Underwear as empowerment?

h. hopp-bruce/globe staff

Good newS, teenage girls! The lingerie company Aerie has a surefire way to improve your self-esteem . . . with photos of pretty girls in underwear!

Skeptical? Me, too. But Aerie, the lingerie arm of American Eagle Outfitters, is making some bold predictions about its “aerie Real” campaign, which features models who aren’t airbrushed.

“We hope by embracing this that real girls everywhere will start to embrace their own beauty,” an Aerie official told ABC’s “Good Morning America.’’


It’s true that Aerie’s models are mildly imperfect. If you look closely at their bodies — which, of course, you’re encouraged to do — you might spot a few gentle bumps and creases here and there. But the real point of the campaign is the self-congratulation: Now that girls are informed of their self-worth, they’ll surely show their gratitude by purchasing bikini briefs.

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Hence, the problem with this new, faux-backlash trend of beauty culture. On one hand, more retailers are discovering the vast sales potential of low self-esteem. Before Aerie, there was Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign aimed at selling both empowerment and soap.

On the other hand, the power still lies with those who set the standards — and the standards haven’t actually changed. Gisele Bundchen can purchase multiple eco-friendly mansions off the way she looks in a string bikini. Lena Dunham can be fearlessly naked on TV, but even she gets retouched in Vogue.

The beauty industry is not going to save us from itself. True subversion will have to come from someplace else. How about someone powerful like Beyonce, who conquered the music industry through talent, hard work, and design? In“Pretty Hurts,” a song from her new album, she even rails against the tyranny of the beauty-industrial-complex. (“Perfection,” she sings, “is the disease of a nation.”)

And yet she opened the Grammys last weekend in full supermodel mode, looking thinner than an Aerie model, and prompting a wave of news stories about her vegan diet and her personal trainer. Granted, the song she performed, “Drunk in Love,” is an ode to having sex with her husband — so you could argue that lingerie was a legitimate costume choice. On the other hand, Jay-Z, who performed with her, was fully clothed.


“People were talking about the Beyonce album as if it’s empowering and feminist,” said Daniel Goldstein, an accomplished theater director. “And I don’t get it, because all I see is a really amazing woman . . . still, in every public appearance, dancing in her underwear.”

I had been talking to Goldstein about “Venus in Fur,” the play he is directing at the Huntington Theatre — in which, it turns out, underwear and power figure prominently. The play is about a smug writer-director, trying to cast an adaptation of a famed erotica novel, and an actress named Vanda who shows up for an audition.

Vanda, played artfully by Andrea Syglowski, spends most of the play in Beyonce-like fishnets and a corset. She’s trying out for the role of the Victorian-era woman in the original S&M story: She meets a man who begs to be her slave. But we learn that her ultimate goal is to point out the twisted logic of the source material.

“She’s been asked to be in power,” Goldstein said. “He’s giving her the power to be in power. Which subverts the very notion of her being in power in the first place.”

There’s a lesson here about who calls the shots, what it truly means to rebel, and what happens when someone is actually willing to subvert modern beauty standards. Goldstein said he wanted Vanda to invoke a woman in a Titian painting. He needed an actress with a certain look: beauty and confidence, but not 2014-era supermodel conformity. Someone who would wear her sexuality proudly, regardless of whether she looked like an underwear model.


“I think she’d be the first to say this: Andrea is not a skinny-minny,” Goldstein told me. “I wanted it to be a woman who took some joy in having a figure.”

Women in the audience of “Venus in Fur” have turned out to be joyous, too. Goldstein says some have thanked Syglowski for looking so comfortable in so much skin.

There it is, girls: Underwear as empowerment. No purchase necessary.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.