Like any random American, I have consumed mountains of advertising featuring women’s cleavages, women’s tongues, women’s asses, and women’s firm and supple flesh — sometimes draped in a sliver of lemon peel, suggesting that a woman is — what? — a fruit waiting to be peeled and eaten, of course.
So I was thoroughly surprised the other day when a city bus pulled up next to me at an intersection, and I was face to face with half a dozen non-emaciated, curvy women wearing practical-looking white underwear and standing around looking quite pleased with themselves. None of them was slurping at a phallic object with her tongue or fixing her silicone-enhanced lips into a sulky, fuck-me pout.
So far, the ad had done its job. I was definitely taking a second look. There’s no such thing as a normal-looking woman in advertising, and there’s almost never one who doesn’t look like a piece of meat on a platter served up to satiate what we are told are our sexual appetites. What could this ad be for?
It turns out Dove has launched a new advertising campaign “for real beauty.” The ads suggest that “real women have real curves,” and that it’s time for the beauty product industry to respond to the needs of these real women. Posing as the beauty product revolutionaries, Dove’s web site claims that the days of rigid beauty standards are over.
But is Dove really ahead of the curve, so to speak? Or are they just using plumper bodies to sell yet another product? Maybe their advertising people realized that plumper thighs translate into more square inches of flesh and therefore more fluid ounces of the new trademarked firming potion.
“Firming the thighs of a size 2 supermodel is no challenge,” reads the campaignforrealbeauty.com web site. “And they provide precious little skin for the absorption of our product,” you can almost imagine the Dove marketing people calculating to themselves. But consider what’s involved in firming the thighs of a size 14 “real woman.” No wonder “Dove wants to celebrate those curves.” Think of all the surface area they provide!
Dove is posing as someone who is finally listening to the women who for so many years have been complaining about sexual stereotypes. But as long as they’re plastering near naked women on the sides of buses, I don’t see that we’ve come all that far, baby. Does the de-sexualized, practical-looking, white underwear somehow represent a step forward because it leans toward the functional and away from pure adornment? Not in my opinion. Why should Dove — a private corporation that’s only goal is to enrich itself — get so much public space to comment on women’s bodies and women’s underwear?
Dove wants to make money off of us, and so they approach us by telling us that we are thoroughly unacceptable the way we are. Like an abusive spouse, they break us down and then build us up again. After we see how poorly we measure up — even to these “curvy” women — Dove seduces us with the comforting reassurance, “Don’t despair. Hope is available.” Here it is in the form of Intensive Firming Cream, Intensive Firming Lotion, and Firming Body Wash.
Pre-teens, who still have a merciful few years before rubbing out their cellulite will become their advertising-induced obsession, get bombarded with another message. Next month, Dove, owned by Unilever, in conjunction with the Mattel-owned American Girl company, will launch “American Girl realbeauty Inside and Out.” Eight to 12-year-olds will have to sort out the contradictory message that says they should celebrate who they are but should buy products to make them better.
I know pre-teens are savvy these days, but how are they supposed to feel good about who they are when all the good things are externalized, bottled, and sold back to them as: “My Way Styling Gel,” “Full of Hope Soap,” and “Take your Vitamins Daily Body Lotion.” Like a fortune cookie, each product includes a motivational saying, like “Real beauty is how you look when you’re having fun” (USA Today).
“Oh no,” thinks the previously unenlightened girl to herself. Having fun had been the only time she was precisely NOT thinking about how she looked. Now, even that space of abandonment in play — of having fun — is in fact the true playground of big brother corporation. There, he can try to seep into any previously uncolonized places in her mind. What? You thought you were playing soccer? Building a sand castle? Reading a book? Think again — not about what you’re doing, but about the glow of your skin, the efficacy of your hair gel, and whether or not your face adequately radiates hope as required by the “Full of Hope Soap.”
Maybe not? Hurry up and reapply!!
In a way, this is a tired observation. We all know that any corporation’s, including Dove’s, entire reason for being is to enrich its stockholders.They use advertising to convince people that they are flawed but fixable through purchases. And they have the freedom to achieve their goal any old way they want — whether it’s saturating the culture with computer enhanced bosoms and air-brushed asses or attempting to gain brand-name familiarity and allegiance by featuring women who claim, “Feeling beautiful has to do with how I feel internally.”
What’s insidious is that corporations try to position themselves to be the arbiters of everything. “Dove Ad Campaign Aims to Redefine Beauty,” says the Women’s Wear Daily headline (10-08-04). Dove doesn’t want women to think for themselves about beauty. With its new campaign, Dove is stepping out of the narrow definition of beauty in order to control the less-narrow definitions as well. You are not in charge. Dove is. A USA Today headline emphasizes this point: “Ad Campaign Tells Women to Celebrate Who They Are” (7-8-05).
It’s as if they expect women to reply, “Aye, aye, sir,” and move in lock step to the nearest drug store for their “inside and out” beauty products that will help them launch their celebration.
Dove *wishes* women moved in lock step, but of course we don’t, which is why they work so hard to tell us what to do and think. But they’re fighting a losing battle. Talk to just about any womanl, and you’ll find people who are probably more or less like the ones I know.
They’re trying to figure out how to get their sons into college instead of the military. They’re trying to figure out how to pay the bills. They think the war in Iraq is based on lies. They want life and work to be less stressful. They wish the boss would at least provide them the dignity of not yelling at them. They’d like to be able to call in sick when they have crippling headaches.
They know the answers to these desires can only be found in a complicated re-ordering of priorities in our society and economy. They have widely varying notions about what to do with this understanding. You might hear about women who look for answers at church, in their homes, in their circle of friends, in their unions or other workplace organizations. But I’ll just about guarantee you will not find a woman who looks for solutions in a jar of intensive firming cream.
Most women believe, like the Dove model Julie, that “Waking up every morning and leading a happy, healthy life is beautiful.” Many adorn themselves in various ways and walk around feeling sexy, and *why not* have that be part of leading a happy, healthy life? I’m just sick of the corporate big-brother/abusive spouse taking up all the space when it comes to defining the debate and the parameters of healthy, happy, and sexy.
The other day, I saw a very curvy woman with really low-slung pants bending over to pick up something. She had a tattoo creeping out of her butt crack and thong underwear extending several inches above the top of the pants. Yeah, I took a second look. She was interesting. She was making her own statement. And it wasn’t trademarked or copyrighted or underwritten by a multinational corporation or plastered on the side of a bus. Nor was it dictating what was wrong with other people and how they could get fixed.
Recently a bulgy, post-menopausal, 50-something immigrant friend from Brazil was telling me about how she spent her birthday money on sexy underwear. She got us all laughing about her 30-something boyfriend who had no where near the energy she had. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. And she told us of her goal to return to Brazil for a tummy tuck, which her 12-year old daughter scoffed at. “Mom, you’re fine how you are.”
It’s on this level that we can begin to think constructively about undermining sexual stereotypes — the level of real people, in real bodies, with real sex lives and real concerns about real life. The possibilities are beautiful and abundant. Corporations have no role here.