Forever 21

Like every other woman on social media, I am constantly bombarded with promoted posts about losing weight. Mostly I just scroll on by; but last week I saw something which stopped me in my tracks.  Here it is in all its glory:

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What caught my eye wasn’t the diet advice (which I can’t even read because the type is so small). It was those drawings of the Five Ages of Woman, which as everybody knows are ‘super hot’, ‘hot’, ‘less hot but still trying’, ‘sexless frump’ and ‘decrepit granny’. They may not be a great advertisement for the keto diet, but they’re a good example of what I want to talk about in this post: the intimate, complicated relationship between ageism and sexism.

In ageist societies, getting older, frailer and less independent entails a loss of status and  respect. Old people, of both sexes, may be addressed familiarly by total strangers, offered unwanted and patronising ‘assistance’, and generally treated as incompetent or foolish. It’s often been suggested that women, whose status is lower to begin with, are treated even more disrespectfully than men. Marie Shear, for instance, who wrote incisively on this subject, recalls struggling to board a bus and being told by the (male) driver to take ‘big girl steps’—a humiliating injunction which it’s hard to imagine being addressed to a man in the same situation (‘big boy steps’?) But the tendency to belittle and infantilise old people does not affect women exclusively.

There is, however, another kind of ageism that is sex-specific (and specifically sexist), and which reflects the way women in patriarchal societies are defined by and valued for their sexual and reproductive functions. This form of ageism kicks in earlier–long before its targets could reasonably be described as old. It affects women of all ages, and shapes their experience of sexism at every point in their lives.

Consider, for instance, the peculiar linguistic etiquette which (in my culture, at least) dictates that one should never mention or inquire about an adult woman’s age. I was taught as a child that this was unspeakably rude: ‘ladies’, people said (because it was also rude to call them ‘women’), ‘are forever 21’ (this wasn’t a reference to fast fashion: at the time 21 was the age of legal majority). When I became an adult, this rule was applied to me too. I wish I had £10 for every time someone with a legitimate reason for wanting to know my age has either apologised for asking or made some awkward joke. It took me a while to realise that what was presented as courtesy (or when men did it, chivalry) was really no such thing. By treating references to a woman’s age as what politeness theorists call ‘face-threatening acts’, requiring either avoidance or elaborate mitigation, the culture I grew up in was sending the message that ageing, for women, was shameful.

Of course, that was several decades ago; but I don’t think the basic message has changed. If anything, the endless expansion of consumerism and the advent of digital media have made us even more obsessed with youth and beauty. Just as a woman can never be too rich or too thin, so she can never be–or at least appear to be–too young. ‘She doesn’t look her age’ is a compliment; ‘she really looks her age’ is an insult. The fact that we consider it a cruel humiliation to tell a woman she looks as old as she actually is speaks volumes about what we value in women, and think that women ought to value in themselves.

To see how ageism, as I put it before, ‘shapes women’s experience of sexism at every point in their lives’, take a look at any random collection of women’s magazines, newspaper problem pages or cosmetics ads. You will soon discover that the beauty industry defines ageing as something that begins in a woman’s late 20s. That’s when she’s told she should start using products designed to delay or disguise its effects. It’s also roughly the point at which she’s expected to start worrying if she hasn’t yet found a partner and started a family: the biological clock is ticking and her time is running out. Later she will be urged not to ‘let herself go’ and give her husband a reason to trade her in for a younger model. And later still she will be instructed in the art of growing old ‘gracefully’—accepting her devalued status and behaving/dressing accordingly.

We can follow this narrative through the images reproduced above. The three younger women are sexualised: they have long, flowing locks, wear tight-fitting clothes and heels (the first two also flash some skin, though the third is more covered up), and they are depicted in a classic ‘look at me’ pose—head tilted up or to the side, one leg bent at the knee, hand on hip. They’re desirable, they know it, and they take pleasure in being admired. The two older women, by contrast, are desexualised. Their hair is pinned up or cut short; their clothes are shapeless and unfashionable. They are walking rather than posing, clutching shopping bags in their hands, and looking down or away from the viewer’s gaze.

