Selling feminism

This story is not new. Feminists have long pondered the uneasy relationship between beauty and feminism for decades. Whilst most feminists agree that issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay are central to feminism, the importance of beauty often feels much more nuanced and for many, more personal. However, feminism is now considered to sell many things, including beauty.

Unattainable beauty standards have given us diet lollipops, skin bleaching creams, laxative teas, and eyelid surgery, to name a few.  In Western society, beauty standards implore us to be, historically, a sun-kissed, albeit fair-skinned slim, blonde woman, with round, but pert breasts, an athletic stomach and long legs.  Hairless. Neveraging. Always smiling. Although many women have grown tired of the beauty standards that were unfairly thrust upon them, the backlash has never been great enough that we have abolished beauty standards in their entirety.  Many feminists live to navigate the complexities of beauty standards, that counter feminist theory. They are the reason that many find feminism, but still adhere to them.

I had long associated ugliness with feminism. This was perhaps unsurprising, as historically, as Noami Wolf explains ‘the caricature of the ugly feminist […] is unoriginal. It was first coined to ridicule the feminists in the nineteenth century.” Despite the association, I had founded my university feminist society in the throes of fourth wave feminism and in a resurgance of feminist societies across the UK. At the time, an ugly woman was perhaps still the most common feminist trope. As a society, our feminist arguments were often undermined because those who were arguing claimed we did not meet the adequate beauty threshold. Although beauty is deemed to be in the eye of the beholder, we were undoubtedly jealous and therefore, our arguments, however articulate, could not stand up to scrutiny. This comes from the inherently sexist idea that women find solace in pointing out others’ flaws and faults, largely out of jealousy.

Fourth wave feminism had entered into existence against a backdrop of hostilility. It was a world where lad mags still existed.

Despite this, fourth wave feminism, of course, has had a multitude of successes, from the Everyday Sexism project to the #MeToo movement, which usurped a number of seemingly untouchable and vindictive predators from positions of power.  The Sun dropped their topless Page 3 girl feature after a successful campaign led by Lucy-Anne Holmes and women from a range of diverse backgrounds, were breaking ground in TV, film, and theatre. The idea that feminists were ugly also had somehow seemed to fade away.  Out with the old ugly libbers, we had the glamorous Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle.

Feminism as ‘cool’

It was only a couple years ago when I heard someone referred to feminism as cool.  In the delivery, I knew it was not to be taken as a compliment. Rather, people identified as feminist because it is seen as cool (and therefore presumably their feminist ideals are less legitimate) – this was a novel idea for me. At some point a switch had been flipped, it seemed, and feminism was now popular. Fourth wave feminism had been successful and the world seemed to be becoming more feminist as well.  #GirlBoss and Lean In were now in the charts, selling feminist ideals.  Whereas once, it may have been an inadvisable career choice for young actresses, artists, or musicians to identify themselves as feminists, it is almost an assumption that young women are feminists.  The success of fourth wave feminism was latched on to by many cosmetic companies, as Emma Dabiri explains ‘cultural appropriation seems to have emerged as a hot, sexy, ‘woke’ topic, up there with ‘activist models’ and corporate feminism, enjoying features in glossy magazines that wouldn’t have touched the topic – or indeed us – five years ago.’.   

Credit: Polina Zimmerman

That same summer, a campaign was launched for a protein/weight-loss supplement which asked people on the tube whether they were ‘beach body ready?’  The advert, which had not received the ‘feminism is now cool’ memo, featured a very svelte and long-haired woman in a tiny yellow bikini, who towered over commuters like an Amazonian.  This image would have not looked out of place a few years ago and personally, growing up in the noughties I was used to being bombarded with pictures of scantily clad women on a daily basis.  However, this time, there was a huge backlash.

Critics noted that the company behind the advert, Protein World, were body-shaming for profit.  Body-shaming for profit was also nothing new, as women were frequently told that they were too fat or that their bum was too big and therefore needed to buy weight loss tea, a new superfood or the latest fad diet book.  If women were happy with their bodies, there was no profit to be made.  It also played into the idea that only a certain type of body can enjoy the beach.  If you perhaps have saggier breasts or are above a certain age, people at the poolside may find you repulsive and you should not be there.  You need to therefore meet a narrow set of beauty standards to feel comfortable at the beach and ensure people are not repulsed by your body.  That’s a lot of pressure on one person, who just wants to go for a swim.  Lots of backlash therefore focused on the idea that there was not a framework to become beachbody ready, but rather, beachgoers could don their favourite swimsuit and head outside. That would be too absurd.

The backlash prompted an angry response from Protein World itself. Arjun Seth, the chief executive, likened the feminists to “terrorists” continued to defend the poster, and told Channel 4 that the people complaining online and destroying adverts were a minority.  Defending the adverts as “aspirational”, he said that he would only pay attention to the petition if it garnered 1,000,000 signatures.  Katie Hopkins, British reality TV star and general bridge dweller, called the protesters “angry chubsters” on Twitter.  This comment prompted Protein World’s head of marketing to say it was “great” that the columnist had got involved, but an endorsement by Hopkins would be something many CEOs would avoid. With a backlash like this, many companies would need distance themselves from this type of advertising.  

Virtue signalling feminism for profit

It seemed that criticising women for their looks was no longer fair game for some.  In a midst of this new wave feminism, perhaps companies began to realise they could no longer shame women into buying their products.  Therefore, a new tactic was coming into play.  Virtue signalling, a term first coined in 2015, is a way in which a company expresses values without taking actions to reflect those same values.

