Can We Retire the Phrase “Real Women,” Please?

Via Kate Bartolotta
on Jan 21, 2012
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A “best of elephant journal” piece that serves to balance our recent hit: This is What a Real Yoga Body Looks Like and its response: I’m a Skinny Yogi & I’m a Real Woman & I’m not Anorexic.

 What does it mean to be a “real woman?”

(Photo: Twitpic)












This phrase gets thrown around all the time.

Do any of us meet the criteria? Apparently, skinny is out, unless you are skinny and awkward. Fat’s okay. If you’re overweight, you can be a real woman. Pretty? Well…you can be pretty, but not too pretty. Better if it’s an unconventional kind of pretty. You can have gorgeous eyes, but you’d better have a big nose. You can have a great ass, but only if you are flat chested.

I have blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pair of 36C’s going for me, so I might not fit the real woman criteria. But, I’m also pretty nerdy, only 5’4″ and have enough freckles to spot a baby leopard, so maybe that puts me back in the real woman category. Plus, I’ve had two kids so things aren’t quite where they were ten years ago. I guess I qualify.

Why do we do this? Isn’t the point to embrace that we are all beautiful? The first time I read about the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty a few years ago, I thought it was wonderful. I do think it’s wonderful that we make a point of looking at what people look like before Photoshop. But sometimes I feel like it’s become just another way we compete with each other.

You’ve probably seen the picture above making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. At face value, there’s a good point to be made. There are popular young actresses that embody a physical ideal that most women can’t maintain if they want to be healthy. I battled an eating disorder for many years. I don’t want my daughter looking at skeletal women as role models.

But some women have skinny bodies. Some are curvy. Some are fat. Some are tall. Some are…all kinds of things in between. And when I hear women tear other women down because they happen to meet some conventional standard of beauty, I have to wonder…how is this better? We’re always crying “oh poor us, society has this unrealistic standard that we just can’t meet!” Then, we turn around and do it to each other all over again.

How many women would complain about Kathryn Budig’s Toesox ads or Briohny Smyth’s Equinox video if they were less conventionally beautiful or had flabbier bodies? Women would be singing their praises as “real women” role models.

Let’s let it go. Call a moratorium on the whole “real women” thing. There are so many ways for women to be; all of them are real.

The problem isn’t any one kind of real beauty being better than the others.

The problem is the Photoshopping, the constant inundation of glossy, unreal images that make us forget. We forget that our beauty is a story; each one is different–and that’s what makes them wonderful.

Let me remind you:

She is beautiful


And she is beautiful


And she is beautiful



And you and I are beautiful, too.

We all have parts of us that are glossy and smooth. We have parts that we shine forth proud as peacocks.

And we all have parts that we want to hide away.

(Photo: wikimedia)


(Even she does)


Your beauty is a true story.

The parts that are unique are the parts that make it interesting.

The woman next to you has a different story; it isn’t better than yours, it isn’t worse.

Let’s remember the parts that we want to flaunt and be proud about, that shine forth, are no less “real.” We needn’t be embarrassed by our “ugly” or our “imperfect”…or, importantly, our “proud.”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

~ Marianne Williamson


Yoga, weight loss, racism, self-acceptance, humor:


About Kate Bartolotta

Kate Bartolotta is a wellness cheerleader, yogini storyteller, and self-care maven. She also writes for Huffington Post, Yoga International, Mantra Yoga+ Health, a beauty full mind, The Good Men Project, The Green Divas, The Body Project, Project Eve, Thought Catalog and Soulseeds. Kate's books are now available on and Barnes & She is passionate about helping people fall in love with their lives. You can connect with Kate on Facebook and Instagram.