Language tells a similar story. In English we have numerous labels for women–for instance, ‘babe’, ‘chick’, ‘MILF’, ‘yummy mummy’, ‘spinster’, ‘cougar’, ‘biddy’, ‘bag’, ‘hag’—which locate them on a continuum of increasing age and decreasing desirability. From a feminist perspective all these labels are sexist, but the most overtly negative ones are those referring to the oldest women. This relationship is less clear-cut in the case of men. Though there are some insults for men that imply a connection between negative qualities and advancing age (e.g. ‘old coot/git/fart’), there isn’t the same insistence on categorising and judging men by their perceived sexual attractiveness. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that old men must be sexually undesirable. As women in the acting profession have been pointing out for years, ageing male stars go on being cast as romantic leads long after their female age-peers have been relegated to supporting roles.

But we shouldn’t overlook the point I was hinting at when I said that all the labels on my list were sexist. The hierarchy of value in which young women are worth more than old ones exists within a larger system of male dominance and female subordination. The objectification of babes and chicks is as much a part of that system as the contemptuous dismissal of old hags; they are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. Though ‘hag’ may be considered more insulting than ‘babe’, it’s really no great privilege to be a babe.

That’s why I’m not a fan of one now-common way of pushing back against sexist ageism —by insisting that older women can also be beautiful and desirable; or put another way, that women should maintain their status as sexual objects into their 50s, 60s and beyond. This idea has been taken up enthusiastically by the beauty industry, which sells it as a way of ‘empowering’ older women. Some companies have modified their branding to project a more positive attitude: instead of advertising ‘anti-ageing’ products which will make women ‘look x years younger’, they now promote ‘pro-age’ products which will ‘repair the damage’ or ‘reduce the signs of ageing’.

In her book about modern beauty norms, Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows is critical of this approach. She points out that what’s presented as a personal choice (‘getting older doesn’t have to mean losing your looks’) can easily turn into a moral obligation (‘getting older is no excuse for losing your looks’). Today, a woman who ‘lets herself go’ after having children, or after menopause, risks being shamed not only for her unattractive appearance, but also for her failure to ‘make the effort’. Far from pushing back against ageism, Widdows suggests, this message actually intensifies it.

But surely, you may be thinking, women are capable of seeing through this, and of resisting the pressure if they so choose? Clare Anderson, who has studied both the beauty industry’s discourse and women’s own talk about getting older, thinks it’s complicated. Many of the women she interviewed were indeed critical of the beauty industry, saying they knew it exploited their insecurities to sell them products. But they also said they bought the products anyway; and when they talked about their own experiences they often reproduced the industry’s ageist/sexist narratives (e.g. ‘ageing is decline’ and ‘it’s important not to let yourself go’). Whereas the men Anderson interviewed often said they felt more at ease with their bodies in their 50s than they had in their 20s, most women reported the opposite. Being aware of ageism, and in principle opposed to it, did not mean that in practice they could simply rise above it.

That’s also how I would interpret the responses I saw on social media to the ‘What to eat on keto’ image. Many critical comments were made by older women who objected to the stereotyping of their age-group as unattractive, shapeless frumps. Often they drew attention to the inaccuracy of these representations: ‘I’m over 50/over 60 and I don’t look anything like the woman in that drawing!’ And I’m sure they don’t (for the record, at 61 I don’t favour perms and shapeless slacks myself); but this line of criticism misses the point. It fails to acknowledge that the devaluation of women who do look old is fundamentally unjust; it also fails to connect the unjust treatment of visibly older women with another injustice that affects women in general, namely our culture’s insistence on judging them, at every age, far more by their looks than their achievements.

