Why have women been tolerating beauty advertisements that don't make sense?

Why have women been tolerating beauty advertisements that don't make sense?

Keeping it unreal

Text: Renée Batchelor

Image: Billie on Unsplash

Have you ever stopped to wonder why some beauty campaigns don't make any sense? Neither have we. Here's why

When we first saw the (now viral) Project Body Hair campaign for Billie's razors for women, we took in a sharp, little intake of breath. The advertisement (below) featured women gloriously revelling in their natural, hairy states rocking unibrows, underarm hair and leg fuzz to the tune of 'Tomboy' by Princess Nokia. Yes, it shouldn't have been revolutionary... not in 2018. But it was actually the first time that we've seen a shaving advertisement for women that showed actual hair — and said actual hair being removed. It was only then that we realised how strange past shaving advertisements for women actually were. Hairiness in women is a long standing social taboo, that many of us have not really questioned. Although the fact is that some women are just naturally hairy, and in some cases, even more so than their male counterparts. Yes, hair does grow all over the body on both genders, and women with neatly groomed brows, a smooth upper lip or hair-free legs didn't get there by accident.

Hair removal is something that was practiced by the ancient Egyptians way back when. But because they didn't have commercial razors from brands like Gillette or Bic, like we do, they made do with seashells, pumice stones and even beeswax to get rid of 'offensive' hair. Having hair on the body was also seen as a sign of being from a lower class (or having a lower SES if you will) in the Roman Empire. That's why statues and paintings of nude subjects often did not show any pubic hair. It was considered crass or even uncivilised. But a lifetime of watching razors being run over smooth, hair-free skin like some reverse magic trick — "Watch as we make these hairless legs even more hairless!" — has conditioned us to expect women in beauty advertisements to be in an already flawless state. 

Yet, it has to be pointed out that despite the empowering ad, Billie is still promoting the ideal of hairlessness and selling razors to us. It's not just this shaving commercial that opened our eyes. It got us thinking about all the strange commercials we've become so accustomed to seeing in everyday life, directed at us, the target consumer. In the past, commercials for sanitary napkins literally 'sanitised' period blood by replacing it with a blue watery substance. Ask any woman and she'll you that that time of the month does not feel anything like a pristine, lab-controlled experiment. 

Vintage Dermatino advertisement

Even slimming creams and tonics for 'conditions' like stretch marks and cellulite are modelled on svelte, perfect pins and firm behinds that have literally never jiggled unflatteringly in their lifetime. How will we know if this stuff works if it's showcased on these perfect specimens? And that's not even taking into account the airbrushing and photoshopping that goes into these ads and images to perfect what is already unattainable. Some leaders, like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, have fought back against manipulative advertising — of which women are often the targets. He has banned these ads from the tube, which thousands of impressionable eyes are assaulted with on their daily commute. What is allowed in the public sphere matters, because we don't realise that images affect us on both conscious and subliminal levels.

Billie campaign image

What can we ask from advertisers who want to appeal to a new, woke female audience? How about advertisements that don't shy away from showing us the uglier side of grooming, or at the very least show us how a product actually works? How about not photoshopping the life out of a person until it beggars belief? Dove has been doing so for years, promoting and celebrating natural and varied female bodies in their campaigns, a welcome antidote to the lingerie model ideal that is constantly thrust at us women. As females, we haven't noticed in the past how silly some of these beauty ads truly are — that's how deeply ingrained our conditioning has been. Perhaps, it was cognitive dissonance that has prevented us from registering how odd much of the beauty imagery and messaging has been. But advertisers... be warned. Women are finally sitting up and noticing.