126 Responses to “Can We Retire the Phrase “Real Women,” Please?”

  1. elephantjournal says:

    PS: Heidi's an easy target. No one, no one I know has ever claimed that she was sexy…well, not since the plastic surgery, anyways. ~ Waylon

  2. Kala says:

    I agree with you that we shouldn’t tear down women who meet our current societal beauty standards and that we should all treat each other with kindness. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a good reason for these debates; they just shouldn’t turn into personal attacks on specific women or groups of women. I also have never felt that the term ‘real woman’ was meant to exclude the beauties among us, but to include average women whose images are rarely captured in the media in a positive way. I don’t believe these debates are about women trying to compete with each other, I think they are a reflection of the pain of exclusion and shame that women feel in society. You can remind us that we are all beautiful, but until we are actually treated that way in everyday life, we are going to need a lot more than reminders! We need people willing to challenge the constant promotion of a certain type of body and the rejection of all others. The ‘Real Women’ campaign, while not perfect, at least started this and I am grateful for that.

  3. Andréa Balt says:

    I'm so glad you posted this and I completely agree with your viewpoint. I saw the picture circulating around and felt awkward. I’m the skinny type, the one on the upper side of the picture. Just as more voluptuous women have been offended by the anorexic model stereotype, are we now going to the opposite extreme?

    It’s exactly what happened with feminism, first we’re oppressed, then we liberate ourselves and then we turn into the Femme Police and get rid of all men.

    Yes, society has been cruel to us. The fashion industry is cruel. Even we have been cruel to ourselves. Skinny and not so skinny. We all have body issues and few of us feel perfect (if any). But the solution to low self-esteem is not pointing your finger at whoever looks different than you.

    Balance, acceptance, individuality, that’s where the sexy lies. No woman is hotter than the woman who’s learned to accept her own signature beauty (with all its ups and downs).

    • The first time I saw the picture I like it because I love seeing the classic beauty icons instead of overly plasticized modern Hollywood. But then I thought, there are so many different things that are beautiful…why leave anyone out?

    • Rebecca Jo says:

      Lovely response…I too am the "skinny" type, although I have certainly fluctuated over the years. At this point in my life I'm almost 30, 5'7" and weigh about 115 lbs…I'm certainly under the "accepted weight" but my extremely active lifestyle makes it difficult to pack more pounds on no matter how many avocados I try to fit into my day…believe me I'm trying. There are days when I love my body… I'm all muscle after all and that makes me feel strong, and then there are days when I miss having a full round booty and a decent chest size(all of which have gone by way of yoga and rock climbing). I actually worked for many years in photography, retouching photos of women who already looked perfect to me(don't blame the retoucher…it's a well paying job especially fresh out of college), but it was never those images that caused my insecurities. It was always me, wanting to look like someone other than myself. When I was finally able to accept who I am…flat chest and all… I realized that I am already all the woman I will ever need to be.

      Thank you Andrea and Kate for bringing this point up. When you strive for perfection, at some point(hopefully) you have to realize it is unattainable as well as being completely subjective. The universe thrives and exists only because of it's imperfections…it's time we all learn to find the beauty in that.

  4. Megan says:

    Feminism without PMS. You're amazing for writing this level headed editorial.

  5. catnipkiss says:

    Maybe the point of the "real women" tag is that if you look around, you see fewer skinny beauties than you do average, dumpy, plain, or otherwise imperfect. It's aggravating how firmly entrenched we are in comparing our selves to others for whatever reason. As a single woman, I do the same with couples these days. The devil on my shoulder says "move the hell out of the way, must you stop to grope each other in the middle of the sidewalk?" and the angel on the other shoulder says, "How sweet, remember when you had that with someone?" Same with beautiful girls, a flash of instant anger (why?) followed by a sigh and gentle appreciation. Like the old cat says in the song Memory: "I remember the old days, I was beautiful then…" Don't know what the answer is, sorry I am rambling, it's late….. 🙂 – Alexa M.

    • I think the big shift in thinking about beauty happened for me in massage therapy school. I am always amazed and startled at how unique and how beautiful each body is. The different skin textures, colors, musculature, faces, bone structure–all so fascinating. Once I learned to soften my gaze a bit, I started finding beauty everywhere. You are beautiful–now–not just back then!