These responses underscore the point that attitudes which are damaging to women may be internalised by women themselves. And feminist women are not exempt. Having a feminist analysis of sexist ageism does not, on its own, destroy its power to wound you. And at the other end of the age-spectrum, as Claire Heuchan (aka the blogger Sister Outrider) recently reminded her followers on Twitter, a commitment to feminism may not prevent young women from weaponizing ageism in political conflicts with older ones.

What prompted Heuchan’s thread on this subject was noticing how much of the criticism recently directed to JK Rowling made use of ageist/sexist language. Rowling, now in her 50s, was called (among other things) a ‘dried up prune’, a ‘dried up old tart’, a ‘tired old bitch’ and ‘a bitter old hag who’s pissy because she doesn’t get as much attention anymore’. Noting that some of the people who used this language were women, Heuchan commented:

It can be difficult to unlearn ageist misogyny. In particular when there is a social reward (male approval) attached, and the opportunity to exceptionalise yourself through making demeaning comments about older women. It is patriarchal conditioning. But that doesn’t excuse it.

It’s not hard to understand young women’s desire to ‘exceptionalise themselves’. The trouble is that ageism makes no exceptions. Every young woman will—barring catastrophe—grow old; at some point her ‘youth privilege’, such as it is, will be revoked, and she too will become a target for ageist and sexist insults.

The good news is that this cycle can be broken. We can’t change the fact that people get older, but we can change the conditions–the attitudes and practices and social structures–that make ageing a source of fear and shame. Rejecting the kind of language I’ve discussed in this post–language that age-shames through avoidance, condescension  or outright contempt–would be a modest step in the right direction.

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Postscript: the day after this was published a reader sent me a screenshot of another diet ad which uses the same format as the ‘What to eat on keto’ one–but this one targets men. The difference is instructive (and so obvious I don’t think I need to comment further):

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Many thanks to Brittney O’Neill for this example.

 

A message to our sponsors

My feelings about International Women’s Day are a bit like my feelings about Christmas: what’s meant to be a celebration all too often degenerates into internecine squabbles and vacuous corporate messaging. At Christmas companies spout pieties about peace on earth; on IWD they spout platitudes about women’s empowerment. Sometimes these are embellished with eyecatching gimmicks, and sometimes this strategy backfires. This year, the energy company Shell announced that it was temporarily rebranding itself as ‘She’ll’—a gesture so lame that for a while people believed a tweet which claimed it was a prank played on the company by someone else.

In the run-up to IWD 2020 I was approached by a couple of PR consultants myself. They asked if, in exchange for a sum of money, I would put my name, my expertise, and in one case this blog, in the service of a language-themed corporate campaign. The first of these correspondents told me the identity of the client was confidential: it would only be revealed to me if I agreed to be involved. Since I declined, I will never know who I was being asked to get involved with. The second identified the client as Avon, the world’s fifth-largest beauty company and its second-largest direct sales company. I said no to that as well. Just to be clear, I would say no to any proposal of this kind. But I’d never expected to actually get a proposal, let alone two in quick succession.

Maybe I should have seen it coming, though, because I do know the corporate world is obsessed with language as a tool for empowering women. I’ve written many times about the pervasiveness of the ‘deficit model’, according to which women are prevented from achieving their true potential by their weak and unauthoritative style of speaking. This idea has spawned a large and lucrative industry devoted to fixing (sorry, ‘empowering’) women through workplace training, personal coaching, self-help books and articles in women’s magazines. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know what this advice consists of: lose the high squeaky voices, the uptalk and the vocal fry, cut out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ and stop larding your emails with emoji. You’ll also know what I think of it: that it’s linguistically naïve, sexist nonsense whose main effect is to make women feel self-conscious, anxious and inadequate.

But this remains a minority view. Whenever I criticise the deficit model I always get pushback from women who say they find the narrative of empowerment through language uplifting and inspiring. That’s probably why the narrative is also used to market other kinds of products to women.

