman, it’s hard to hear compliments sometimes…

But I really wanted to chime in and say one of the best new role models in media (in my opinion!) is Jennifer Lawrence… she has a GREAT body, fit and healthy, but not skinny. She has given interviews where she flat out states she won’t lose weight to get roles. She didn’t even lose weight for the Hunger Games, for which she got criticized (though in reality, the character she played was fit and healthy, not starving!)


Abby January 15, 2013 at 7:54 am

I’ve been over the “X is the new skinny!” or putting any woman’s figure up on a pedestal as “normal” forever now, as you know. I’m skinny but repeatedly told that skinny isn’t attractive, that curves make someone feminine, etc. Blah, blah, blah. How about healthy? And I’m not just talking about physically. You can never tell by looking at someone how their physical and mental health is, which is reason enough not to make comparisons. Someone skinny/slightly overweight could be in a much healthier position than someone who appears to physically “ideal,” whatever that is.

For me, I do admire those who appear to be physically fit because I know how much work generally goes into achieving that level of health. It’s my goal. I want muscle, I want curves, I want to look healthy. But I also know that it goes much deeper than (too many) workouts, and I try to remember that when I get caught up in the “Charlotte looks amazing all the time!” mindset ;)


Abby January 15, 2013 at 8:01 am

I think it’s the whole “redefine the notion of beauty” thing that bugs me. I’m all for seeing beauty outside of the Hollywood norm but I mean, why do we need to define beauty at all? I feel like that inherently excludes people. But you’re right. If we didn’t define it, how could companies sell us products to fit that definition? I try to avoid as much advertising as possible but it’s hard.


Juliet January 15, 2013 at 8:02 am

I wrote a blog post on this ad campaign just the other day… (http://www.heyjoob.com/2013/01/08/macs-new-strength-line/) Personally, I think she is beautiful and I have nothing wrong with out she chooses to pursue her body – it is HER body after all!!! I do think, however, that the ad just replaces one unrealistic body image with another. A woman commented on my post that, that competitor passed out at the Arnold… which to me screams the exact opposite of the strong image they’re trying to depict (or stage fright ;) ).


Di January 15, 2013 at 8:54 am

The problem is how do you define “real woman”. Is it hair, make-up, physique? No it’s OVARIES, It’s not even boob size. It’s having the equipment to reproduce that makes us WOMEN.
Personally I’d rather find my ideal “real woman” in fitness industry than the catwalk. Is it achievable for everyone? no! But it’s closer to MY natural figure than the catwalk models or figure competitors. Like you said we look for ourselves in our models of perfection. And I honestly think that’s a good thing. We need to find “better” versions of ourselves to look up to rather unrealistic and unattainable versions of other people. I cannot tell you how many years I looked at hourglass figure models and wanted that look, guess what? Never gonna happen! I’m not built that way! Sure I have the booty but I’m athletic built, hourglass just not gonna happen!
I’ve finally stopped comparing myself to others and just decided to be a better version of me. Screw the “real woman”, there is no such thing, we’re all different, embrace it!


malevolent andrea January 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

As someone who just had all her girl parts surgically removed, I’d take issue with this. I’m still a woman without my ovaries and uterus. No hate. :-)


Alice January 15, 2013 at 9:06 am

Ouch. Are transwomen not ‘real’ womyn-born-womyn then? Everyone who identifies that way is a women, and everyone is amazing in their own way.


Lois January 15, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Ditto. Lost the ovaries at 37 and shortly thereafter read an article that called it female castration. That was a heavy commentary. Didn’t think it was right then and don’t think ovaries are the defining measurement 20 years later.


Di January 15, 2013 at 3:29 pm

You are totally right! Didn’t even think about that, thanks for the realization that I’d omitted groups! See there is NO definition of a “real woman”. That’s the issue I take offense to. How do we define it? There isn’t one. So let’s stop comparing ourselves, we’re all different, embrace it!


Alice January 15, 2013 at 3:43 pm

“We’re all different, embrace it!”

This a hundred times over. And it applies in so many circumstances too.


