Growing up, Jess Weiner was baffled by the media. “Who makes the media?” she asked. But more than the nature of the industry, it was its messages that nagged her. Why are glossy magazines filled with impossibly beautiful women? Thin body, blue eyes, flawless skin, long hair, long neck, long legs — all constituents of what she considered an arbitrary definition of beauty. “Who makes that decision? Why don’t I see regular people who look like me?”
As a grown woman, the lingering question in her mind smacked more of a rebellion than a mere curiosity. “Why am I not represented in the media?”
The growing desire to fight the media’s tyrannical imposition of beauty standards led Weiner to a profession that seeks to revolutionalize cultural messages. “I have now developed a career where I get to do what I love and make money doing it. I worked hard for it,” said Dove’s Global Self-Esteem ambassador and CEO of Talk To Jess, a consulting firm that advises global brands on image issues facing women, girls and families.
Weiner, who is also an adjunct professor of personal branding and entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, is part of the team behind Dove’s campaign for natural beauty, and Mattel’s overhaul of the Barbie Doll line — now more relatable, representative of ethnic diversity and cognizant of the nuances of beauty.
Beyond defining what constitutes beauty, confidence-building is the centerpiece of Weiner’s advocacy. “Beauty comes from the way we live our lives,” Weiner told the young students at the HighTide Self Esteem Workshop organized by the Guam Women’s Chamber of Commerce at the Guam Community College on Feb. 16.
The workshop, consisting of a curriculum offered worldwide, is a component of Dove’s Self-Esteem Project launched in 2006. It was spawned by a study which showed that 2 percent of women worldwide considered themselves beautiful. “That number alone was shocking,” Weiner said. “That left 90 percent of women who won’t describe themselves as beautiful.”
The self-esteem project, Weiner explained, was created to build a conversation with multiple generations about beauty and self-confidence. The goal is to unpack some of the physical appearance pressures, debunk stereotypes and help the next generation feel better about the way they look. Dove’s campaign — which celebrates all shapes, colors and sizes — calls for women around the world to renounce the narrow, unattainable standards of beauty and replace them with a message of female empowerment.
“There have been a lot of changes in the modeling industry. There are bans on underweight models in some countries like Spain, France and U.K.,” Weiner said. “We haven’t hooked up on that yet in the United States but I think there is some industry recognition that showing young and severely underweight models is not really healthy for the viewing audience. I think the fashion industry has responded in an interesting way. I don’t think they are anywhere near where they need to be. Overall, the fashion industry still relies on outdated measures of beauty. But I think they are embracing more diversity.”
While the traditional media still tries to set the standards of beauty, Weiner believes the social media is changing the game. In the pre-social media era, the image industry was monopolized by advertising professionals, photographers, copywriters and brand experts. “Now everybody is on social media; it democratizes beauty,” she said.
With photo editor and filter apps on smartphones, everyone now has access to the tricks of image professionals. Ah, beauty is in the eye of the beholder’s smartphone. “Is there a problem with that? Maybe at face value it’s not a problem. But when a girl, who takes a hundred of selfies, filters her photo and filters the filtered photo, she doesn’t look like herself anymore. When we manipulate reality so much that it no longer exists, that becomes a problem,” Weiner said.
What’s her take on the Kardashians?
“I’m afraid we sometimes use them as scapegoats; it’s always the Kardashians’ fault. But I think the Kardashians are only highlighting what we value— thinness, sexuality and a certain look. They are cashing in on that. So I understand the pressure that they have from an appearance standpoint.”
But this generation can’t always blame pop culture while reneging on its own responsibility to shape young people’s values, Weiner said. “It’s important for parents, aunts, teachers and mentors to have the conversations that the Kardashians are not supposed to have because they are not here for us; they don’t know us.”
In the end, she said, real people have a bigger impact on a girl’s life.