Monthly Archives: July 2015

Faut (il) souffrir pour être belle (?)

Hair I am!

Hair I am!

When in 1999 Julia Roberts let her armpits return to their natural state (and then had the audacity to show them off on the red carpet), there was uproar.

Reactions ranged from disgust to admiration. With, in between, a recurring label for the other female stars who dared to bare their hairs: insurgents.

Thus TomorroWoman, musing on Drew Barrymore’s underarm hair in their excitedly-titled 15 Famous Women Who Refuse to Shave!, put it down to rebellion:

Capture d’écran 2015-07-26 à 22.10.55

But what, pray tell, is Drew rebelling against? Has beauty become defined by certain unspoken rules?

And if so, how has hair-removal become one of them?

Here’s a little anecdote, while we’re on the subject.

When I was about twelve, my father’s best friend came to call one summer afternoon. He ruffled my hair, and chuckled at how dirty my legs were; what a little tomboy! I looked down, confused at the comment.  I remember even now the strange sense of shame when I realised that what he thought was dirt was in fact hairs.

I started shaving. I did it in secret, using one of my father’s disposable Bics, shredding the skin on my legs like a butcher slicing ham.  When I realised that my leg hairs were fighting back, I saved paper round wages and bought one of those rip-each-hair-individually-from-root Epilator things (@jackbauer: look no further for your next coerced-confession tool).

It promised long-lasting super-smooth skin (and probably a complementary Prince Charming).  Alas, all I got was hours of excruciating pain at each time – since I would persevere, in tears -masses of red spots, and a decade of ugly ingrowing hairs.

Looking back on it now, I cannot believe that at such a young age I was ready to put myself through all of that so unquestioningly.

That, and the rest.

How about some beauty bingo, everyone? Scorecards ready? Strike off if you’re familiar with:

  • diets (…two fat ladies)
  • constrictive/impractical clothing, including high heels (…legs eleven)
  • cleavage enhancing (…was she worth it)
  • make-up (…never been kissed)

How did you get on?

Now, when I floated the idea of this article to my husband this week, he didn’t get it.  At all.  ‘But you like going to the hairdresser’s,’ he objected.  ‘And you don’t mind wearing make-up.  And you choose yourself to wear heels.’

All of that is true (except for the hairdresser, since in France they sniff at the state of your awful hair before doing the opposite of whatever you dared ask them to do): but is it simply because that is what I have been brought up to like?

Et alors < gaullic shrug >. Where’s the harm in any of it?  Women are happy prettier.  Men are happier with pretty women. Beauty/fashion industries are happy with pretty turnover.  Win-win-win situation. How can she write an article one week about maternal mortality and follow it up with something as paltry as this?

Essentially because it all is part of the same thing: inequality.

It is the difference between the healthy pleasure both men and women feel at looking nice v. fundamentally (and daily) altering appearances in order to fit in with some invisible and impossible standard. The difference between all of us working out for healthy, trim bodies v. developing an eating disorder because every role model on tv or in magazines is an airbrushed size-zero.

Now, you’ll be quick to point out that men, too, are under pressure to look good.  I fully agree.  I’ve already written about gendered advertising; of course that includes society’s preferences for muscly bodies, shiny (dandruff-free, please) hair, clean-shaven faces (to attract that caress from the admiring female in the bathroom, presumably girlfriend), and much more.

La preuve: my waxing lady (: confession) tells me she has more and more male customers coming in for that flawless Edward Cullen-type chest or back. And for the first time ever in 2013, men spent less on shaving gear than they did on male beauty, sorry, grooming products – thanks to clever rebranding and manly grey/black colour schemes, such as the one below:

I will kick your ass... just as soon as I've moisturised

I will kick your ass… just as soon as I’ve moisturised

(Because men couldn’t, you know, just use the same moisturizer as their women-folk. That would be as ridiculous as suggesting that we should all use the same toothpaste. Oh, wait…)

But even with the advent of mamperingmetrosexual men, androgynous products, and those rebellious women exposing their body hair: when we talk about beauty products and services, it’s still a woman’s world.

