Can the Feminist Body Hair Movement be Intersectional?

For the longest time, I believed that white women had no body hair. How lucky! No waxing, no shaving = no worries.

I was proven wrong when I was 12 years old and shopping for jeans with my father. I went off to the changing room, only to find Sienna Miller plastered on the door. There they were. Thin strands of hair. Visible only because of the lighting in the photograph and the close-up shot. What a revelation!

I had never seen women in the media with body hair.

It is no wonder that South Asia is obsessed with women’s body hair. A colonial hangover and the hairless ideal promoted by the media don’t make for a good combination. This is evident when tracing and reflecting on the history of body hair removal and hearing experiences of Indian women.

In India, waxing is a sacred ritual that starts as young as 12. It is common to hear your neighbourhood aunty snicker that you are due a parlour visit to ‘clean up’. 

Living in the Netherlands has changed my relationship with my body hair.

Long winter months are greeted with tights. Waxing prices are restrictive. The Dutch dress practically thanks to the wind and rain they cycle through daily. When summer comes around, many women shave their legs. Most tend to be more relaxed about their arms, as arm hair is generally lighter and less visible, and hence, not such an ‘issue’.

However, this is not necessarily the case for Dutch minority women. And this is the exact reason why the feminist body hair movement spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus have come under fire for lack of representation.

Although I still occasionally remove my hair, the pragmatic culture I’ve found myself living in has rubbed off on me for the better.

I suppose getting older (and wiser) also has something to do with it. I don’t remove hair as often, nor do I let my hair removal calendar dictate when I can or can’t wear a skirt.

Of course, I am not advocating that we must all stop removing body hair. We navigate and negotiate our ‘choice’ in the issue. When I return to India, I slip back into old patterns – albeit consciously. To avoid uncomfortable stares, I choose to wax. This is the reality for many with poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and for minorities with coarser hair, for whom the costs of rebelling against societal norms are too high.

How do we move away from the idea that hair is ‘dirty’ and create an intersectional feminist body hair movement that all South Asians can own?

Reframe and contextualise body hair in sex education.

Sex education should go beyond mentioning pubic and armpit hair. Discuss the options of body hair removal so that young women can be informed, without encouraging it as an inevitability. Talk about why it has become common, and place it in your country’s context. Frame body hair within changing fashion trends. And parents, support your kids to develop self-confidence.

Get the boys on board.

If you are lucky enough to have received sex education, you will know that there is often very little dialogue between girls and boys during puberty. As a result, many boys and men in India have disappointing attitudes to hair on women. Boys must not only learn about their own body hair, but also that of women, so that they understand what is natural and normal.

Let hair be seen.

Even adverts for razors in India are afraid to show actual body hair! Deepika Padukone, a famous Bollywood actress, shaves an already hairless leg in this one to show the wonders of her Gilette razor. I think a serious makeover of Indian school uniforms is needed, too. Mandatory skirts don’t allow girls to show their hair on their own terms.

Let us change the way women are represented. Have images in school textbooks that depict women with body hair. Check out illustrator Aqya Khan for inspiring examples.


Let’s take control of the narrative of body hair and allow it to be seen – for all those 12 year-old girls across South Asia.

The Women I am Not

After spending a weekend in bed with flu and catching up on TV, I have an aching sensation (which incidentally doesn’t come from my infected sinuses).

Sex on screen continues to be misogynistic, violent and completely unrealistic.

As young girls we are told to be good. While the definition of good varies from society to society, there seem to be some common traits: if you were born a girl, you should wait for the right man, dress appropriately, not be easy.

But when it comes to sex, mainstream TV teaches us the exact opposite: we should always be ready, willing and, of course, we should never say no. On TV, sex is both the preferred weapon and ultimate punishment, and there seems to be very little in between.

Mainstream TV-makers tend to portray women who have sex in three ways: (1) as manipulators, using sex to advance their agenda; (2) as props, used by the male characters to express their masculinity or to say an intense goodbye before taking off to war (or some other kind of heroic activity); and (3) as a victim of violence.

Needless to say, in all these scenarios, the women involved are beautiful, slim and perfectly groomed – including, to my horror, the penniless sex workers in 19th century Paris.

Women are not the only ones whose sexual lives are gravely oversimplified on screen.

