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The dangers of commodity feminism

Jenna Luxon on why the ‘self-care’ advertising trend is all about profit, not people.

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Whether you’re scrolling on Twitter, flicking through Cosmo or shopping on ASOS, it is highly likely that you will run into the term ‘self-care’. With over 42 million posts under its hashtag on Instagram, ‘self-care’ has not only become a popular pastime but also the go-to marketing strategy for companies selling everything from make-up to stationery, food products to clothing.

But what does this term ‘self-care’ actually mean? Perhaps one of the reasons it works so well in advertising, is because nobody’s really too sure. In a medical context it can refer to patients keeping themselves fit and healthy so as to avoid unnecessary treatment. Feminist legend Audre Lorde famously called it an act of ‘political warfare’, whilst philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that ‘self-care’ is central to ‘self-knowledge’ and can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Within its varied definitions, the one we are probably most familiar with today however, is self-care as a consumer behaviour. Companies are constantly telling us to love, treat and care for ourselves... by purchasing their products. The beauty industry in particular is guilty of this, as the old trope of buying make-up to conform to external beauty standards has been replaced with a message that buying make-up is a way to treat and care for yourself.

And on the face of it, this all seems well and good. We should be rejecting limiting beauty standards and why not buy products that claim to help you love and care for yourself? But behind this seemingly positive advertising technique that tells consumers to remember their self-worth and treat themselves, lies a pernicious reality.

Contrary to what their advertisements may say, companies care about profits, not your self-esteem. Brands have no interest whether you love yourself or not, as long as they’ve got your money.

These marketing strategies around self-care represent what social scientists refer to as ‘commodity feminism’ (a play on Marx’s commodity fetishism). In reality, that is feminism in name only, as it has precious little to do with gender equality and far more to do with distracting consumers from social and political issues.

Commodity feminism first developed as a reaction to feminist criticisms of advertising that representing women in a damaging way. Think of when the Kate Moss phenomenon was the norm in advertising. As consumers were becoming critical, increasingly pointing out these issues in advertising and calling for more inclusive, body-positive media, companies turned this marketing approach on its head and instead began promoting a message of support and empowerment for women.

Whilst these same issues around inclusivity exist today with a distinct lack of diversity in models, clothing sizes and make-up colours, many brands have switched their advertising narrative and opted for the commodity feminism route instead.

The 2018 Boots slogan ‘it’s not just how it makes you look, it’s how it makes you feel’ and Dove’s ‘are you your own worst critic?’ campaigns are just a couple of examples of advertising that uses self-esteem narrative, and it’s not hard to find many more from many other companies. These advertising campaigns based on self-love and self-care masquerade as holding some empowering, feminist message but at their centre lies the same goal of profiting from women’s dissatisfaction with themselves.

In the same way that some brands sell you their products by convincing you that your body isn’t good enough, adverts using commodity feminism are convincing you to buy products because your mind isn’t good enough.  Because you don’t take enough time for yourself, don’t love yourself enough.

These advertising campaigns based on self-love and self-care masquerade as holding some empowering, feminist message but at their centre lies the same goal of profiting from women’s dissatisfaction with themselves.

Ultimately, the key to profit will always be discontentment, whether that’s being dissatisfied with your body or your self-care routine. You buy something because you’re not enough without it.

Brands want us to see their ads and think they’ve moved on from the old advertising techniques of shaming you into buying their products. A Boots ad that tries to sell women make-up by telling them they’re not attractive enough without it may have been in vogue once but it just wouldn’t fly today.

So instead, we get ads that tell us we should wear make-up to ‘feel better’ rather than look better. Ads that tell us we’re caring for ourselves and loving ourselves by buying those products. The idea of deficit in advertising has not disappeared; it has simply shifted.

When consumers get tired of being told their bodies aren’t good enough – that they need make-up to correct them, skin-care to tighten them, clothing to hide them – brands listened and instead they started telling us that it’s not about looks, it’s about feelings, and if we were truly feminist and loved ourselves, we’d care for ourselves and buy another lipstick.

But if any of the brands that use this kind of advertising truly wanted us to ‘feel good’, ‘love ourselves’ and engage in ‘self-care’ they’d tell you not to bother buying anything from them, to have some self-confidence that we’re fine as we are.

That doesn’t turn a profit, though. The tides of advertising shift with public opinion. And so, whilst the self-care movement is in fashion, brands will claim that buying their products is an act of self-love. Companies do not care if you love yourself or not.

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