A few years ago I came across an example on an Indian website. It started like this:

If you think about it, women are always apologizing – even when it’s not their fault. Especially when it’s not their fault. In the boardroom. When asking if someone’s got a moment to talk. When accidentally bumped by the gent who just sat in the next chair. While handing baby to daddy. In the process of recovering their legitimate share of the quilt at bedtime. While opening the passenger door of the car. It’s like they are genetically hardwired to apologize for being there, for bringing themselves to notice, for leaving the kitchen, for abdicating parenting responsibility however brief it may be, for being greater than the sum of the parts society (mostly the male bits) expects them to be. It’s the residual guilt of generations of conditioning.

In this text, the deficit-model claim that women apologise too much is presented in a less judgmental way. The writer seems to be commiserating with women rather than blaming them for being such wimps. But while it wasn’t hard to follow her line of thought, I couldn’t quite see where the writer was going with it. What message, exactly, were readers meant to take away?

And then all was revealed:

Stop it, says this advertisement by shampoo brand Pantene. Don’t be sorry. If anything, be sorry about not being sorry. Instead of apologizing, shine strong – like your Pantene-shampooed hair.

What I was reading was an ‘advertorial’, or in more contemporary parlance ‘native advertising’. It was designed to look like regular editorial content, but in fact it was part of a global campaign promoting Pantene shampoo. Embedded in the text was a link to a video of the TV ad, ‘Sorry not sorry’, that had launched the campaign in the US. The ad presents a series of vignettes (the same ones rendered verbally in the text already quoted) in which women apologise unnecessarily, followed by the ‘stop saying sorry and shine strong’ message. US audiences reportedly loved it, and it also got a lot of attention in the media. Clearly, as the trade publication Adweek commented,

talking about sexism and feminism and female empowerment is a great way for brands to build buzz.

Actually, the Pantene campaign doesn’t so much talk about sexism and feminism as obliquely allude to them; in the text I’ve quoted the clearest reference to sexism (‘mostly the male bits’) is literally a parenthesis. But since 2016 the buzz has got louder, and the brands, or at least some of them, have got bolder.

Avon’s IWD campaign is a case in point. It’s called #SpeakOut (notice the echo of recent feminist hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp), and it’s explicitly about a form of sexism. As the company’s website explains:

Through conversations with our global network of women, we have discovered that in languages and cultures across the world there are words and phrases used specifically to describe, criticise and negatively stereotype women. For example, being called ‘Lippy’ in English, ‘Vorlaut’ in German, or ‘Mandona’ in Spanish, to name but a few. Through the #SpeakOut campaign, we are urging women to reclaim this stereotyped language and be proud to speak out and share their stories.

In Britain the campaign has produced a promotional feature in Marie Claire magazine headed ‘It’s time to reclaim the words used against us with the #SpeakOut campaign’. The words ‘in partnership with Avon’ appear just below this title, making it clear that this is commercially sponsored content. Unlike in the Pantene example, however, what’s being promoted isn’t Avon’s products, but rather its ethos and history as a company which has always believed in empowering women. It’s given generations of women whose domestic responsibilities precluded regular employment a way to earn money selling products to their friends and neighbours; in 1955 it established a Foundation for Women which supports breast cancer charities and organisations working to end domestic violence. Now it’s taking up the cause of women’s ‘equal right to voice’ and encouraging them to be ‘proud to speak out’.

The core of the feature is a conversation in which a group of women–and one man, from the male allies’ group Good Lad–share their stories and their views. One of the women is a linguist, and she is given the role of explaining what research has shown (for instance that women’s speech tends to be evaluated less positively than men’s). The others are a rapper, a journalist, a trans woman who’s an Avon representative, the CEO of Avon and the editor of Marie Claire. They talk about their experiences of being silenced, ignored or dismissed, and affirm the importance of ‘amplifying women’s voices’.  Apart from one predictable irritant (there’s a lot of emphasis on how important it is to bring men into the conversation—because god forbid there should be even one day of the year when women don’t have to tell men they’re important) I thought this was basically fine. It’s not my kind of feminism, but it’s certainly an improvement on the cynical faux-feminism of ‘stop apologising and buy our shampoo’.