So: why?

Are these obligations a left-over, from the days when women did not have independent finances, and depended mostly on their looks to catch Prince Charming? Or, au contraire, is there actually some empowerment in being the “fairer sex”: power suits, heels to make us taller, make-up to cleverly hide the signs of late night drinking sessions?

Whatever the reason, it starts early. For example, I have relented to let my five-year-old daughter wear nail varnish (as a summer-holiday-only-treat, I hasten to add).  But will I let my two-year-old son paint his nails, when he is five?  What about if he wants to pierce his ears? Or wear make-up?

Or heels? (Just FYI, did you know high-heeled shoes began with men, back in the 17th century? Women began copying them then; but modern-day heels were really launched by 1950s pornography. Or so this interesting article argues).

Anyway.  What will I say to my daughter and what will I say to my son, about why she can, and he can’t?

I can’t find any satisfactory conclusion to these dilemmas.

Once again, feminism is not about making men and women the same.

But feminism is about men and women being equal.  And where is the equality in women coming under such pressure to cover their blemishes in foundation; add inches to their height, eyelashes, or breasts; take inches off their waists; rip out their leg, bikini or armpit hair?

Why, in short, do we try so constantly to conform, especially when the definition of beauty is so subjective? Look, for example, at how the notion of female beauty has varied within in the US and elsewhere over the last century (if you don’t have time to read it, just ponder the photo below).



So.  My husband didn’t get the point of this article: why do you need to ask why? 

The answer is: because.

Because it’s a piece of the puzzle.

Because the saying il faut souffrir pour être belle (=beauty is pain) only applies to women, apparently.

Because the more I think about it, the more blindingly obvious it seems to me that beauty should be a celebration of diversity, and not discomfort, not a constraint.

In the eye of the beholdee. More than skin deep.

Tout simplement about being …

…. images-9


A stitch in time

I have given birth twice. Neither time was much fun, what with the mind-blowing pain of induced contractions, ineffectual epidurals, and (on the second occasion) having the baby yanked out with forceps after an hour of midwives and doctors kneeling on, and then rummaging elbow-deep in, my uterus.

So, no.  Childbirth: not quite what I’d been prepared for.

But at no point, however, did I think that I was going to die in the process.  At least, not literally.  That would have been a bit dramatic, right?

For me, yes.

Try telling that to the 289,000 women who do die every year in childbirth or from pregnancy-related causes.

One woman, every two minutes.

We are bombarded with statistics, so if that feels a bit anonymous, try personalising it: each one of those women could be your mother, partner, sister, aunt, daughter, niece – you.

Going into labour, and not coming out the other side.

Feels a bit medieval to me.

But depending on where you are reading this, maybe it’s a daily reality.  If you’re in a developing country, you’re 14 times more likely to die in childbirth than in a developed country.  Especially so in sub-saharan Afrrica, where the rates are the worst:

Credits: UNFPA

Source: UNFPA

Maternal mortality is one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs: international yardsticks on development) on which we’ve made the least progress.  There’s a whole other blog post to be written on why that might be, but on the up side (if there is one) at least there’s recognition and therefore resource being put into tackling it.

But the MDGs, and their successor the Sustainable Development Goalsare entirely silent on maternal morbidity.  That, despite the fact that for every woman who dies in childbirth (one every 120 seconds, remember: how long has it taken you to read this far?) there are an estimated 20-30 who suffer debilitating injuries or infection.

Take, for example, obstetric fistula.

Yes, you heard me.  Fistula.

I don’t blame you if you’re making a funny face: it’s a funny word. A good name for a brand of fish food, say, or a fictional baddy. Think: Harry Potter and the Fistula Fiend.

Obstetric fistula does indeed sound nasty on paper.  But it’s even nastier in real life for the estimated 1-2 million women worldwide who suffer from it.

Before I lose you to wikipedia, let me explain what it is.

