A professor at the University of Newcastle says a new breed of advertising is not only telling women and girls how they should look, but how they should think.
And she says selling women’s confidence as a solution “whatever the problem” is a trend spreading to our workplaces.
Professor Rosalind Gill, a visiting fellow from the University of London at Newcastle’s school of humanities and social sciences, gave a public talk at NeWSpace on Thursday about her current area of research: “Femvertising”.
It’s now required that you makeover your psychology.Professor Rosalind Gill
The label describes a new genre of advertising that uses messages of self-love, body positivity, female empowerment and self-esteem to sell products to women.
“I was struck on my walk to work in London. On that street there are ten beauty clinics,” Professor Gill said, “and so many of them have got these images of magnifying glasses, tape measures going around thighs, of hyper-magnified faces, so you can see every pore and eyelash.”
“It’s a really forensic form of looking we’re invited to take part in.
“We live in a judgmental culture that, I believe, is particularly judgmental towards women’s bodies. That’s one part of the moment we are living in,” she said.
“Paradoxically more and more brands are telling us we should feel powerful, amazing, that we should feel good at any age and comfortable in our skin.”
Professor Gill gave examples of ads for Dove, Weight Watchers, Special K, and L’Oreal that contain slogans such as “We’re all worth it”, “You are more beautiful than you think” and, “Never forget how incredible you are”, while promoting diet and beauty products.
She said the genre had become a trend among marketers because it responded to feminist attacks on unrealistic beauty standards but also because the ads are more likely to be shared on social media than traditional campaigns.
“Some of Dove’s advertising has been shared something like 70 million times,” she said.
“That’s a dream for any brand.”
Femvertising was insidious because it showed women’s insecurities as a problem of their own making and a problem that is easily fixed, she said.
“It completely negates the wider culture and the sort of messages that are circulating.
“In my view, it’s a new layer of regulation on women.
“It’s no longer just enough to be working out, focusing on the body. It’s now required that you makeover your psychology.
“You must become this positive, self-affirming, confident subject.”
Professor Gill, who earlier this year addressed the United Nations on the representation of women in contemporary media, said similar attitudes had spilled into workplaces and policy-making.
“Why is it when we hear about gender inequality, confidence is going to be in the next sentence?” she said.
“What really troubles me is ... when it becomes all about changing the woman, not changing the world.”
One of the talk’s attendees Emmalee Ford said leadership programs she had participated in did not address the discrimination she has experienced in her workplace.
“Because I am a scientist I attend a lot of workshops and conferences promoting women,” Ms Ford said.
“That's all good but a lot of the actual contact we have as women scientist is talking about our experiences, talking about how we can make a change in ourselves to be more successful, how to be more assertive, how to monitor your language in emails... but ignoring structural changes.”
She said it was “good to hear” a discussion on the shortcomings of promoting confidence as a solution to ongoing issues.
“But we need to come up with solutions ourselves. And that's where the conversation stopped today, which was a bit disheartening,” she said.
There are things you can be dissatisfied with, that you can talk to your friends about, but you don't necessarily have to solve them.Ryan Burrett
Ryan Burrett said Professor Gill’s analysis revealed to him how advertising telling consumers to love their bodies was “meaningless”.
“Everyone can love themselves, love their lives, love their body but you don't have to actively be doing it all the time,” he said.
“There are things you can be dissatisfied with, that you can talk to your friends about, but you don't necessarily have to solve them.”