Geosomin January 15, 2013 at 10:17 am

I’ve always had a thing for Jeniffer Conelly and Kate Winslet…beautiful and classy.
I’ve just stopped trying to equate myeslf to what I see in magazines or on fitness sites. Some fitspo bodies would be as impossible for me to attain as the thinspo bodies in a lot of magazines. I’m just trying to be me and be happy with me. Whatever that is :)


Kim January 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

I think more important than the hair or face, is confidence! A confident woman is awesome – especially when she has self-confidence in her looks and body!!!


Kristen January 15, 2013 at 10:30 am

These are awesome examples of the craziness portrayed by the media. I always think it’s interesting to look through the decades at how the ideals have changed over time too–from Twiggy to curvy and volumptuous. I agree that they are unattainable by most women–not only because they are often unrealistic (like the male or pre-pubescent girl), but also because women’s bodies vary so much. This means we’d have to have a variety of beauty ideals portrayed to have a chance at representing real women.

Anyway, enough of my rant. I’d love for you to talk to the body-builder about what it takes for her to build/maintain her physique. I’m guessing it’s a full-time job or more. Also, why does she do it? And does she even think this is the ideal look that all women should shoot for?

Please post a link to your interview so we can read it!


Katie January 15, 2013 at 11:32 am

Here was my actual progression of thoughts when I came across that ad: AWESOME!! Finally a REAL woman! I want to look like her! But…I bet she works as hard as all those skinny girls do. She probably works way harder. Crap, I won’t ever look like her. I don’t really want to now that I think about it. I don’t want to look like the skinny girls either. Hmmm….maybe I should just stay the way I am and keep on with my routine and habits? Yeah. That sounds like the easiest thing to do. Probably the healthiest, too. Maybe.

It may be cliched, but beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. I find the Mac ad woman beautiful, but others may not. Meh.


Alyssa (azusmom) January 15, 2013 at 11:33 am

I agree that there is no such thing as “Ideal.” We need to let that go, women AND men. The fact is, most women who have that “ideal” figure not only workout for hours on end and/or starve, but worry CONSTANTLY about every morsel of food and live in fear of a skipped workout. Many go to extremes (hello, shooting heroine through their toes so the track marks don’t show!) in order to maintain a desired physique.
Another sad fact is that many modeling scouts actively pursue 12-14 year-olds. Who become successful and drop out of school. By the time they’re 19, their career is over and they have nothing. Except, perhaps, a baby or a disease from being sent to New York, Europe, and Asia for modeling jobs and left to their own devices.
And don’t forget the sexual harassment these girls face, from agents, photographers and others.
I’ve gone a bit off-topic, but I just think the modeling, advertising, and film industries do so much damage. They create these unrealistic images of women. If you listen to the vitriol being spewed at Lena Dunham (“Girls”), especially since the Golden Globes, you realize how much hatred there is for any woman in the public arena who doesn’t fit the narrow ideal. It’s terrifying! We need to step forward and change the images.


Sylvie @ StrugglesWithaFatA January 15, 2013 at 11:39 am

Personally I would love to see models who I can identify with, which is why I have Ruby’s picture on my blog. Ruby starred on posters for The Body Shop during a campaign promoting self esteem, but unfortunately she was short lived. It shouldn’t have to be about how being rail thin makes you glamorous. Why do fashion models have to be young and anorexic? Why can’t they be short and plump like me?



Stefanie January 15, 2013 at 11:48 am

It will be a great day when women can stop comparing beauty and physiques and focus on their health and what really matters in life. How many hours of our lives are spent contemplating our next “beauty move”? I am just as guilty as anyone, but am starting to see the “beauty” in being content with what God gave you and making it the best it can be – the healthy way!


hannahviolin January 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm

All I know is, most men don’t worry about the “new definition of handsome” or whatever bs we are concerning ourselves with. I say, let the media have their field day, and I’ll just keep trying to fit back into my jeans from before Thanksgiving.


