Lorna Wilson on why the latest Special K advert is just more of the same capitalist shaming of women
By Lorna Wilson. Lorna is a socialist feminist activist currently studying for a PhD in mathematics.
Special K’s new advertising campaign to ‘shut down fat talk’ seems innocent… at first. The video is designed to highlight the amount of negative body talk that women engage in. They have a valid point. Women everywhere are deeply distressed by their physical appearance.
But having promoted a ‘slimming challenge’ for years, Kellogg’s are not best placed to scold us for talking about feeling fat. If a woman suggests it is not her fault she feels too fat (or too dark or too anything), there is rarely a shortage of people to say otherwise. This causes me, like countless others, not only to hate my body but to feel deeply ashamed for doing so.
Special K’s insincerity is revealed at the beginning of the ad when they explain that the only problem with fat talk is that it “is a barrier to managing weight”. Of course, they can’t really want women to accept their appearance; women who did wouldn’t be so quick to ditch meals for overpriced, sugary, snack bars.
In 2013 there were number of similar “positive” advertisements (most notably Dove and Pantene). These attempt to make money out of women’s frustration with social pressures. That, after all, is how capitalism works. It takes our anger or distress, sugar-coats it, and sells it back to us in shiny new packaging.
Damaging as it may be, fat talk is not at the root of women’s beauty woes. Historical inequality is key to explaining the pressures placed on women’s appearance and how “positive” beauty adverts disguise the problem. Women’s role as mothers, and the resulting financial dependence on men, created extra pressure for them to appear attractive. In trying to outdo the competition, the diet, beauty and fashion industries created a much narrower beauty standard.
Just as women were gaining some financial independence in the early-to-mid twentieth century, they were confronted with advertisements that attempted to sell them ‘choice’ and ’empowerment’. It has only gotten worse.
Today this affects most women, irrespective of their appearance or relationship circumstances. According to Special K’s own figures, “93% of women fat talk”. For women of colour, the intersection with race means beauty ideals can be targeted differently. The “whitewashing” of black and Latina female celebrities where their skin is lightened in images is an obvious example, though the effect is often more subtle.
It is easy to think that only the selfish and jealous waste energy obsessing over their appearance or compulsively comparing themselves to others. Yet the Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2013 found that 87% of young women aged 11-21 in the UK think that women are judged more for their looks than ability. Society obsesses over how women look. Studies have shown that women who weigh less get paid more for the same work and are even judged better in court. They found no such bias for men. The diet and beauty industries feed this existing prejudice, use it to their own advantage and thereby recreate inequality between women and men.
Girls learn that looking a certain way is a prerequisite for success. Even if they can counter that belief with evidence to the contrary, they must constantly withstand bombardment from advertisements, magazines, the views of others, films, music videos etc.
With so many women struggling with anorexia, binge eating, and depression, the last thing we need is to be made ashamed of our response to these pressures. Placing the blame upon women adds to their anguish and quashes attempts to create change for the better. Without discussion of how and why our bodies face such scrutiny, the collective energy we spend on managing our pain cannot be turned to taking down the social, political and economic structures that are really responsible.
Image by Christi Nielsen, shared under a Creative Commons Licence. It shows a white woman’s head and neck from below the eyes downwards. Numbers that reference weight, height and dress size have been drawn all over her skin. The image is entitled “Labelled” and is part of Christi’s “I’m Just About to Get Skinny” set.