  6. KZed says:

    Gee – I thought we were carbon based life forms whose prime directive was to nurture life – in whatever ways we are talented to do so – this whole discussion continues on the premise that physical sttrativeness is the prime virtue – AIEEEE! Beauty is everywhere and not defined by the media – think about it- how many beautiful people – moments- scenes- communities- do yuo engage with that Manhattan or any other spintank has NOT defined?

  7. sheri says:

    I think that what this discussion shows, in part, is that many women, myself included, compare their bodies to other bodies and do not feel that their body is enough, perfect in its "imperfections", and whole. Until I began practicing yoga regularly and seeing a therapist who specialized in body issues, I had no perception of what my body looked like. Despite that I am (and pretty much always have been) 5'6", 135-40, I always thought I was enormous and disgusting to the point that I would not leave my house. I've met so many women with similar stories, and I feel so sad every time I hear one. Discussions like these help those of us not to feel alone and to heal. Thank you!

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the brand new Elephant Health & Wellness Homepage.

    Sheri McCord
    "Like" Elephant Health & Wellness on Facebook

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I never had a real idea of how large my actual size was in comparison to others (I'd thought I was much smaller … so much for the media feeding adolescents realistic images), until the first wave of the consciousness-raising movement known as fat acceptance started in the mid 1970s. (Of course, I had not been much in my body as a young person …)

    The second wave is much more illustrative than just getting so-called "real-size" plus size models to grace the Roaman's Calalogue….

    See the BMI project: http:[email protected]/sets/72

  9. jericho says:

    Wow this is really crazy because I was going to write an article for this magazine purple inc I write for about that photo and had the exact things to say about it. Well done on this article you took the words out of my mouth

    • allie says:

      I've been working on something similar for my blog as well. This is such an important message – I hope we can shift the focus to more discussion like this versus this "real" women pinup I see all over the place. It makes me sad.

  10. Jessie says:

    This is such an important message. Just because someone is thin, doesn't mean people should assume they have an eating disorder…… We come in all shapes and sizes and the world would be boring if we all looked the same. I think an elephant is equally beautiful to a giraffe or to a frog or a peacock. Our earth is made up of millions of ways to be beautiful……..

  11. Hannah says:

    Did you see the replay photo to this? I posted both to my facebook. Healthy bodies are beautiful. If you are naturally skinny you are beautiful, if you are naturally curvy you are beautiful, if you are average you are beautiful, and anything outside or in-between.

    What isn't beautiful is any of the above achieved through unhealthy means.

  12. […] immediate reaction was “Yes, get the word out!” but as I took a pause and read the flurry of activity surrounding it I realized that this montage suggests that “real woman” can’t be […]

  13. karlsaliter says:

    This one was hard for me Kate, because I'm all about the surface.
    I'm hoping to enjoy future articles, please dummy it down, pronto.

  14. elsita says:

    Some women r naturaly skinny like some r naturaly more curvy and there’s nothing wrong with that. What bad is extreme, unhealthy skinny or unhealthy heavy.

  15. […] caption here reads, “Most runway models meet the body mass index physical criteria for anorexia.” A more honest caption might be, “Hump this, you skinny […]

  16. […] call to retire the phrase “real women” for […]

  17. […] The phrase 'real women' is pretty condescending. Share this:Facebook Filed under: Gaps. Leave a comment Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) ( subscribe […]

  18. Terria says:

    Apologies if anyone has said this already, but the women on the bottom row are still FAR smaller than the average woman today. I could never understand what this image was trying to say, or how it’s supposed to be empowering. “Thin= decidedly not hot,” for sure. But then what? You can be larger than Keira Knightley, but if you’re not shaped like Marilyn Monroe, then GTFO?

