You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby (Redux)
Feminists of the world, rejoice! Now you can fulfill the grandest of your dreams: expressing your deep-rooted support for all women while also supporting and disguising your hideous, lumpy buttocks. How, you ask? Spanx. The much-derided corset of the twenty-first century is reinventing itself, according to a New York Times profile published last week, and this time with a “feminist” set of values.
I confess: I am not the ideal lady-shape, nor do I inhabit the impermeable realm of body-positive lady-confidence. I’m a pretty good target for Spanx advertising. Yet somehow, Spanx’s new mission doesn’t entice me—no, not even me, the woman who most wants to believe it would be a feminist act to disguise my entire body and attend social gatherings as an Ariana-Grande-shaped hologram.
“We heard stories of women coming home at midnight on Saturday and throwing their Spanx out in the garbage,” CEO Jan Singer told the Times. “But the whole world’s changed. Now women think: I don’t need to change my shape so much. I just want to be comfortable.”
In a similar vein, Bob Skinner, CEO of rival “shapewear” company NYDJ, touts the benefits of his new “athleisure” line. It’s more comfortable! More body-positive! Better for women! And here’s his talking point in the Times: “Young mothers talked to us about being in the playground with their kids, and being able to bend over.”
No, you didn’t read that wrong. You didn’t fall through an Outlander-esque hole in time and land in Victorian England or that one scene in Gone with the Wind where someone pulls Scarlett O’Hara’s corset strings until she faints. It’s the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen, and women are celebrating their ability to bend at the waist. That’s how far we’ve come on the body acceptance front. We are grateful to our corporate overlords for bending.
And it doesn’t stop with shapewear. Nearly every feminine product you can imagine—including, yes, the menses-related apparatus you’re supposed to think of when you hear the phrase “feminine product”—is attempting to grab a seat on the feminist bandwagon.
For instance, once you’re done forcibly constricting your body into some semblance of hotness, you’ll also need to spackle over your unseemly excuse for a face. Lucky for you, CoverGirl has launched its own “Women Empowerment” campaign (look, I’m just quoting the official YouTube page), complete with hashtag, assuring you that Katy Perry and Pink believe #GirlsCan “rock” and “be strong.”
If you’re reaching for that empowering CoverGirl zit concealer because of PMS-related break-outs, rest assured that the bleached cotton wads you place in or upon your delicates will also support your full and equal participation in society. Menstrual giant Always has joined the fray of Twitter feminism with its #LikeAGirl campaign, aiming to “boost [the] self-confidence” of girls everywhere, whilst also soaking up whatever bits of bloody, discarded uterine tissue said girls may expel.
And finally, your whole lumpy, ugly, seeping bodily mass will need to be bathed on occasion. For this, we have Dove, whose “Real Beauty” campaign aims to help you define yourself as beautiful—no easy task, given that you apparently need Spanx, makeup, Slim-Fast (which, along with skin-lightening cream sold to South Asian women, is created by Dove’s parent company, Unilever), and Dove-brand cellulite cream just to walk out the door without nauseating anybody.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with makeup, or tampons, or soap. Most women need to buy at least two out of three. But this trend—“empowertising,” as Andi Zeisler has named it—does nothing for feminism.
To start with the obvious: What we’ve got here is a clear-cut example of mainstream culture co-opting and neutralizing a radical movement. The brands that are most threatened by feminism—the brands that rely on the idea that female bodies are gross, ugly, and in need of hiding or changing—are the first ones lining up to imitate its language. There’s no solidarity involved here, and in fact, it looks as if women who don’t get on board become the enemy. When BuzzFeed writer Arabelle Sicardi criticized Dove’s latest viral video, her post was deleted (Unilever is a BuzzFeed advertiser), and she wound up leaving the site.
Corporations that clumsily mimick feminism are just as tiresome as corporations that overtly exploit sexism. Marketers may be earnestly studying the lingo and tools of feminist Twitter in order to shill mascara, but there are, as yet, no feminist hashtag campaigns designed to sell pick-up trucks or power tools. #GirlsCan stay away from those, apparently.
Even so, we are close to a future in which a pseudo-feminist Toyota campaign is plausible. (No one’s selling girls chainsaws yet, but Nike and Verizon have permitted them an interest in sports and science, respectively.) In some ways, the plague of empowertising is the price feminists pay for victory. It is less risky than ever before to be a public feminist: after decades of conceiving of ourselves as oppositional and subversive, feminists are now facing a media landscape in which movie stars, pop idols, and presidential candidates all loudly proclaim their solidarity with the cause.
Feminism has succeeded in shifting the center of the culture far enough over that even major brands no longer see any danger in appropriating its language. That’s not unheard of (hell, the most infamous example comes from the 1960s), but it is confusing.
Like every social justice movement, feminism was forged in a crucible of cultural hostility. Yet the next great fight for feminists will be against groups that claim to be our friends—groups that can sound exactly like us, because they’ve been studying how we speak for years. As “everyone” (and every savvy corporation) becomes a feminist, it’s going to get harder and harder to figure out what anyone is really selling.