Campaigns like these raise a larger question: whose interests are being served when companies take up feminist concerns and use the language of feminism in their messaging? Obviously they’re not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they think there’s something in it for them. But should we condemn this corporate appropriation of feminism as inauthentic, self-serving and axiomatically antithetical to our goals, or is it possible to see it as enlightened self-interest, something which—if it’s done right—can serve women’s interests too?

With Pantene and ‘Sorry not sorry’ (or Shell and ‘She’ll’) I think it’s clearly self-serving: it’s the feminist equivalent of ‘green/pinkwashing’, using symbolic resources (logos, packaging, advertising copy) to associate your brand with a cause while doing absolutely nothing practical to advance it. But Avon is arguably a more complicated case. It does have some claim to be a historically woman-centred business, it puts a fair chunk of money where its mouth is, and I’m sure many of the women who work for it are genuinely committed to the causes it supports. But this pro-woman stance contains a number of contradictions which are hard for feminists to overlook.

First and most obviously, Avon is part of the beauty industry, which has long been criticised by feminists for relentlessly exploiting women’s anxieties and insecurities. Clearly the company is aware of this, and it attempts a quasi-feminist defence in a section of the website called ‘The Power of Beauty’. Beauty, it says, is ‘not vain or frivolous, for many women it is key to building confidence and self-belief’. In other words, it’s empowering. But this misses the point of the feminist objection, which is not that the beauty industry encourages vanity and frivolity: the  problem is rather the role the industry plays in defining what will count as a desirable or even just acceptable way for women to look. Not only does this ideal demand a significant investment of time, attention and money, it’s also sexist, ageist and (if we look globally) racist and colourist. Why should women’s ‘confidence and self-belief’ depend on conforming to oppressive beauty standards?

Another contradiction emerges if we consider Avon’s business model—recruiting women to sell products to other women in their own communities. The prototypical Avon representative is a woman whose main occupation is unpaid care-work in the home, and who is looking for a way to make money which is compatible with her domestic role. It’s true that Avon is meeting a need by providing earning opportunities for women in this position, but it is also profiting from the patriarchal social arrangements that create the need in the first place.

Avon’s feminism, and indeed corporate feminism in general, exemplifies what Catherine Rottenberg calls ‘neoliberal feminism’. This doesn’t focus on large-scale structural issues like the exploitation of women’s unpaid care-work, but rather ‘exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve “a happy work-family balance”’.  Unlike 1990s ‘post-feminism’, which suggested that women (at least in the West) were already equal and no longer needed feminism of any kind, neoliberal feminism does acknowledge the continuing existence of gender inequality and injustice. But the solutions it proposes are ‘individualised–such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse’.

The #SpeakOut campaign is clearly in this mould. As I’ve already said, I don’t disagree with its general aims; nor do I dispute that individual ‘speaking out’ can be a powerful gesture (think of #MeToo). But if it isn’t a prelude to any kind of collective action, it’s hard to see what the gesture accomplishes. Second wave feminists also held ‘speak outs’ on issues like rape and illegal abortion, but they were clear that this wasn’t just an end in itself: it was meant to deepen their understanding of the problem so they could figure out what needed to be done about it. The work of actually changing things came later, took longer, and demanded a serious commitment from the activists involved.

The corporate messages we get on International Women’s Day generally aren’t a prelude to anything. They’re just a fleeting moment of feelgood celebration before it’s back to business as usual until next year. Shell’s ‘She’ll’ campaign, for instance, has produced a video in which images of girls and women are overlaid with uplifting statements that begin with the words ‘she will’, like ‘she will be respected’, and ‘she will be heard’. In future, they’re telling us, women will be equal. But when will this happen, and how will it come about?

That’s a detail too far for the people who make these ads, but feminists know the answer: it will happen, if it does happen, through the efforts of women themselves. Today and every other day, it’s those efforts we should be celebrating.