However, virtue signalling allows companies to exploit shared public moments that have a way of unifying people, such as the #MeToo movement, that is not only deeply emotive, but holds the power to sway public feeling.  By capitalising on these momentous events, brands can make big monetary gains.  A common example of virtue signalling includes promoting the Gay Pride  rainbow clothes, beers, and foods without actually supporting the LGBTQ movement.  During the COVID outbreak, companies were signalling praise for the NHS and key workers, whilst some were evading the tax that undoubtedly pays for these services.

Feminist virtue signalling is difficult.  Not only because the products marketed at women rarely support campaigning for women’s issues, but many of these brands and products have built their success and fortunes on telling women that they are too fat or too ugly. Whilst feminists were campaigning to destroy beauty standards and empower women, these same companies gave us the most deplorable products and procedures.  Therefore, feminist virtue signalling take the most inoffensive parts of feminism, such as ideas of women doing ‘things for themselves’ or companies that are ‘by women for women,’ rather than the more complicated ideas, such as dismantling the patriarchy or intersectionality.  By merely claiming to be feminist, you are still deemed to be doing some important work.

Credit: Markus Spiske

This poses a real problem – how can companies exploit the feminist movement without making women feeling empowered enough to stop buying their products?  I would have thought this impossible, until a few months ago.  Once again, on the tube, I saw a large advert for shapewear.  Shapewear, for those who are lucky enough not to have attempted putting it on before, is underwear designed to impermanently alter the wearer’s body shape, to achieve what some might view as a more fashionable figure. The function of shapewear is not to enhance a bodily feature but to make it look more presentable.  Shapewear makes money largely because some women feel their own bodies are somehow not presentable. Whilst this idea is clearly untrue, the advert read ‘shapewear is anti-feminist, right?’  

Whilst the shapewear companies argue that it is a women’s right to wear shapewear and empowers women to flaunt their body, assuming that these women would feel too burdened by their own bodies to fault it without shapewear.  Shapewear perpetuates the idea of a perfect body.  The problem clearly is not that women feel shame for wearing shapewear, but society shames these women about their bodies in the first instance.  Heist encourages women to make their own mind about whether they are feminist or not, by buying their ‘liberating’ product at £95 a piece.

This shapewear advert is not the only capitalising on the feminist movement.  There have been similar adverts for MYA, a cosmetic surgery company.  In 2019, the company launched their ‘Every Body’ advert, whereby they announce that they ‘are on a mission to change the perception of cosmetic surgery.’  In the campaign video, we meet Sherrifa, who “is a feminist and had a breast enlargement (you can do both)”.  MYA, who had previously had an advert banned for “being irresponsible and likely to cause harm to under-18-year-olds” were also adopting feminism to sell these products.  

Scrolling through MYA’s Instagram feed, they also use feminist rhetoric as a means of social media marketing. In many posts, they may be celebrating women’s empowerment through posts on International Women’s Day and how they ‘believe in the power of females.’  A post on ‘Mya body, my choice’ uses the exact rhetoric feminist campaigners use for reproductive rights campaigns, drawing on the attractive and lesser contentious soundbites of the feminist movement. 

Alongside the posts for women’s empowerment, a significant amount of the posts are before and after photos.  ‘Before and after’ photos by definition, one photo is always deemed being worse than the other or not meeting the minimum criteria for attractive breasts or other body parts.  Like the Protein World poster, the after photo is aspirational and people should want to emulate that look.

Through faux-feminism and using feminist language, companies like MYA and Heist are somehow part of the political cause themselves and are deemed to do important work. But with years using adverts that perpetuate narrow beauty standards and an ideal of the feminine body and profiteering from insecurities,they have never truly supported women’s empowerment.

Beauty acknowledged

They ignore the fact that women have for years endured an unbearable pressure to meet unattainable ideals of beauty and these have varied between historical periods and places.  Most recently, the ideal woman’s body is considered to be slender, which is in part, the outcome of successful marketing. The pursuit of a perfect body may feel like a personal triumph, but women are still expected to undergo disciplinary and uncomfortable practice and self-surveillance. 

So much of our identity is invested within beauty regimes.  As Dabiri explains ‘ when we are perceived to possess it, it provides us with a fleetingly enjoyable feeling.  Thus, we interpret beauty as a benevolent positive force within our lives […]  In our desire to have our own beauty acknowledged we forget  that the beauty regime is an oppressive construct to keep women in a state of heightened insecurity.’

Neither having breast augmentation, or wearing shapewear and being a feminist are exclusive rights. The belief that women have the right to exercise what they wish to their bodies is central to feminism. But these companies are only signalling these virtues because they know if they do not change with feminism, they could well come extinct. By using the language that we associate with feminism, such as empowerment and agency, they are making feminism shoppable. Rather than breaking down existing beauty standards, they are allowing feminism to become commodified and repackaged to sell you non-feminist items for consumption and keeping you in that state of heightened insecurity.

Women should be free to experiment with their looks, without the pressure to fit a certain image.  For too long women have been denied that by being sold narrow ideals. However, Heist and MYA still perpetuate beauty standards and ideal feminine beauty. By virtue of being a standard, beauty standards should not exist.  There should be no minimum criteria that women need to meet or be deemed acceptable to society.  Even as some companies pledge to expand the narrow ideals they perpetuated in past advertising and call it feminist, their central interest is to sell, and when they can no longer sell you feminism, they will no longer have an interest in it. No beauty standards can ever be truly empowering.  We are either all beautiful as we are, or none of us are.

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