    It should be noted that all of the women on the bottom row had extremely small waists in addition to proportionately larger hips and busts, which is as unrealistic to obtain as the super-thin ideal of today for most women. I share Bettie Page’s measurements and am 5’1″, and have been relegated to the ‘ewwww!! skinny anorexic twig stick!’ category, so I might as well look like Keira Knightley.

    So, this is a dig at anyone who has a slim, straight figure, and also excludes anyone who is larger than Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. That’s a lot of women, and yet everyone thinks this image is just the greatest self-esteem booster.

    • My point in the article was that we need to get beyond what the picture is saying. Women are skinny, women are curvy, women are fat, women are muscular & all of those and every other body type are "real women."

      • Right… I get your article.. But I just blasted a bunch of people on Facebook… because of course they missed the point. There they were, saying things like, 'the ones on the top are hotter than the ones on the bottom.' and.. 'I'll take curvy over skinny any day.' and so on and so on. I really feel it is the media who has pitted women against each other. ALL WOMEN ARE REAL WOMEN. We are women because of how we think, nurture and love. The exterior parts of us are either a blessing, a curse or a little of both. I hate.. HATE my breasts. I have struggled with their size since I was 13. I FINALLY got to the 'ideal boob size' (through age and weight gain) and now I read somewhere the average bust size is a 38D!? Surely this is because of all the boob jobs women get because they feel 'not good enough.' Whatever the reason…. it's ridiculous that young girls have to see this crap. Think back to the days when there was no social media and how females struggled with body image. I cannot imagine what it is like to be a young girl today. It definitely explains why a lot of young girls today think 'letting it all hang out' is important to be someone. Really sad….

    • allie says:

      Terria, that's just it. It's not about embracing this body type over that body type as the embodiment of a "real" woman. We are all of it (body types I mean) & everything in between. I think the article is reminding us that ALL women are REAL women & should be celebrated as BEAUTIFUL.

  19. M.G. says:

    Can we retire "real men" too then please? Getting things called "masculinity" shoved down my throat disgruntles me from time to time.

  20. M.G. says:

    Can we retire "real men" too then please? We could retire gender guidelines all together, which seems reasonable. I don't think we can celebrate morbid obesity as beautiful, I know it's awful to say, but honestly someone who doesn't take care of themselves can't take care of anyone else. Compassion takes self control and self-love, someone who doesn't love themselves won't take care of themselves. I know it's hard to eat well or exercise enough, that's fine, overweight or out of shape is fine, but when one can't function.. that's when issues arise for me. Then again, who am I to say how someone should live… I don't really have the right, noone has the right to tell anyone how to live, which is weirdly terrifying. I am a pretty in-shape male who is overly-self conscious myself, but I used to be flabby when I was younger, but I grew out of it. Personal choice is really the ultimate right? It's a hard issue to be sure.

    Then again, I don't think individuals are entirely to blame for weight problems and bad health in the US or Australia, since we have garbage food everywhere because as a culture, we've decided that cheap prices matter over sustainability and health (at least in the U.S., I just know Australia has an equal weight problem as the U.S.)

    Cheers, peace, and whatnot

    • Agreed!

      (Cheers, peace and whatnot to you too)

    • Nichole says:

      I technically fall into the category of “obese” and I “take care” of myself. Until I got pregnant I was running 3-4 says a week, do yoga, eat whole and nutritious foods, don’t smoke, moderate alcohol. Don’t assume because people are overweight that they don’t love themselves. It’s a more complicated situation for most than “just eat less”.

      Thought this whole post was about quitting judgement of ourselves and others.

  21. […] information as well as misinformation. We have never been inundated with so many harmful messages. They are sometimes delivered subtly, sometimes aggressively, but we end up over-saturated and overwh… This is a global experience with tremendous impact. There is a staggering increase in eating […]

  22. NRGY says:

    Thank you for this!!! It was so beautiful!! 🙂

  23. […] This is a story that reveals the sort of liberation that happens not because I happily tossed away my undergarments, but rather because I—once and for all—threw away my very unrealistic ideal. […]

  24. […] Realizing that there are many ways to be beautiful is also a good thing. […]

  25. cassandralanesmith says:

    This is awesome Kate! The "real women" thing has always angered me, being a size 00. I think all women should read this!!