Fistula occurs as a consequence of complicated or prolonged childbirth, during which the baby’s head rubs at the fragile tissue of the birth canal, creating holes between the vagina and either the rectum or bladder.

I appreciate that sentence feels like it’s hooked straight from Gray’s Anatomy, so here’s a diagram to help you visualise it:


Prolonged childbirth stems from an awkward size or position of the baby: 75% of women with fistula go through more than three days of labour (three days!).

Childbirth is also harder going when the woman is too weak or too young to deliver (oh yes: those child-bearing hips that your aunty Gladys is so proud of: well, they’re not just a family heirloom. They need time and nutrition to develop).

And fistula can also be the consequence of damage inflicted from sexual violence such as rape or deliberate insertion of weapons (bayonnets, pistols) into the vagina.  You know, as you do.

That is why fistula happens. But what does it mean for the woman, when it happens?

Well, picture this.  You’ve been in labour, probably excrutiatingly so, for hours, possibly days.  The baby is stuck.  You don’t die in childbirth (hurrah for you!) but when the baby finally is delivered, it is likely stillborn.

So: your baby is dead, you are grieving, your body is physically exhausted from pregnancy and labour. And then on top of all of that, you then find that you are leaking urine or faeces through your vagina. You no longer have control – and/or awareness – of when you need to go to the toilet.

I have tried to put those shoes on, but I can’t.  I can’t imagine it.  The occasional trickle when my post-baby pelvic muscles react badly to a sneeze with a full bladder: that doesn’t really cut any kind of comparison.

Have a read instead of this:


Source: ‘I used to cry a lot every night’: Voices of Women with Obstetric Fistula in Bo, Sierra Leone

How is that sort of experience survivable, physically or emotionally?

Perhaps it might be made a little more bearable with support from your family and friends.  But in countries where corrective surgery is unavailable or too expensive, women with fistula are mostly shunned. If your partner leaves you, as is often the case, you then also face financial destitution. And if you are one of the frequent cases of fistula occurring in young women, then you may be looking at decades of this lonely, painful and humiliating existence.

And yet – surprise, surprise – obstetric fistula can be easily a) avoided and b) treated.

We know that, because it no longer exists where there is:

  • a low risk of violent rape, forced or early marriage;
  • skilled medical care during and after birth, including the possibility of a c-section, and facilities within easy travelling distance;
  • surgery available to correct damage done by complicated births.

But that kind of checklist is only possible where the mother (and baby’s) life are valued.  Where the status of women justifies investment in reproductive health resources, and protection against harmful traditional practices.  And in countries with the means to provide (access to) healthcare and train specialist doctors or surgeons, especially tricky in rural areas.

Clearly not the status quo: as proven by the estimated 50-100,000 new cases of fistula every year, of which 90% will go untreated.

Several organisations are trying to correct this sorry situation.  They do great work to raise awareness and funding for surgery or training.  Have a look for example at the Fistula Foundation, the Campaign to End Fistula, Operation Fistula, or the World Wide Fistula Fund.

Fistula is also part of the work of the big health agencies, such as UNFPA or the WHO.  And we now have an international End Fistula Day (23 May: another one for your diaries, please) and the excellent interactive Global Fistula Map to illustrate why and where fistula is still happening.

That’s good.  But (spot the recurring conclusion) it isn’t enough.

We need more: to support those suffering from it, to provide surgical expertise, to break the taboo.  But we also need to try to stop it happening in the first place.  As complicated and sensitive as underlying factors such as poverty or discrimination are, a specific target on maternal morbidity in the new SDGs would be a good start.

Fistula has rightly been called “the biggest problem you’ve never heard of.”

Well, now you have.

Spread the (F) word.

Happy Never After?

Feeling uneasy yet? Credits:

Spot the difference

My mother likes to tell a story about how she came home from her honeymoon, c. 1965, presumably still misty-eyed.  The reality of married life dawned the next morning, when my father sat her down and gave clear instructions on how he liked his English breakfast prepared.

