By Natalie Reilly– Daily Life
Cosmetics company Avon found itself in hot water on Sunday, (and not the pore opening kind) when its advertisement for anti-cellulite cream – a product called Naked Proof – drew backlash. The ad, which was released in the UK, depicted a woman in her underwear with the tagline, “Dimples look cute on your face (not on your thighs).”
Television actress and body image activist Jameela Jamil was swift in her condemnation of the ad, calling it “abusive advertising” on her twitter account, and accusing Avon of making women feel fearful about “completely inevitable, normal things”.
Less than 24 hours later, Avon apologised, and vowed to remove all messaging from its advertising. Jamil called it “progress”.
But is it?
“Avon will not change, it has not altered its message or deleted similar posts,” says Sarah Harry, Director of Body Positive Australia. “The backlash was swift because an influential woman with a lot of social media pull flagged it.”
Jamil also criticised the cosmetics giant for resorting to “shaming” women, adding in a separate tweet “If we actually NEEDED this shit, they wouldn’t have to resort to shaming us to make us wanna buy it.”
And this might be the real misstep made by Avon – the trouble was not in the message, but the delivery, which was so brazen in its body shaming as to be almost quaint.
These days Beauty companies speak to us in much more coded terms. For example, nobody says “ageing” anymore, as Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times. Because it’s simply too risky. “For women”, writes Hess. “[Ageing] means being turned from a coveted object into a disposable one.” And nobody needs that.
Instead multinational corporations focus on the positive, with words like “youthful” and “radiant”. And nobody admits that ageing is, as Jamil said, an inevitable part of living. Instead, companies have successfully externalised the ageing process, alerting us to “toxins” and other modern world nasties, lest they damage our body’s largest organ.
The latest is a range of creams to protect your skin from the blue light of your mobile phone. Apparently, it can alter our skin’s “biorhythms”, causing wrinkles.
The only slight problem is, the laundry list of potentially damaging things is by no means exhaustive.
Alternatively, women can sit back and love the skin they’re in! Isn’t that empowering?! Provided, of course, that their skin is absorbing cream from Olay.
“The sad fact is it’s currently very popular to appeal to the empowerment of women via advertising,” says Harry. “Dove, for example often urges women to love themselves, but it’s owned by Unilever which sells women Slim Fast and Sarah Lee. On one hand the company wants you to eat cake, then diet, then use beauty products they have led you to believe are empowering.”
Avon tried telling the truth ‘buy this so you won’t feel ugly’ and was condemned.
“Women respond to the body-positive campaigns well, but is not genuine when peddled by beauty companies to sell you something,” says Harry. “It is in fact a co-opting of the true body positive message, which began in the 60’s as a feminist movement and now is being used to sell products.”
Writer and brand strategist Arwa Mahdawi, is equally cynical about Dove’s attempt at making us feel beautiful. “Sorry to break it to everyone, but your Deep Moisture Nourishing Body Wash doesn’t really care about you or your self-esteem … Ultimately the aim of campaigns like this is for you to choose Dove.”
But if cosmetic companies are covertly shaming us in the same way as Avon, whether through their hijacking of female empowerment for commercial gain or use of airbrushed models, or FaceTuned Instagram Influencers spruiking over-priced makeup, or surgeried ‘spokespeople’ pedalling cosmetic creams, it doesn’t stop us buying from the products.
What’s going on? Are we sitting passively on our dimpled bums, allowing the wave of weaponised self-doubt manufactured by billion dollar cosmetic companies to just wash over us?
Well, yes and no. Women aren’t stupid. We know how fatuous the beauty industry is but we also know the value of a good lipstick. We know that women who wear makeup are considered more trustworthy. They get paid more at work. Speaking of work, women know that if we need to go home sick all we have to do is remove our mascara because women without makeup look ill.
In other words, it’s a fine line between self-hatred and self-empowerment – and that’s because we already live in a culture that prizes beauty, and considers ageing and weight gain to be enemies of the state.
Is it any wonder, then, that in a confusing, despairing, world, so many of us are enacting beauty regimes as a form of self-care? As Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker, “Over the summer, in one of many small, ridiculous attempts to affirm to myself that I will outlive the Trump Administration, I decided to incorporate both retinol and sunscreen into my daily skin-care routine.” Sunscreen, it has been medically established, can prevent cancer. But at 28, did Tolentino really need retinol?
Probably not. But who is to say what women need in a culture that tells them that in order to be seen, they must be beautiful, and in order to be beautiful, they must stay young?
If cosmetic companies are co-opting our feminist ideals of body diversity, empowerment and self-care, it is unquestionably nefarious. But what’s the alternative? Avon tried telling the truth “buy this so you won’t feel ugly” and was condemned. It’s up to the consumer to vote with her feet. Because, in the final analysis, isn’t that the central message – buy this so you won’t feel ugly – not just of the beauty industry, but advertising itself?
Natalie Reilly is freelance writer for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WAtoday.