January is like a giant post-breakup montage. In these heady weeks, you might threaten to quit sugar, learn Mandarin, or ditch the job that buys your self-esteem for $25 an hour (plus super). You might eat kale. And somehow it all feels pure and real because the air is thick with possibilities.
But it’s not just the heatwaves and daytime drinking that’s rendering our cynicism dormant. Everywhere we look, we are being met by rallying cries (“New year, new you!!!!!”) and promises to fix the myriad things likely to get in our way of True Happiness this year.
In the past week alone, for example, I’ve been sent bargain offers on ‘muffin top covers’, tattoo reduction cream (#optimism) and hair chalks that would finally let me “go crazy with hair colour and still maintain my Monday-Friday office look”. Admittedly, I was kind of moved by the pathos of putting chalk in our hair to distinguish our work and private selves (though not enough to part ways with $24.00), but the rest just made me wonder – do companies really expect us to fall for these pretend things that claim to magically improve our lives?
An ad campaign by Cintia gym, where the sculpted body marketed as the new 'summer collection'.
Of course, that’s before I read about “arm corsets”. Just as you think designers have run out of ways to contain wobbly flesh, UK retail giant Marks & Spencer surprised everyone with their lace arm tourniquets last month. “Designed to be worn under sleeveless tops”, these “snug fabric tubes” will keep your upper arms looking taunt so you can wave with the abandon of a drowning person like you’ve always wanted. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would trade their upper-body circulation for non-wobbly arms. But the real surprise? The sleeves were sold out almost immediately online.
As writer Eva Wiseman laments in a recent Guardian article, it’s not that control underwear is anything new, but the “sudden availability [of arm corsets] on the high street makes us aware of things that we didn’t realise we needed to worry about. Aware that yet another area of our bodies has been marked unfit for use.”
I am all for letting my upper arms go free style. But as I lined up all the things that claim to have ‘corrective properties’ at home, I realised I was no stranger to the self-improvement trap. Despite always having prided myself on only buying the ‘bare essentials’, my personal grooming collection suggested otherwise. Did I really need four different kinds of moisturisers for my face? What about those ‘sake yeast masks’ I never used? Is it any less naïve to believe in things like “preventative skin care” than forking out for latex-based quick fixes?
But before we weigh ourselves down with guilt, let’s take a look at what got us here in the first place. Whereas advertisers of yore relied on fear marketing to create new commercial needs, these days most female-centric brands have tapped into a more powerful narrative – the mantra of “you, only better”.
Cosmetic companies are particularly devoted to this technique, as are high-end gym ads. One only needs to take a look at Equinox's 2013 campaign (shot by Terry Richardson, no less) to realise that fitness is 99 percent aspiration, 1 percent perspiration. In this world, every woman is a work in progress. No one is ever fat, just pre-skinny; nor miserable, just pre-happy. In other words, no matter where you are in life, there’s always room to be better. ("Because you're worth it!")
In the book Bodies, author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach (Of Fat is a Feminist Issue fame) explains the lure of ‘empowerment’ marketing: “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ from the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence…[Instead], we transform the sense of being criticised by becoming the moving and enthusiastic actor in our own self-development programme. We will eagerly repair what is wrong.”
By internalising the pressure to perfect ourselves, argues Orbach, we develop an odd sense of attachment to the very companies that are bent on exploiting us. “It is as though, once having had our faults pointed out, we seize the chance to enhance ourselves by embracing the market’s propositions...We see ourselves as agents, not victims.”
Perhaps no one managed to crystallise this sales tactic better than the late cosmetics mogul, Helena Rubinstein, who invented the concept of “problem skin types” (dry, oily combination) and immortalised the saying, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones” – a mentality that’s still being pushed by advertisers today.
In this sense, what sounds ostensibly like the language of female empowerment in fact serves to lull us into becoming more accepting of our place in the world – a world where women are valued not for “the power to do, but the power to attract.”
When we talk about the female consumer culture, there’s often a tendency to conflate “choice” with “freedom”. And while we certainly have the economic power to opt in or out of beauty trends, as Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers points out, it’s easy to forget the social and cultural context in which we’re making these choices – even with a simple act like putting on makeup.
“We're only supposed to appreciate or be interested in makeup as a form of play and personal expression; we're supposed to ignore the social and political contexts,” writes Sauers, “I think it's overly simple, and it does a disservice to the varieties of women's lived experience in the complicated and politically inflected arena of what the women's magazines refer to, grandly, as 'beauty'."
So rather than being empowered to chase these rigid feminine ideals, let’s yearn for freedom from them. And we’ll do well to remember our hunger for change is anything but arbitrary – no matter what time of the year it is.