To shave or not to shave? I abandoned high heels, make up (most of the time) and shaving my pits and legs back in the 1970s. Being relatively hairless the latter didn’t require much effort as most never noticed. Shaving pubes always seemed like it was for porn stars and other sex workers, besides it itches like crazy and if people freaked out about a few hairs escaping my bathing suit bottom it was their problem not mine.
Ahh but now we live in an age where everything including much which should be kept private is communicated to the world as a political statement. Me? I was a hippie dyke and skipping those commercial gender ideas just seemed like the thing to do, or not do might be a better way of putting it since doing them requires effort and spending money.
It’s uncomfortable to see progressive ideas being co-opted to sell stuff. But at least it’s a challenge to misogynist ideas about women’s bodies
Tuesday 10 October 2017
In Arvida Byström’s shoot for Adidas, the model and artist wears pastel pinks and a lacy frock. She also power-poses, taking up space – evidently never having been informed that girls in pretty dresses should keep their knees together. She’s petite, blonde and feminine, but with a facial expression clearly communicating that you should not get all up in the business of this princess. On her feet, a pair of pristine sneakers announce themselves as the footwear of choice for fierce gals in skirts. And on her legs, the ultimate fashion accessory for this (and, in my opinion, every) winter: hair.
The hair, predictably, has offended those with delicate sensibilities. Byström has even reported rape threats. (Funny how folks with rigid ideas about how women should behave seem to set extremely low standards for their own public comportment, no?)
And so we’re back to the female body hair conversation, but with an interesting twist. Because body hair, it seems, is now mainstream enough to be marketed. Not body hair itself, of course. That’s free. Rather, the feminist aesthetic of body hair is on sale: the IDGAF badassery of it, the bravery (and it does take bravery) of being that woman on the tube with hairy legs.
Not long ago, I saw a hairy female armpit looming large on a screen in New York’s Times Square. The advert was for H&M. I was surprised that a presumably well market-researched campaign had concluded that hairy women would not hurt a major fashion brand. I felt good. Then bad. Then confused.
I experience cognitive dissonance when it comes to feminist branding. On the one hand, capitalist co-option of progressive symbols can weaken their force. Think Coca-Cola in the 1970s using the aesthetic of the hippy movement to convince consumers that radical love meant buying the world a Coke; think Che Guevara T-shirts in Primark; Kendall Jenner in that Pepsi ad; Theresa May sporting her Frida Kahlo bracelet (Theresa – do you actually know who that is? Hint: she used to go out with Trotsky!)
The brand gets an easy-wear, machine-washable liberal sheen for their labour practices and politics. Meanwhile radical ideology becomes just another product for sale, voided of its context, intent, and – eventually – power.
And yet, not every corporate uptake of progressive ideas is as empty as this. For example, Dove’s use of the feminist language of body positivity is intended to make us buy more shimmery lotions, of course, but it also pushes back against the toxic turn visual culture took in the 80s – all that starving and surgery disguised as step aerobics. It battles the beauty myth and does some feminist work.
Necessarily, advertising and marketing reflect the ideas that are likely to appeal to us. They also shape our desires and expectations. If they didn’t, then why would corporations spend millions on them?
Both Byström’s work for Adidas and Dove’s well established “real beauty” brand privilege limited categories of beauty. As Byström astutely points out in her reaction to the abuse she’s been getting, she’s white, slim, able-bodied and cis, and thus on the receiving end of a fraction of the flak that women from more marginalised demographics face. It’s way easier for skinny white girls – like her, like me – to get away with gender transgressions.