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Aisha Tyler on the Dove Campaign, Unrealistic Ideals of Perfection

Because so much of the fashion industry is artistically driven, there will always be a dominant level of visual manipulation and abstraction in fashion and beauty.
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Ever since she appeared in a now-famous Glamour magazine article called "I Don't Want To Be Perfect!" that juxtaposed her un-airbrushed photo next to a photoshopped one, I've had a girl-crush on Aisha Tyler. (Plus, hello, she was on Friends, she went to Dartmouth and she's gorgeous-yet-humble.) With celebrities self-destructing seemingly by the minute, and the blogs-'n-rags hysterical over Jennifer Love Hewitt gaining three ounces and daring to wear a bikini, Aisha is helping to bring a much-needed sense of realism, maturity and body-acceptance to girls across the country with the Dove Self-Esteem Fund and Step Up Women's Network. I can't pretend otherwise; I was thrilled to speak with her. Our chat about media manipulation, fashion myths, and, of course, champagne, below:

You've become something of a spokeswoman for body acceptance and the necessity for a realistic perspective in fashion and the media. How did this happen? Was it a gradual shift in your outlook as you become more famous...or were you just born awesome?

AISHA: I don't think I ever really started focusing on my own weight or body image until I was out of college -- I grew up in a home where health and intellectualism and the arts were valued over fashion or weight. I really noticed that I started worrying about how I looked the longer I was in the business, and that women around me were also obsessing in a negative and unhealthy way. I also found myself comparing my own body to those in fashion magazines and on the runway in a way that I found at times frustrating and disheartening. I realized that being in this business, I could help blow the cover off of some of the ways in which magazines manipulate female images, so that women who compare themselves to those images could realize that they aren't real, and that trying to conform to them is totally self-destructive. I mean, I know! My own image has been retouched and airbrushed a zillion times. It's just par for the course.

Have you ever personally struggled with body issues? Have you been close to anybody that has? How did this affect you?

A: Sure I have. I think it would be hard to find an American woman that hasn't in some way. We are surrounded and bombarded by images of thinness all day long -- it's pretty hard to escape. I have also had some women very close to me who were deeply affected by eating disorders; that has totally informed and affected the way I look at women's relationships to body image and culture.

A couple of years ago, you appeared in Glamour to illustrate the fact that magazine images of celebrities are crazy-airbrushed. That article really stuck in my head, and I applaud you for your candor and spirit. While features like that one are becoming increasingly common, the same magazines that regularly feature "Love Your Body!" issues also persist in airbrushing their cover models and in using overly skinny models. (5'11'' and 112 pounds is healthy? Okaaay.) What do you make of that?

A: Well, we have a long way to go. These beauty ideals and prejudices are long-held and deeply ingrained. I don't know that we'll ever have truly widespread use of natural-looking, healthy models. The fashion business is an aspirational business -- we are meant to want to idealize these abstract ideas of what women should look like, and because so much of the fashion industry is artistically driven, there will always be a dominant level of visual manipulation and abstraction in fashion and beauty. These are meant to be dreamlike, supra-real images. The best we can do is to realize and understand that these images are manipulated so we don't get seduced into believing that a 5'11'' model who weights 112 pounds is either realistic or healthy, and also that these ideals of perfection don't even exist for that model, who probably starves herself, is unhealthy because she smokes to stay thin, and needs all that airbrushing and retouching because she has terrible skin and all the other problems that all real, living, breathing women have. Of course, there are obviously some women out there who were just born tall and insanely thin and stay that way naturally. And they have their own problems just like everyone else.

As a former model, is it true that clothes "hang better" on women who are tall and skinny? Is this a universal truth, or could it be a crutch for fashion designers? Are we quote-unquote normal women screwed, and destined for a life of low-fashion?

A: I've actually never modeled, but thank you for the compliment! I can't say that I believe clothes "hang better" on skinny women. I think all women can look great in the right clothes. That being said, most designers are simply looking for a hanger that walks to move their clothes down the runway. The great thing is that there are great high-fashion, chic clothes out there for normal women, and I think the latest trend in couture designers doing lower-priced lines for big national brands is driving designers to think about how their clothes can be worn by regular women. Because it's so lucrative, that trend will continue, as designers realize there are only so many anorectic millionaires out there who can afford to buy a forty-thousand-dollar couture suit.

How has your work with the Campaign for Real Beauty affected the way you view media and the beauty/fashion industries?

A: It's just reinforced some of my earlier beliefs that it's important to be honest and truthful about how women's images are manipulated in the media -- I love what Dove is doing to celebrate real women and their unique beauty in an honest, exuberant way. What's great is how beautiful and radiant and real the women look in the Dove ads -- it's very exciting!

The Skinny Minnie socialites of the world are alive and well, but we also now live in a time when beautiful women of all shapes and sized are celebrated. Do you think women have more positive self-esteem and body image than they did, say, a decade or two ago?

A: Yes. And I think we will continue to see more of that. There will probably be two divergent strains, one that goes further towards the extreme of thinness and (faux) perfection, with radical plastic surgeries and other manipulations, and another that celebrates authenticity and uniqueness. To paraphrase the X-Files, we can't fight the future -- there will always be people who go to excessive lengths to manipulate their bodies in the pursuit of some ideal, and now with innovations in drug therapies and plastic surgery they have more options than ever. I don't know how looking like a lion or a plastic figurine is beautiful, but that is a personal choice, I suppose. I think in the future we'll see some pretty freakish people walking around. The goal, however, is to not let that become the beauty norm for the rest of us.

It's a bit off-topic, but I would be remiss in not asking: how do you keep your skin looking so gorgeous? (If you say airbrushing, I will be crushed!)

You're very kind! I try to keep it clean and moisturize it twice a day. I still get breakouts like everyone else (all the time! It's like I'm fifteen), and my skin is pretty sensitive and allergic to a lot of additives so I use a hypoallergenic moisturizer (nothing fancy - Cetaphil from the drugstore!). I use some upscale lines occasionally but nothing beats keeping your skin clean and moisturized, eating healthy, exercising, and drinking lots of water. Other than that, lots of sleep, lots of laughter, and a healthy dose of champagne!