Just last night I was watching Killing Us Softly 3, a documentary (really, a videotaped speech before a college audience) by media/advertising activist Jean Kilbourne in which she breaks down the messages, trends and symbolism in beauty, clothing, alcohol and cigarette advertisements geared towards women â€” specifically, under-30 women. It was made in the early 1990s, so her material was recent enough that I recognized quite a few from my older sister’s issues of seventeen magazine.
If you’re familiar with basic feminist theories, or possess any amount of media criticism or literacy, you’ll see right through these ads: they transform people into objects by focusing singularly on mere body parts; portray feminine passivity as normative behaviour for women; convince you that Product X will get you the man; shame women into believing their bodies are inferior (and that the product can fix that); sell the notion that you CAN remake yourself into the perfect woman if only you buy this.
Partway through her speech (regretfully I didn’t take down the timestamp, but if I watch it again I’ll amend this post), Kilbourne shows an ad for flavoured douches that she remembers from her youth in the ’70s. The utter ridiculousness and garishness of the ad, seen today, seems more appropriate for The Onion than a teen mag, but I felt comfortable knowing that an ad like this wouldn’t fly in the year 2010 â€” that we had created a safe distance from the insanity of 1970.
That must have been a premature thought, however, since today I see Women’s Day magazine has run an ad for douche-hawker Summer’s Eve. In the year 2010.
Maybe I shouldn’t expect so much â€” that really, advertisers will continue to use the same, 40-year-old messages to coerce women into accepting these harmful products, under the pretense that they’re healthy, and can have a transformative effect on one’s self-esteem or professional/personal life. They’re the same tropes, again and again and again.
Even women who should know better still perpetuate these ideas. Last year, an ayurvedic spa opened up inside my hot yoga studio. The spa owner set up a display case selling various facial creams, cleansers and cosmetics â€” and a line of vaginal washes and wipes for $20 a pop.
Now, yoga to me is interesting, because as much as yoga as an industry commercializes the female form (Lululemon selling stretchy pants to transform one’s ass into a globular marvel is another post altogether), yoga as a practice encourages people to accept their body and its limitations. You learn to be and accept how far you can stretch and for how long you can hold poses, but in an indirect way, yoga also teaches you to love your body. You stare at yourself in a mirror for 90 minutes, after all. And though yoga is dismissed as a pansy’s activity, I’ve seen hockey players (as in, Toronto Maple Leafs) and MMA fighters crumble in warrior pose long before I even began to trembled. So you learn you body has strength, more than you know. It’s quite empowering.
When a yoga studio teaches its students to love their bodies, but its spa partner sells douches, people like me get mad. After a few weeks of staring at the glass case, I finally brought it up with one of the studio’s employees. I explained the incongruity of selling self-acceptance and vaginal insecurity under the same roof, and that vaginas are actually self-cleaning, and that in the relatively uncommon event that one’s vagina needed an intervention, its owner is better off consulting a doctor, not an ayurvedic spa technician. She got quite offended, and huffed, “Well, if women want to buy them, they can. You don’t have to.” Of course! Because it’s a free market, baby!
The studio has since done away with the display case (though presumably the spa still sells them from behind closed doors), but the point is, even women who should and do know better sometimes fall into these traps. Which is why women’s magazines and hawkers of beauty (e.g. spas) have a responsibility not to encourage these myths, and yet they do.