The unfair representations of masculinity – including sexual performance, needs and emotions – are undoubtedly hurting those who do not see themselves as ever-eager, macho sex machines who fear even the idea of monogamy. Not to mention other groups, such as the trans* community or people with disabilities, whose sexual lives are often altogether omitted in popular culture.

It is well established that the representation of social relations is a powerful tool in media, which can have a strong impact on normalisation of behaviour and norms. For instance, it has been argued that the increased presence of LGBTQ+ characters on TV is positively influencing the coming-out and self-realisation in the community.

Other studies show less positively, that media portrayals of rom-com relationships can normalise stalking. So, in absence of other portrayals of sexual encounters, are we doomed to learn our sexuality from what we see on TV screens?

I know, in theory, that the characters and scenes we see in films, ads or TV series are there only for entertainment and not to be taken too seriously. But in practice, I often feel conflicted.

I am angry to see that unrealistic stereotypes about such an important part of human lives continue to be reproduced on TV, and I refuse to replicate them in my own relationships. But, years of media influence had an impact on my idea of what constitutes perfect sex, and I often find it difficult to completely reject the influence of over-sexualised images of women that we all know so well from pop-culture.

I am neither the good girl  society wanted me to grow into, nor the women I see on TV. And I’m trying to find my way to be okay with that.

There is little we can do about the decades of unrealistic and misogynistic sex on TV reels, which has undoubtedly influenced generations of viewers. But we can inspire the future. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about it openly, without fear or shame. Let’s talk about our contradictions, misunderstandings and repressed needs. Let’s laugh together at the endless imagination of TV makers coming up with ever-new ideas on how to reproduce old stereotypes.

Sex is a spectrum, full shades, and we should all be encouraged to find our own way in navigating our own sexuality. After all, reality is much more colourful than TV.

When Feminism Became a Marketing Technique

Marketing to women has been a tried-and-true tactic used by American marketers for centuries. While the benefits of designing and selling products to women, for women, appear to be plentiful, capitalizing on an entire gender of consumers leads young women and girls down a path that is feminist in name only.

Brands are often ready to adopt a feminist persona to appeal to women, who make up an powerful sector of the American consumer base. Traditional gender roles have rendered women the primary purchasers of groceries, clothes, and other household products for family needs.

Yet, some marketers still treat women as a niche audience, creating gendered versions of everyday products, from writing utensils to disposable razors. A quick look at some major advertising campaigns from the past years show how marketing can push a product masked under a feminist agenda.  

  • Big Tobacco: Perhaps one of the longest-running marketing-to-women campaigns, tobacco companies have been advertising cigarettes to women for over 100 years. Nursing@USC’s online Family Nurse Practitioner program created a timeline that shows how tobacco companies branded cigarettes as a symbol of feminist emancipation while highlighting false benefits of smoking, like weight loss and stress management. With slim, light and flavored cigarettes designed to appeal to women and girls with celebrity-sponsored ads, the tobacco industry overpowered public health officials’ attempts to educate women and still sells cigarettes to 15 percent of American women today.
  • Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign: The company’s “Real Beauty Sketches” spot became the most-watched video advertisement of all time in 2013. It featured women describing their physical features to forensic sketch artists. The ad was part of Dove’s decade-long Real Beauty” campaign, and attempted to show that people are their own worst critics, and that they have more to celebrate about their “real beauty” than they realize. However, critics claimed that Dove simply capitalized on women by rendering them “insecure about their insecurities”. Dove went beyond the campaign to partner with youth organizations to prove that they were committed to changing beauty standards for women and girls, yet still received criticism for photoshopping female models in their ads to appeal to the same unrealistic ideas of beauty.
  • Swiffer’s Rosie the Riveter: Perhaps the most obvious appropriation of feminism since the American Tobacco Company sponsored Amelia Earhart in the 1920s, Swiffer featured a model dressed like Rosie the Riveter to sell home cleaning products in 2013. The company quickly apologized for the ad, but not before critics took to Twitter over the controversy, citing sexism throughout advertisements for many cleaning companies that repeatedly feature women as the primary users of their products.

