Category Archives: Social Shaping of Bodily Experience

A Tale of Two (Ad) Campaigns

For a while, the mega-global corporation, Unilever — owner of Dove beauty products — spoke thoughtfully to the world’s women.

The 13-year-long “Real Beauty” campaign that began in the early ’90s aimed to “change the conversation” about gender by presenting women of many colors, sizes, and body shapes in its ads for soap products. Although the campaign had its critics, it seemed to garner far more admiration than assault. Sure, Unilever also produced horrible Slim Fast powders and skin-whitening creams that undermined the body-positive and multiracial values that the new Dove campaign claimed to promote.

But . . . those images.

Dove Beauty Campaign-Diverse Women in Underwear

Who wouldn’t smile at this anti-one-size-fits-all ad?

But last spring, the latest installment in the campaign that declared itself on the side of women launched a new ad that angered far more viewers. Showing women of diverse sizes and shapes was one thing. Showing bottles of diverse sizes and shapes was another.

Dove Ad-Diverse Bottle Sizes & Shapes

And the new campaign for body washes explicitly equated women with those bottles.  Ugh.

“Each bottle evokes the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition.”

Oh, we’ve been there before.  We’ve had decades of ads equating women with cars.

Pirelli Tire Ad

And bottles of beer.

Woman as Michelob Beer Bottle Ad

Feminist media critics such as Jean Kilbourne have been brilliantly critiquing those sorts of offensive ads objectifying women for decades.

Suddenly, Dove didn’t get it.

To make matters worse, the new ad in the UK from Dove — already pulled, soon after airing — managed to offend women intersectionally: not just on gender grounds, but also race.

Dove Ad-Black Woman Becomes White

 

Online, some sharp viewers (including one named, intriguingly, Kristina Chäadé Dove) schooled Unilever in the shameful history of soap companies promoting racist assumptions about cleanliness.

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The Twitterverse has wondered how this outrageously racist ad could have gotten approved. One blogger has commented, “It leaves one wondering if there are any people of color that make decisions at Dove.”  

Well, let’s recall that the Dove’s parent company is Unilever, after all — headquartered in the Netherlands. The Dutch have a long history of denying the racism behind their colonial empire. So, perhaps, no.

Meanwhile, along comes General Mills. A new pair of ads follows in the footsteps of Dove’s earlier successes. Instead of urging women to diet, or binge-eat — or both — these ads actually encourage women to have a normal relationship to food. You know: Eat when you’re hungry. Enjoy what you’re eating.

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Or, as one ad concludes: “Own it.” 

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The new stage directions in the theatre of global advertising: Enter General Mills, Exit Unilever.

But this simple math equation, which seems to evoke only a single solution, raises disturbing ethical questions. Does corporate society have space for more than one enlightened-feminist ad campaign at a time? Will any of these feminist-inspired campaigns affect more mainstream corporations to produce images challenging gender inequity — stereotype-busting images that our society still so desperately needs?

The Power of Menstrual Politics

The latest in the abortion wars:

“One Indiana woman recently created the Facebook page Periods for Pence where she encourages others to call the governor’s office to report their periods, since they could technically be having a miscarriage.”

 

A new generation of feminists is defying classic menstrual taboos by the simplest possible method: just talking about menstruation.  The latest brilliant tactic by an anonymous menstrual/abortion rights activist may be the most creative means yet to inform male politicians that they don’t have the right to regulate women’s wombs.

 

P.S.  Menstrual politics are dominating this week’s news!  Check out this awesome article giving us a glimpse at what a menstrual entrepreneurial spirit looks like.

Donald Trump vs. Blood Magic

Donald Trump has revived old stereotypes in claiming that Fox News commentator/Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly was ruled by her hormones (“bleeding from her wherever”) when she critiqued his multiple sexist statements and stances.  Explaining away women’s anger by reference to the menstrual cycle is an old habit of those who wish to exclude women from decision-making positions.  Let’s see if I become a new target of Donald Trump after being quoted in this NPR blog post by Susan Brink . . .

PMS 5 Beware of PMS

Meanwhile, I’m honored that an essay I wrote about Beng menstrual beliefs and practices was just quoted in an article by Candida Moss, “Weak Men Like Trump Have Always Feared Menstruation,” in The Daily Beast.

The “Ow” of Pain

New research claims that saying “Ow” really can ease the pain.

Why am I skeptical?

Or, rather, why am I skeptical that this works globally?

For one thing, in Côte d’Ivoire, when Beng folks I’ve known slash a finger while chopping wood, or feel the effects of parasites churning in their stomachs, they don’t say “Ow,” they say “Aba” (“Father”)–or, if it really hurts–“Aba-eyyyyyyyy!” (“Daaaaaaaad!”)

But beyond whatever specific words or sounds we might say when we’re in pain, more striking are the cases of people who stringently avoid uttering any sounds, even moaning, when they’re in pain.

That would include many laboring West African women, whose elders teach them that they will bring tremendous shame on themselves and their families if they vocalize pain during childbirth.

Traditionally, Asante women in Ghana were told that going into labor is the feminine version of going to war. Under such training, withstanding pain is not just a matter of personal pride; it’s a cultural necessity. There’s even something about gender parity going on here. In anthropology, the Asante have a reputation for having one of the most gender-egalitarian societies around. Asante queens were fierce political rulers, and kings’ mothers were accorded the highly respected title of Queen Mothers. In 1900, an Asante queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, led a major military rebellion against the British colonial powers. Down the social hierarchy, ordinary market women continue to be respected by all. Showing vocal restraint in the face of pain during childbirth seems to be part of an overall package of demonstrating power over many arenas, including one’s bodily experience.

And let’s not even talk about the common expectation that girls undergoing genital surgery for ritual reasons in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa must remain silent to demonstrate self control . . . and train themselves to withstand the pain they will undoubtedly experience later, in childbirth.

Gendered expectations about complaining about pain operate in Western societies, too. How many men remember being told, “Buck up/be a man/don’t complain like a girl” from a young age? Later in life, alcohol may offer men a socially acceptable means to cope (quietly) with pain.

Beer in Childbirth

I don’t doubt that moaning, screaming, or “Ow-ing” can alleviate pain–in societies that train people to complain about bodily discomfort, as many Western societies train women to do. (I speak from experience here. During the last minutes of my second childbirth, my nurses chided me that I could be heard loudly by their colleagues down the hall.)

But there’s the rub. Our cultural expectations about our most intimate bodily experiences are taught to us from so early on that by the time we’re aware of them, they feel “natural.” And maybe they are–in a culturally shaped way.

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A postscript: A recent NPR piece sensitively explores the hard work of cultural listening required of health professionals who aim to treat people suffering from “depression,” “anxiety,” and other emotional disturbances. What cultural and linguistic forms do such deep-seated experiences take? Three psychiatrists and psychologists profiled in the piece (treating Asian and Asian-American patients) get it.