Especially the fried bread, where he would be particularly attentive.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that would definitely constitute a run-for-the-hills moment for me.

Which makes me think.  I don’t remember ever seeing the epilogue after the words happily-ever-after in fairy tales.   Does Snow White’s new hubby leave his dirty socks on the floor? Does the Princess discover a stack of the Prince’s porn alongside the pea under the mattress? Or does Sleeping Beauty (like my mother) get a rude awakening as Prince Philip lays down the dos/don’ts of married life to her?

My father’s awful behaviour dates from the (arguably less enlightened) 1960s. Well, given gender roles in fairy tales are still much the same since their mainstreaming in popular culture in the mid 18th century, I wouldn’t actually be that surprised if Cinderella: the Shoe Diaries turned out a little less rosy than we would imagine.

Take, for example, Disney’s latest offering, Frozen. For those of you who have miraculously managed to avoid it, the synopsis is relatively straightforward.  There are two orphaned princesses.  The elder (Elsa) has strange powers of the thermal-cooling type that she cannot control.  She runs away in shame after inadvertently turning her Kingdom to ice, whoops.  Her younger sister (Anna) sets out to convince her to come home (falling in love not once but twice along the way).

I resisted the Frozen phenomenon as long as I could.  But, curious to see what the fuss was about (and feeling that a Responsible Parent should at least know what my daughter was watching at friends’ houses), I gave in.

Predictably, I got annoyed.  I was about to turn it off, exasperated at Princess Anna’s sugary excitement about meeting The One (aged, like, seventeen): and then watched in surprise as big sister Elsa refused Anna’s engagement to the man she had just met.

Sounds logical, right? You don’t generally marry a man you’ve just met, even after a splendid duo on the rooftops of the palace.  But this small step for man, in Disney terms, is a giant leap forward for womankind.  Ever since Sleeping Beauty made it to big-screen technicolor fame in 1953, little girls all over the planet have grown up with the idea that you’re supposed to lie passively and prettily on your bed (preferably in some hard-to-get-to-place), having been poisoned/cursed (by some evil stepmother/witch/fairy reincarnation), and wait for a (handsome-only-need-apply) Prince to come and save you.

Then, of course, you marry him, and there is your life wrapped up.

So, good for Elsa, and for Disney.  I started watching more attentively, breath tentatively held.  Could Disney have dared to break the mould? Was this history in the making? A turn of the tides?

Alas, no.  Shortly after this landmark moment comes Let it Go, Elsa’s trademark solo (the one which permeates your brain like a syrup sponge, especially when your bilingual child dishes it out endlessly in both languages).  And there, Elsa’s rousing chorus (tellingly translated in French, btw, as Freed/Released) finales with a swap of her dowdy coronation robes for thigh-high-hem-split low-cut off-the-shoulder number, accompanied by a layer of make-up and a good pair of heels.

It is a good thing indeed that the cold never bothered Elsa anyway, as there is suddenly a lot more skin on show.

Freedom, it would seem, is less about shaking off those demons than about having a glamourous frock. I can testify to that, since I can carbon-date my five-year-old-daughter’s tugging of her tshirt to reveal bare shoulders (“pour être jolie”) to Elsa’s wardrobe change.

Bear with me, please: this post is not a feminist critique of Frozenthat’s already been done to death elsewhere, and better than I could ever do.  But I’ve long been exasperated with this Groundhog Day of fairy tale Prince and Princesses, and Frozen has just brought it to the surface.

Even if it’s never crossed your mind before, indulge me, think on it now.  Can you tell me if you’ve ever seen a Disney film (or read a modern-day version of a fairy tale) which does not include:

  • a beautiful, poor/otherwise hard-done-by, kind, thin, virgin Princess, not terribly good at saving herself, and ready to fall instantly and unquestionably in love with the first man that comes along;
  • a handsome, good-on-horse/fighting-dragon, ready-to-be-wed, rich Prince, on the lookout for someone to save;
  • a scheming older woman of some kind (stepmother, witch etc), doing everything in her (magical) powers to stop the saving-process;
  • a triumphant ending involving demise of evil older woman, and then marriage of our young lady and her True Love.

