Illustration by Charlotte Edey

Throughout the 20th century, adverts for products aimed at women have been notoriously awful. Sexist, racist, ageist and ableist, the brands that sold to our grandmothers and mothers assumed they were simple, fearful, and that their main aims in life were to keep a tidy house, keep a husband happy and be slim. Even towards the close of the century, it seemed like an advert’s main aim was to belittle women into product consumption. Fast forward to 2018 and it would appear that the tables have finally turned, and body positivity is now being used to shift units. But this is a version of body positivity designed for a product–one that still capitalises on women and our insecurities.

The body positivity movement as it’s known today came to the public eye in the late 1960s with Lew Louderback’s essay “More People Should Be Fat”, which focused on fat acceptance. As the movement grew in popularity over the next five decades, it also opened up to include other marginalised groups who were unfairly judged because of their bodies, such as people of colour, the LGBTQI+ community and those who are differently abled. This is now an inclusive movement that helps to champion the rights of the marginalised. It supports millions of people worldwide and is real activism where people are pushing for their human rights, whether it be related to the size of their body, the colour of their skin, how they identify their gender and sexuality, or the way that their bodies work.

Well known figures like Janelle Monae, Lena Waithe, Margaret Cho and Francesca Martinez are continuously challenging traditional ideas of what women are and speaking out about the issues that they face, defining themselves for themselves. But this movement, with its long, rich and complex history, has been co-opted by advertising agencies and spun to suit their needs.

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“But this movement, with its long, rich and complex history, has been co-opted by advertising agencies and spun to suit their needs”

Adverts started having feminist and body positive undertones throughout the 90s, but it all kicked off in a big way with Dove’s 2004 Campaign for Real Beauty, which featured “real women”, as opposed to professional models, smiling in their underwear. The advert and accompanying exhibition, both orchestrated by Dove and advertising giants Ogilvy & Mather, started a new dialogue that focused on how women regard their bodies. The advert was a huge success and inspired many brands to follow suit, focusing on body positivity, feminism and inclusivity to sell their products. But in doing so, many brands reduced these concepts down to their most simplistic aspects. These were movements founded to help the oppressed, many of whom were now not represented at all.

“Femvertising”, as the method is often known, has been a success. Female empowerment is such a hot commodity that it’s now being used to sell the majority of products aimed at women. There’s no doubt that this method of advertising is far better than the one that preceded it. But while campaigns like Pantene’s #ShineStrong and Gillette’s #UseYourAnd seem to have positive connotations, it’s worth remembering that they are still brands making a conscious and often cynical attempt to sell you shampoo and razors, all while presenting themselves as feminist and body positive.

“For years brands shamed, belittled and bullied women into buying their products under the guise that women weren’t enough without them”

For years, brands have shamed, belittled and bullied women into buying their products under the guise that we weren’t enough without them–now they’re presenting themselves as champions of female empowerment. And while representation in the media is undeniably important, the type of people who are being represented are usually able-bodied, young white women of a statistically average size. Tokenism is widespread, and you very rarely see dark skinned women of colour in any of these adverts.

These brands and advertising agencies have one job: create content that will appeal to women, so that we feel the need to spend our money on their products. It’s no myth that money is always top of the agenda. It’s imperative not to place too much importance on these brands and their adverts, even when they seem to be doing the right thing. Femvertising is a trend. If we believe these brands are part of an existing movement, whether it be feminist or body positive, then where does that leave us when the next trend comes along? These brands have no obligation to care about women, marginalised or otherwise. They are obliged to make as much money as possible.

“These brands have no obligation to care about women, marginalised or otherwise. They are obliged to make as much money as possible”

It’s time to reclaim body positivity and what it means to us. We are taught from a very early age that we are for others. That our skills, our services and especially our bodies – and let’s be clear, most of these products being advertised are for our bodies – exist for the benefit of other people. But our bodies are for ourselves first. They are our home. The only things that truly belong to us; safe spaces that should be ours entirely. They’re how we navigate and experience this world and how we view them is of extreme importance to our physical, mental and emotional health. Our sense of self-worth shouldn’t come from owning a specific brand of underwear or moisturiser. It should come from taking ownership of our bodies and appreciating them for what they are.

Loving and respecting our bodies is not always something that comes naturally when we are a part of a society which capitalises and restricts them. It takes a lot of work to shed the notion that a specific version of physical perfection equates to a higher level of worth. A lifetime of being told to feel one way about your body, and then being told that you are at fault for your feelings by corporations that ingrained those feelings in you, can be frustrating. As with any movement or reclamation, it starts with the education, the uplifting and the support of each other, which is work we are all more than capable of doing. 

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