  26. Abby says:

    Thank you for this. I know folks who post images like the one at the top on Facebook and Twitter ad nauseum. Sometimes it’s accompanied with a rant about how skinny women aren’t “real women.” Sometimes it’s also accompanied by nasty comments about how ugly the “skinny” women in the images look. Sometimes it hurts my feelings a little, because I’m a pretty small chick (once I sat at my computer wondering if my friends doing the posting/ranting think I’m ugly). So yes. . . 86 the competition and the comparisons. We’re all beautiful.

    • Ali says:

      And that kind of comparison making only shows how low their own self worth is. Nobody who is truly confident needs to make someone else feel bad about themselves in order to feel good.

  27. It'd certainly be nice if we could all learn to empower ourselves without putting down others…

  28. Chloe says:

    Love this! Agree 100%. It's frustrated me beyond belief seeing those pop up all over my facebook. My sister is skin & bones, always has been. She never idolized anorexic celebrities, she was born that way, however was accused of being anorexic all through highschool. The grass is always greener on the otherside. Curvy women hate the skinny women for being skinny, but countless skinny women wish they had some curves! Hence the popularity of breast augmentation! If we all just spent a little more time focusing on our own features that we admire & teaching our children to do the same the world would be a much less judgmental and competitive place.

  29. […] yoga and eat a moderate amount of high quality, organic, non-processed foods and still be chunky. Healthy bodies are not one certain way. The fitness world would like us to believe this so we can live in fear of fatness and spend lots of […]

  30. Atlantya says:

    By keeping a constant laser-like focus on women's bodies instead of the many other things we can contribute to the world other than decorating it with our looks, we serve only to keep women second-class citizens.

  31. […] In yoga, we develop strength to support our body weight relatively quickly. As one’s strength builds, our physique may change. This happens naturally, over time. This doesn’t mean everyone who practices yoga is going to look like the girl in the latest Strong Is the New Skinny (or whatever) ad! What this means is that we learn not looking like the girl in the ad is ok. […]

  32. […] stopped accepting the “women should only come in one variety” message of the media. “Real women” are soft and small or tall and muscular. Some are curvy, others muscular. There are many ways for […]

  33. Heather, Sammy is correct, you wrote “neonatal” twice in the paragraphs just following the graph of the CIA factbook data (IMR for US and world, 2000-2011). One is in the paragraph with the bold type, and one immediately above. You may want to correct this as its low-hanging fruit for those who wish to detract from the substance of your post. Reply

  34. ali groff says:

    Thank you for posting this. I find it equally damaging for media to condemn naturally thin woman. I am a bony girl who has been judged and mocked and talked about at every turn during my life. People make an awful lot of assumptions about us thin folk. And does it ever occur to them that we too struggle to find ourselves beautiful? Acceptance should be universal. We are all goddesses. To point to people like me and call it disgusting or disturbing or gross. THAT IS REPREHENSIBLE.

  35. Brooke says:

    Ok, I LOVE this! LOVE, Love, love it! To me, a real woman is a woman who embraces herself as she is and is confident in her value, not just physically but mentally and spiritually, as well. I think we need to stop looking in the mirror to find our value. I think, as women, we need to love eachother and lift eachother up instead of tearing eachother down all the time. I mean, where has it gotten us?? Nowhere.

  36. AnneM. says:

    I enjoyed this post . My husband and I just had a conversation about this same subject a few days ago. Regarding the "pinup" or starlets from the 40's or 50's , he , of course, considered them as being "fat". I replied with That's because it's ingrained into your brain and your generation. If you were your current age back in the 40's and 50's , I bet you would feel differently. I then went on to say it doesn't matter what size you are, it's what inside that counts. And since that struck home a bit, he got on the defensive. I used to be in shape and thin up until my early forties, maybe even a few yrs. after. Then I became ill with an autoimmune disease and other spine and health issues. The meds. and sedentary lifestyle made me gain 10-20 lbs over the course of 10 yrs . total. Is that why he doesn't touch me anymore? Of course not! he replies. Makes one sit back and think . Thanks for posting . As usual, the best writing…..