Ah, I hear (some of you) sigh in irritation. But it’s all harmless fun. These are fairy tales; make-believe; part of our culture. Modern-day women do not define themselves by these gender roles (and nor do men).

In a literal sense, that’s true.  I have to admit that my husband never had to take on a dragon before I decided to marry him.  But I chose to marry him having had other boyfriends and after many years and children together; having my own career and resources.  So that already makes me entirely ineligible for the damsel in distress job spec.

But dragon-slaying aside, these stereotypes are pretty awful.

What do they teach us?

In a nutshell, that women must be beautiful and submissive to succeed, and disproportionately grateful for help from the opposite sex; that men must be forceful, resourceful and handsome; that adult companionship is about getting married as soon as you can and believing in one True Love.

And the thing is, since we read fairy tales to our children from toddlers onwards, this becomes accepted wisdom from childhood. Even if it isn’t a blueprint, it’s still genderwashing.

You’re not convinced?

Here are a few concrete examples.  Like when 8-10 year-olds in Germany were given an opening sentence and asked to complete the story: both boys and girls chose to write about a female character if the introductory sentence implied victimization, but chose a male character if the opener suggested someone leaving home or acting independently.

Or the fact that when children in a classroom in Alberta, Canada, were asked what would have been different had Red Riding Hood been a boy, they replied: “he would have been brave”.  Or the sad truth that children’s books are still twice as likely to feature a male hero rather than a female heroine.  Or the frequently referenced fact that at a young age children readily identify certain successful jobs or strong character traits with masculinity, and the opposite with femininity.

The articles quoted above often get some aggrieved reactions, such as this one:

Capture d’écran 2015-07-18 à 15.50.12

But feminism isn’t about denying difference or making men and women the same.  It’s about equal opportunity and equal worth. And I for one cannot see how the roles we’ve identified above can be beneficial to either sex, or society as a whole.

So why is it so hard to change? Granted when fairy tales first took (written) cultural root three hundred years ago, women had no financial independence and no control over their sexual or reproductive health; riding off into the sunset with a handsome Prince probably was the dream of many little girls.

But this lack of agency is no longer the case now (I say that with a massive caveat depending on where you are reading this).

So why am I still picking up the same tired plots to read as bedtime stories to my daughter? Why is it utterly inconceivable, uncomfortable, to imagine a story where a young man is rescued by a Princess?

Or, in fact, where no-one needs rescuing at all?

And when will I be able to take my daughter to see an animation film where we are not brainwashed with pink, giddy princesses and irresponsible notions of submission, true love, and beauty?

When, indeed.  Once upon a time?

That Crime of the Month

Ladies: in your lifetimes, you will spend an average of 1400 days on your period; and get through an average of 125-150kgs of sanitary towels or tampons.


Periods. Yay.

Periods. Yay.

Enfin, when I say ‘you’, that’s making three enormous presumptions:

1) That you have money to pay for sanitary towels/tampons;

2) That there are some available to buy;

3) That you have somewhere to dispose of them afterwards.

How many of us have ever had to think about any of those questions?

Menstruation, I think we all agree, is not fun.  You’re a girl, you hit puberty, you start bleeding every month.  Urgh.  It’s messy, it’s painful, it takes you a few years to get the hang of it, we probably all have that awful never-publicly-admitted story of the time the period came on early (and you were wearing white) or late (and you were scared you were pregnant).

But we manage. By way of contraception that diminishes or eliminates periods entirely; or by way of that aisle in the supermarket only ever visited by women, filled with masses of white fluffy pads and (now usually brightly coloured – eh?) tampons of all shapes and sizes.

Imagine that all taken away.  What would you do? How would you go about your daily life? Work? Study? Travel? Sleep at night?

