*Warning: some adult language.
A few years back, I moved in with one of my best girlfriends, a bright, bubbly and creative go-getter who could accomplish nearly anything that she set her mind to, including hauling 25-foot deadwood out of national forests, loading them up on a semi-truck she borrowed from a friend, and bringing them back to Boulder, where she built a Teepee from scratch.
We started having problems, though, when she stopped making her rent payments. She had a steady income, and our rent was cheap, yet somehow each month when rent came due, she had spent all of her money. It might have made some sense if she’d spent the money on living out her sky-high dreams, on climbing gear, or running shoes, or paying off her student loans from putting herself through college. Those were the things she really loved, the things that made her happy: being in nature, being active, learning.
What troubled me the most was that each month her cash had gone towards clothes, makeup, overpriced hair care products, and shoes.
It didn’t make sense. This was a down to earth girl, who was naturally, stunningly beautiful, who seemed so much happier hauling logs out of the woods than she ever did primping herself up for one of her endless OKCupid dates, from which she’d return dejected and uninspired. Why on earth was she spending all of her money—sacrificing her happiness and jeopardizing her basic food and shelter needs—on beauty products? The answer was simple: she was insecure. She had grown up learning that her greatest attribute was her looks, and that the road to success was paved by looking like a Victoria’s Secret Model.
Forget the fact that she was smart, witty, caring, and creative—without the looks, it all meant nothing to her, because, she thought, it would mean nothing to anybody else.
My roommate was extreme, but she was no exception. As women, our lives are constantly punctuated by these battles of self-worth, and no matter how successful we may be, I would venture a guess to say that all women feel a degree of insecurity about their appearance, because we see it as so very vital to our survival in society. The makers of beauty products, many of them white men, exploit these insecurities, reinforcing and deepening them in order to not only sell their products, but to ensure the existence of a market they can continue to manipulate.
Pantene recently released a commercial that has gone viral on the internet, depicting the real and accurate double-standards women face in the workplace. It shows archetypal “high-power” men (Tall, dark, and handsome in well-tailored clothes) against their female counterparts (thin, flawless skin, bouncy hair, in skirts or dresses with five-inch stilettos) with words flashing across the screen, exemplifying how while one may be seen as a boss, the other is seen as bossy, dedicated vs selfish, neat vs. vain. The point is clearly made.
Many of my friends and colleagues shared this video, proclaiming how remarkable it is, how true, how necessary. And it bothered me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, why the ad felt disingenuous—even dishonest, in a way. I couldn’t exactly figure out why I felt a sense of disappointment in my friends who had shared the video—after all, it makes valid points, and draws attention to an important issue in a powerful way that gets people talking. What’s there to be upset about?
Perhaps it started with the fact that I disdain chemical shampoos like Pantene. To start, these products are terrible for your hair, stripping it of needed healthy essential oils and replacing it with harsh chemicals usually touted as “vitamins” that create a dependency. In fact, in 2010, the Ministry of Environment in Qatar found such unhealthy levels of harmful chemicals in Pantene that it banned the sale of the product entirely, and urged consumers not to use it. Then, there’s the effect of the shampoo on our ecosystem once it goes down the shower drain, and, of course, the wasteful packaging that goes into constantly using shampoos and tossing out those big plastic bottles.
I suppose it felt insincere to me to be advertising a product that I view as harmful by using a message about gender inequality. When I shared my thoughts on Facebook, many of my friends responded that advertising is advertising, and Pantene isn’t going anywhere, so better they be selling their product and do something good for the world, instead of just selling cheap shampoo.
And that’s when it hit me. The ad felt so misleading for me not simply because it was disguising a harmful product with a brilliant media strategy. It was that the ad read more to me like a hypocritical attempt to capitalize on the growing feminist movement in order to sell a product that does absolutely nothing to meaningfully empower women. That in fact, ads like this are part of the reason women struggle to gain workplace equality in the first place.
The commercial—far from upsetting current norms about women in the workplace—is actually reinforcing them.
Yes, it points out a terrible and unfair double-standard that has systematically denied joy and opportunity to deserving women for far too long.
Yes, it’s better than something like this, that clearly objectifies women in order to sell an unhealthy product.
But it’s only very slightly better. Pantene presents this complex problem in a simple yet emotional way, complete with a lady-fied version of “Mad World” (which, incidentally was originally written as a deliberate attempt to emulate Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film”, a song about porn stars whose music video featured a bunch of scantily clad women “erotically” boxing each other, depicting BDSM, sexual fetishism and recurring themes of abandonment…I digress.)
And then Pantene immediately follows up that depiction with a convenient solution: Ladies, stay strong and shine (by buying our beauty product)!
Far from empowering women, this commercial is subversively preying on a deeply rooted insecurity that women—very justly—have about their role in typically male-dominated workplaces. To me it is almost unfathomable that a company could so shamelessly claim to be promoting women’s empowerment by exploiting the very insecurities that dis-empower women in the first place.
Why should a woman’s hair be in any way emblematic or representative of her worth and inner strength? Just who actually gives a shit if a woman’s hair is shiny, lustrous, and bouncy? Might it be the men in her workplace whose draconian ideals of female worth might be reduced to her appearance? Or perhaps it is the other women in the workplace, who for decades have helped hold each other back, in large part due to the nonsensical brainwashing by—cough—beauty product marketers who have made fortunes telling women that their power ultimately lies in their looks, so they better pony up that hard-earned cash now to get ahead.
I wonder what living with my roommate would have been like if she hadn’t grown up seeing her beauty as inseparable from her success as a woman. I wonder why a “groundbreaking” commercial about equality must still feature impossible depictions of “real” women with flawless skin and sky-high stilettos.
I wonder what the world would be like if we could tell women that they were powerful without trying to sell them toxic chemicals to make their hair shiny.
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Assistant Editor: Jaim Coddington/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant journal photo archive