  37. John says:

    The "woman" next to me is a 7 year old German Sheppard. And she is beautiful.

  38. Erika Budson says:

    Maybe the title of the article you critiqued is just a bad title, and I see what you mean that we shouldn’t go to the other extreme of putting down skinny women or suggesting they aren’t “real” women, but, I still think that the “real women” article is making an excellent point, or at least, it resonated with me. As a yoga teacher I have been criticized in the past for having a round body. When I’ve been thinner everyone commented on how great I looked thin. Their comments were always, “you lost weight, you look great!”, or, “have you lost weight?” I just thinking having my body scrutinized all the time is uncomfortable to say the least, and honestly, how thin we are is really not the point of a yoga practice. I can see the backlash against skinny as negative as well, but I don’t think that was the point of her article. Eating disorders are rampant and at least at this point in history the honest truth is the media circus that really helps to create this all is not going to end because billions of dollars are made off of women’s insecurities. I’ve heard people say boob jobs are the new norm and many other disturbing things at the yoga studio. I guess, good luck humans, we’ve got a long way to go!

  39. Shane says:

    Each time we use a descriptor we will most likely run into trouble. Beware the descriptor.

  40. Shelley says:

    The other evening I went to a Burlesque show. It was such a liberating experience as the women who were performing were 'imperfect' with cellulite yet had the confidence to be almost completely naked while they danced. The crowd loved them. I have been guilty of seeing the imperfection in my own body and feeling not good enough compared with the media images of women as perfect. Burlesque has a lot to teach us.

  41. Yes, I am heavy. says:

    I almost feel like this article is part of the problem. To complain that women who do not meet the conventional standards of Hollywood are finally able to have a voice or a measure of social acceptance by suggesting that it is a "poor me" mentality is harmful. The better point would have been to stress that posts like the one included are a way for women to strike against airbrushed images that promote a body type that no woman can achieve. I felt that this article was written by a conventionally beautiful woman for conventionally beautiful women to glorify their social acceptance while chastising any oppositional uprising.

  42. Heidi says:

    My earlier post is gone. I think this article has already been done a million times…there is more ..if this is where you are then ok…

  43. Ashwin S says:

    Thanks for stating the reality.

  44. Blake says:

    Real women have two X chromosomes. There. I said it!

  45. Chris says:

    I’m a man, and while I fully endorse everything you say I need to point out a place where you leave yourself open to “more ‘ideal body’ arguments. You state in essence that there are popular young actresses who maintain an -ideal- weight that most women can’t maintain and stay healthy. I assume from this you mean skinny and not Christina Hendricks zaftig. Ideal. Suggesting that if most women -could- look like Twiggy or a Barbie doll, they would. Which then flavors the rest of your fine essay as, “Just because we can’t look like YOU think we should look doesn’t mean we aren’t beautiful. So who is ‘you’? I suggest that ‘you’ is you. Because I don’t think it is me, or most men. Most of us like our women curvy, not taller than us, and -fit- is good, so everything stays in place longer. Some of us like skinny boygirls, some hot rolypolys. Some of us dream of supermodels as ‘toys’. But the truth about Barbie and Twiggy and Giselle is they are -models-, hired to disappear behind the clothes they are wearing. So if you don’t like yourself and want people to see you for what you can buy and hang on your body then fight to get skinny. It is one kind of female success to shout “I can wear Halston and you can’t.” Otherwise, think hard about YOUR best look and work for that, or dare to make your looks secondary to what you are -doing-. And remember that healthy and fit and your life are the best looks of all.


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