That is the hush-hush situation of millions of women worldwide in poorer countries, who face their monthly period not with exasperation and a bit of PMT, but fearfully: without any reliable way of absorbing the flow (disposable pads often too expensive or inexistent), or keeping themselves clean during their menses.

For girls still at school, this means skipping classes; not only for fear of leakage/stains, but also given a lack of sanitary facilities.  For example, one study showed that 66% of schools in India did not have a functioning toilet.  And even if toilets are available, studies show they are too few (1 toilet per 600 students in Nigeria); lacking doors, running water or soap (essential for flushing away blood, cleaning hands, or washing reusable pads).

Poor sanitary facilities, of course, is a bane for all students (not just girls or female teachers) but imagine not having access to a toilet during your period.  You can hardly go behind a bush; where do you put your soiled sanitary towel or tampon? And if you have an accident, how do you wash out the stain, before you are teased (best case scenario) or ostracized (commonly reported) by male classmates or even teachers?

Because periods are not just a practical nightmare in developing countries.  Research shows that menstruating girls and women are seen as “dirty”, “shameful” or “polluting”; many are forcibly excluded from everyday activities such as prayer, preparing food, socialising, sleeping in their own beds.

With that in mind, it’s understandable that a young woman will prefer to stay away from school altogether during her period.

The problem is, she won’t just be missing school on one occasion.  Our periods, as we blissfully know, come once a month.  Every month.  Twelve times a year, every year, beginning on average at the age of 13 (“menarche”). That is potentially a lot of missed schooling.

Even though there is a real lack of reliable quantitative evidence on how menstrual hygiene management (MHM) impacts girls’ attendance at school, qualitative studies clearly indicate the link between having knowledge (“software”) or supplies (“hardware”) and the likelihood of making the commute to and from a long day at school.

This is why UNESCO estimates that one in ten girls in Africa will eventually drop out of school as a result of their periods.

One in ten. 10% of the next generation of women, slipping out of schooling because of their period.  This with the knowledge that two-thirds of all illiterate adults today are still women; and knowing also that gender parity for school enrollment remains a utopic vision (despite progress made via the Millennium Development Goals), given continued social norms around girls’ role as carers in the home, or the economic value of investing in girls’ education with limited household budgets.

Without schooling: fewer qualifications, fewer job opportunities, higher likelihood of early or forced marriage, knock-on effects in terms of income, health, children’s health, wider economy… et j’en passe.

So what is being done about it?

Hmm.  Not much, actually.  (surprised?)

At least, not on the scale necessary.  There are some dedicated movements, such as the charity 50 Cents.Period; and other NGOs have sought to incorporate/advocate principles on MHM into their broader work, especially on water and sanitation.  Other research institutions such as J-PAL are investigating which “hardware” solutions could help, including the menstrual cup or reusable pads.

Afripad. Photo credits:

Afripad. Photo credits:

So there is some mainstreaming.  And growing recognition of the issue, and of the need for more and better research.

Oh, and a new international day for menstrual hygiene, in case you missed it – 28 May.  Have a look at the interesting Facebook page that’s promoting it (and put it in your diary for next year).

But that’s about it.  Why so little interest?

Well, first up, periods make people uncomfortable.  Admit it – you’ve not been enjoying this post very much, have you? (if you’ve got this far, keep going.  You’re almost there.)  There are thousands of years of social myth, religious connotation, mystery associated to a woman’s monthly cycle.  Even without these, we all are squeamish about blood, and especially menstrual blood – like, beurk.

But those attitudes are not only old-fashioned, they are damaging.  Young girls discover periods without understanding what they are or having any way of managing them, because talking about them is taboo.  Even my own mother, in nice middle-class developed-country England, did not give me any heads-up; I can tell you, it wasn’t a nice surprise.

Managing menstruation is also taboo (and expensive).  Given the lack of materials, women resort to whatever they can find to prevent or mitigate the flow: leaves, mud, tree bark.  Which of course is inefficient, not to mention uncomfortable and ultimately risks bacterial infection.