Helene @healthyfrenchie January 15, 2013 at 12:12 pm

That is the reason why I don’t read fashion magazines anymore! It’s just ridiculous! I do think she is beautiful though and I immensely respect all the work she has done to get to this physique.
And I do the same, find women who have attributes I have too… That’s why I always admired Beyonce and J-Lo, they made me feel better about my big booty ;) I have an hour-glass figure and like classic styles so I’m a big fan of Sofia Lauren and Christina Hendricks ;)
And I am happy that after several years of self-hate I have come to love my body. I now aim at looking the best version of myself rather than imitate someone else.


Quix January 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Who I aspire to be: the people that beat me at triathlons when I race. I’ve long written off the extremes of hollywood and models – there’s just no way in hell I would sacrifice that much in the way of eating and being healthy to get there. I can admit I’m not where I want to be right now, but I certainly don’t covet the body of a movie star, that does nothing for my PR :).


TJ January 15, 2013 at 4:07 pm

I find your description of Andrej Pejic, particularly the phrase “his regular pics,” problematic. I take it that you mean that “off duty” he looks like a man, but in every story I’ve seen, he seems to embrace an androgynous gender identity. For example:

Pejic’s androgenous look is entirely his own creation – today, for instance, he’s wearing a light grey micro-mini dress, thick black tights and biker boots. “Around the age of 14, I decided to experiment with my look,” he explains. “As a kid, you get to the stage where you realise the gender barriers that exist in society and what you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do. I really tried being someone else during that period. It was hard for me – not being able to express myself and feeling I had to be someone else.
“But now I’m comfortable in my skin, and for my look to be celebrated is great. My look is very personal to me. When I started experimenting, it was a personal decision because I was unhappy. It wasn’t something I did for attention.”

So referring to regular (and implicitly irregular) looks seems to not only be inaccurate in the sense that it doesn’t describe his everyday presentation, but it implies a normality to a biological male dressing up to accentuate the masculinity and gender normativity that I think Andrej interestingly and explicitly rejects, as does Jelena.


Alice January 15, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Furthermore there are a couple of FAAB (female-assigned-at-birth) individuals who are working modelling male clothing. Gender isn’t black and white any more than sexuality or health.


Karen January 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Here’s my issue with the whole ‘beautiful ideal’ someone is always being excluded – one group is always being held up, or put on a pedestal. While the others are told they just don’t fit the mould.
So how about this … I’ll be the ideal me and you be the ideal you ! While it might be nice to take ideas from other people realistically if we could all just find a way to be happy within ourselves and satisfied with what we’ve got, then I have a feeling life would be a little bit simpler.


Cindy January 15, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I have always been attracted to people with a unique look and the guts to just go their own way. My first hero was Pippy Longstockings. I loved the messy braids and her style. Later I was interested in people as diverse as Grace Jones to Lauren Bacall. To me it is just all art including Elle, Andrej and Jelena. If advertisers were hoping I was going to feel a connection and buy something they failed with me.
Now show me a gadget that will fall apart before I get it home and I am sunk! I won’t even see the person selling it.


KDA January 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Remember when women “only” had to be thin? Now, we have to be thin and buff. I’m sorry, but my genes just don’t work that way. Sigh. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.


Nancy Guillery January 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm

A heathy, both inside and out, is truly beautiful. I know it’s cliché but for me it’s true. I feel at my most beautiful when i’ve been regularly working out taking care of myself.


Jody - Fit at 55 January 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm

I am so conflicted Charlotte! I love that MAC put a woman that is strong & has muscles in their ad. I have longed for this since I was always too muscular. On the other hand, some of it does look Photoshopped.. so I love the muscles but the waist looks like it was made smaller – I am not sure but just the proportions look off to me. She is a beautiful woman as well so…

So she helps me have hope for muscles being shown rather than way too thing YET it is still about beauty & the waist – is it really that small? I feel bad saying this because I do think some may look at it that way.