Marketing failures like Bic’s Pens “For Her show us that women are increasingly aware of the superficial ways that brands try to appeal to female consumers — particularly through the unnecessary gendered labeling of would-be unisex products. In the ill-advised 2012 campaign, Bic launched a set of pens in feminine packaging that featured a “thin barrel for a woman’s hand.”  Following a storm of criticism on Twitter, Amazon and an entire episode of The Ellen Show, Bic discontinued the line. It’s clear that the internet makes it possible for more women to be educated about the story behind marketing campaigns and the quality of products, but it also serves as a watchdog for companies that are seeking to capitalize off of women as a niche consumer base.

While many women and girls appreciate the exclusivity of products that are made for women, they also deserve to know why and how products are made for them. As long as women are watching with an analytical eye, brands will have to stay authentic through their manufacturing and advertising strategies.

 

Halah Flynn is the Content and Outreach Manager, Nursing@USC

Nursing@USC is the online FNP program from The Department of Nursing at the University of Southern California. The program prepares family nurse practitioners to treat physical and behavioral health, address social and environmental factors, and lead positive social change.

More Than Just a Cover Story

Child marriage. Labor and sexual exploitation. Human trafficking.

Society ignores these topics all too often. Major news outlets may occasionally touch on the issues one day, only to forget they exist the next. And the next. And the next.

After all, why should we discuss complex global dilemmas that lack a quick fix when we can gossip about Miley Cyrus’ newest fashion statement?

What are we, as a society, actually doing to end these human rights violations?

Enough with the feigned interest. It’s time to take action.

Today, Catapult launched its new ad campaign appropriately titled Cover Stories. This incredibly powerful campaign markedly sends the message that global issues are more than ‘just a cover story.’ We need global action and we need it now.

I’ll let these Cover Stories speak for themselves.

Image c/o Catapult
Image c/o Catapult

TAKE ACTION AGAINST CHILD MARRIAGE

Image c/o Catapult
Image c/o Catapult

TAKE ACTION AGAINST LABOR EXPLOITATION

Image c/o Catapult
Image c/o Catapult

TAKE ACTION AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING

This International Women’s Day (March 8th), join Catapult in supporting efforts to empower women and girls around the world.

Real change comes from the ground up. Let’s work together and change the world.

Click here for a full list of Catapult projects.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

The Thin Line Between Violence and Art

When it comes to sexualisation in the media, often people respond with – “sex sells.” Although sex may sell, I often wonder at what cost? Who is footing the bill? The answer: everyone.

Sexual exploitation in advertisements affects the whole of society in one way or another.

However, women bear most of the costs and, as a result, our mental health and well-being suffers. Although much has been said on the sexualisation of women and girls in the media, sexual violence, particularly in fashion advertising, must be addressed.

In 2007, Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) published the advert below:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Many women’s rights groups and advertising watchdogs have argued that the advertisement above clearly symbolises gang-rape. Held down against her will, the woman in the image falls victim to her male oppressor while an additional three men look on eagerly, seemingly awaiting their turn. Gang-rape is a horrifying and grotesque human rights violation from which no one should ever have to suffer. Why then, is it perfectly acceptable to normalise gang rape and use it as a concept in advertisements and marketing campaigns? In response to the global public outrage, D&G withdrew the advertisement from all its publications. However, D&G insisted the image was not meant to be controversial but simply represented an erotic dream.

The fashion industry continues to push the boundaries of what is new, edgy and original. Some argue that fashion advertising is art and therefore should not be taken literally, yet I beg to differ. Take this 2012 winter collection titled ‘Shameless’ from the Dutch company Suit Supply:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

The advertisements above suggest that, by buying a Suit Supply suit, women will allow men to do whatever they desire, including sex, touching and groping and peering at our vagina’s. Suit Supply’s advertisements not only represent women as sexual slaves, but also imply that men buy suits to enhance their sexual appeal solely to women, thereby ignoring the entire homosexual population.

Some advertisements are ridiculous, stupid and extremely offensive, others are indescribable:

last image
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Considered ‘fine art’ by the fashion world, marketing executives marvelled at the degrading advertisements.

Studies show that such violent images negatively impact adolescents’ self-esteem and confidence. The continuous bombardment of violent  images on television, magazines and the internet reinforce negative gender stereotypes and normalise violence and the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Whether deemed fine art or fashion, it is wrong and unacceptable.