Second up, periods are a women’s issue.  Now, (I know! no generalisations! I promised!) by and large, that means that in structures where power, budgets and decision-making are managed by men and not women, the issue will be given less or no consideration because it simply isn’t something that men have to contend with (a bit like whoever designed the metro cheerfully forgetting disabled users or parents hefting prams).

For some donors, and some developing country governments, forgetting about periods is an oversight they’re willing to correct. For others, menstruation is surrounded by so much cultural and social stigma, that it will never be a priority (amongst all the other pressing priorities).

For example, the new global development framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (to be agreed in September 2015) doesn’t address menstruation – or at least not specifically.  The only relevant target in the current draft is:

6.2  By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

Not overly prescriptive, you will agree.

Which is a shame.

No, wait, it’s much, much more than just a shame.  As Ashlee Betteridge sums up neatly:

“…just because women and girls cope doesn’t mean that menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is an issue that can be overlooked by those working in development. It’s important to recognise that this affects women and girls’ health, dignity and confidence, as well as their participation in education, the community and the economy.”

A-men(struation) to that.

For hands that do dishes…

If you're happy and you know it clean your house

If you’re happy and you know it clean your house

So here’s a litmus test for you.

The next time you’re watching tv, listening to the radio, scrolling through Facebook or being generally bombarded with adverts: don’t tune out.

Stop, look and listen, and apply the following two questions to whatever you’re being sold:

1. Is it a man or woman who is using/enjoying/relying upon the product?

2. Could you imagine the same advert but with the opposite sex in the starring role?

Given how much time we are consciously or unconsciously brainwashed by advertising, I’m quite happy with the assertion that marketing sticks firmly to gender roles (if you want more examples have a look at the excellent Gender Ads Project).

The question is rather: why? are adverts life imitating art, or art imitating life?

On one hand: you are a PR or marketing company.  You must design a campaign to sell a particular product.  In order to do so, and get paid yourself at the end of the day, you carry out market research: who is most likely to use your product? What image of the product, of themselves, do they have/are they looking for? You tailor your campaign accordingly.

For example, if CIF choose to spend a large amount of money on a video demonstrating how a clever princess employs their new Easy Clean Spray to to get to grips with that impossibly dirty bathroom, that must be because their researchers have discovered that it’s principally women (with some strange princess fetish) who’ll buy that product.

They’ll buy it because they’re the ones who will be using it.


Well, technically, yes. The statistics aren’t really a surprise (although they should be, it is 2015) but women do still do more around the house and for its occupants, as the US Bureau of Labor reaffirmed in 2014:

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

So from a cold, calculating point of view, CIF’s advert is logic, not a deliberate attempt to reinforce gender roles. They want to sell their product; therefore, they market it to those most likely to buy it.

We can hardly blame them for it.

Or can we?

Picture this.  You’re four, going on five, and you’ve been allowed to watch some TV.  The CIF advert comes on. The heroine/princess has bought said spray and thank goodness she did because she’s done a good job.  The bathroom is all sparkly and the heroine/princess is triumphant and proud of her achievement.

As a child, what do you take away from that?

Maybe if you see this once it will barely sink below the surface.  But if you see the same or similar thing time and time again as you’re growing up, perhaps what you would take away would be along the lines of a) cleaning is for women b) that role should make women happy.

When spend our entire lives surrounded by gender-biased advertising, how can we not be influenced by the images that are portrayed? Would we ever see an advert of man chewing his lip over the conundrum of his daughter’s muddy football socks, and then brightening when he realizes that help is at hand with X washing product?

Perhaps that advert does exist somewhere (please, cheer me up, and find it for me).  But if it does, we’d find it quite surprising.  Or at least, we’d notice it.  We might not even know why we had noticed it, but we would.

We’d notice it for the simple fact that it is the reverse of what we’re used to.

But before you find me too self-righteous, it’s confession time.