What does a real woman look like – ME!!!!! :) I am writing a post tomorrow about this if you have time to stop by & read – it is my No Apology post. I have been trying my whole life to get seen by Shape, Oxygen, M&F Hers & others. As I aged, I still tried because I show that it can be done. You can read my post but it seems the regular looking people just are put aside. Even reader models, they want them to be super photogenic. I get it but it is a reader model. Show people that just have done good no matter how pretty or photogenic… just my thoughts after so many years of trying….

Great post & discussion….


Gaye January 15, 2013 at 10:11 pm

I’m just always excited when I see companies using women who are different from the culturally “normal” definition of beauty. I think what it says is that any woman can be beautiful, so long as she is looking and feeling her best. Her best might not be Christie Brinkley, but so long as she is healthy, happy and taking care of herself she is beautiful. So beauty is within all of our grasps. :) Gives me hope.

My role model for beauty, Jodie Foster. Did you see her at the Globes this week. Stunning.


Erin D. January 15, 2013 at 10:34 pm

I want to see an ad where all three models are present. And they must all be in the same scene. That would be an interesting visual.
In fashion magazines do they still do that thing where they list the cover model’s stats. That was my instrument of torment when I was a teen. BTW- Charlotte, in your bio I love how you listed ridiculous stats mocking that very practice.
Confidence is a beautiful color on any woman…or dude-looks-like-a-lady…except-when-he’s-trying-to-look-like-a-dude. I’m need a nap now.


Bek @ Crave January 16, 2013 at 1:39 am

I like how they’ve been controversial (the mac brand) and I interpret it as: It’s okay, you can be a woman and look like this. I think it’s just nice to see a different representation of a woman. I guess they had to choose something that stood out, because in all honesty it wouldn’t of caused this much talk if it was just an average joe girl.

It’s funny though because I think women are more preoccupied with being and looking like a certain type of women, then the guys are for us to look a certain way. Guys like all different types of women, just as many of us have different likes.


Jess January 16, 2013 at 4:10 am

I think it is a shame we can’t just celebrate women and use everyday women. It is only the extremes that are worthy, according to advertisers. Really it is sad and weird that a 12 yr old girl, a body builder and a dude are held up as beautiful womanly body types.


Tamara January 16, 2013 at 9:11 am

ME! Comparison is the thief of joy (TM Teddy Roosevelt, LOVE this quote!!). Women are supposed to look like they look. Each of them, individually. End of story. Thanks, Charlotte!! xoxo


Barefoot Rose January 16, 2013 at 9:28 am

I like that they deviated from they typical model look. At least she doesn’t look like she is on heroin. Initially when you asked for my ideal beauty, I thought of the 50′s pinup girl or 40′s look. Like one of your pictures with the bright red lipstick and rolled up hair. Then I remembered this woman I used to see on campus when I was in college. She wore a short afro, had beautiful scarves draped around her shoulders and walked as though she floated. She was only about 5 ‘ 2 ” tall. So, in thinking about how different these two pictures of women are, I think it comes down to confidence and being comfortable with who they are.


Abby January 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm

LOVE THIS! I find that I too, look for women that resemble me, when I think of what “real women” look like. I think you wrote this beautifully. There is so much to be said about the way women are portrayed in our society these days.. it is so refreshing to read posts like these.
Also, I’m so happy to find another MN healthy living blogger! Rock on, girl!


R January 17, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I think the reason I like the MAC ad, even though her figure is not necessarily attainable for the average woman, is because suddenly, they’re showing “muscular” as “beautiful”. Maybe it’s not the only beautiful, but it was refreshing for me to see something other than the normal standard of beauty being celebrated in a mainstream cosmetics brand, especially since I grew up hearing “eww, muscles!”, “omg you’re like as strong as like a BOYYYY”, etc.

Honestly, I think it’s pretty much impossible to define “beautiful”, because there are so many different things that various people find attractive.


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Jhovana February 10, 2013 at 10:43 am

hey! loving the bold move that MAC took. it’s time strong women, inside and out, were recognized as beautiful women!! I think you’d really appreciate some of the videos and articles put out by Amanda Russell. She’s really just that. Check out some of her videos here: http://amanda-russell.com/videos/ keep up the wonderful blogging!!


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