My couple fits with the horrible bar chart above.  I do do more cleaning and tidying and washing than my husband.  Often when he tries to do bits and pieces, I cluck at him and undo/redo whatever he’s attempted (because he’s bad at it).  I think part of that is down to my character; I have high standards, and a certain way of doing things, and must have everything bien rangé (with two small children, I am in constant and active therapy for this mild OCD).

But a) there is certainly some undetermined % of that behaviour which is due to growing up and watching my mother doing all of the household tasks, and slipping into the same (gender) routine myself; b) my husband is bad at it because he lacks the practice, not only since we have been together, but beforehand, when his mother did pretty much everything.

I’m a big girl, and old enough to take full responsibility for fitting in with the graph above.  If I continue to personify those statistics, that’s my fault.  After all, I hate dusting, hate it, and the husband seems to do that spontaneously enough. And of course, as I’ve already been told by people reading this blog, we mustn’t fall into the trap of generalization.  I know there are households where things are pretty fifty-fifty (or even, shock horror, unequal in the other direction).

But: those households are not the norm.

So my question is: what change could it make to the next generation if advertising stopped playing to/recreating* (*delete as appropriate) gender roles – and challenged them instead?

Par exemple…

… An ad for a fast car, with a woman behind the wheel, men’s heads turning as she speeds smugly by?

… An ad for a low-fat cereal with a man skipping on the street, having shed those pesky extra pounds?

… An ad where Dad’s load is lightened with a miraculously quick and tasty food product for Mum+2.4 children, waiting hungrily at the kitchen table?

If we were seeing that sort of role reversal, over a long enough period of time: would we one day get to a point where the examples above would no longer appear strange?

That would be wonderful.

But is it even feasible?

Like many changes, perhaps it is, with a little institutional push – a nice government carrot/stick to encourage a different way of doing things.  What about, for example, introducing a charter of values for advertising. Or a voluntary code of conduct. Or running an international gender-neutral advertising tender, with the winner being awarded a lucrative government supplies contract for some forward-thinking (probably Scandinavian) country.

Or, sod voluntary: we could just ban anything which falls blatantly into gender stereotyping.

Just ban it.  The antithesis of the Nike slogan: I can see the tshirts already.

After all, governments regularly intervene to set standards in advertising, don’t they?  In France, the 1991 Loi Evin banned tobacco adverts and drastically limited advertising space for alcohol. Presumably because the government judged that those two products are harmful, recognized the power of advertising in their promotion, and acted to curtail that influence.

So if we agree that gender stereotyped adverts are also harmful (in that they reinforce gender roles and gender inequality), isn’t that enough to take a more forceful approach to getting rid of them?

Come to think of it, why stop there. Marketing is a non-stop Truman’s show of white, middle class, heterosexual people all chosen for their beauty and happy smiles.  Is this all, then about something larger – about making advertising more representative of the actual world we live in?

Maybe it wouldn’t be that hard, I tell my best French friend.  In the case of gendered marketing, we could get the Assemblée Nationale onto it.  Draft a law, get it passed, slap a few big fines on offending manufacturers and their Princess products.  We’d have men doing more hovering in no time.

Wouldn’t we?

‘Non,’ she disagreed, shaking her head.  ‘Parce que, pour interdire les publicités sexistes, il faut pouvoir le définir, le marketing genré ; et là on rentre dans la limite de l’interprétation…’

Which, neatly or irritatingly, takes us back to the starting point.  Gender stereotypes: life imitating art, or art imitating life?

There may be no easy answer to that.  But what does seem clear is that there is a real potential to change the way we perceive ourselves and our roles in society/the household – if only advertising would go boldly where no man marketing executive has gone before.

In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping us voicing our exasperation/irritation with the adverts à la CIF.  In France, for exemple, you can flag discontent with the Jury de Déontologie de la Publicité – it’s part of their job to strike down discriminatory advertising.

I’ll leave it there.  I have a pile of ironing to do.