Insecurity is big business. We probably wouldn’t bother with half the things we buy if we felt good about ourselves.
Your breath isn’t fresh enough (that’s how Listerine got its big break).
Your hair isn’t straight enough (cue GHDs and Brazilian blowouts).
Your teeth aren’t white or straight enough (aesthetic dentistry).
You’re too pale (fake tan), too dark (skin lighteners), too wrinkly (Botox), hairy (Veet, Brazilians, razors, endless Groupon offers for laser hair removal) and fat (diets, pills, fat free yoghurt).
And so on.
Most of the time, advertising gets blamed for this. We wouldn’t want something if it wasn’t for an ad campaign, right? Actually, a lot of the time, it isn’t advertising’s fault at all, if you’re looking to allocate blame. I remember trying to tell Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo who was recently arrested at Occupy Wall Street (what took her so long?), that the biggest brands in the townships weren’t actually advertised — somehow people knew about them anyway — but she wasn’t interested. The idea that people might want something because it’s out there rather than because an ad told them to want it seems to be alien to a lot of people at all points of the political spectrum.
You see, the moment you create a solution, you create a problem. Voila: the basic principle of marketing. All you really want to achieve as a marketer is culture shift. Accomplish that, and hope that the pendulum doesn’t swing back. If you can create a meme that aggressively replicates itself in the minds and cultural products of its willing hosts, you will have succeeded.
So it is that designer vaginas, labiaplasties, vaginal bleaching and all the other new and exciting things that women are now doing Down There which is the discussion du jour. This week, Ivo Vegter wrote about this Guardian piece in the Daily Maverick; on women24 40% of the women who voted about bleaching thought it was a good idea.
This is how things start. We think: vaginal aesthetic surgery, eeuw! Gross! Why would anyone want to do that? But then we read about it and hear more about it. We see it on TV and read about it in women’s magazines. Somebody was promoting it at Sexpo. Friends giggle about it over glasses of slag juice. More and more plastic surgeons start offering it. The fact that it’s available creates a market for it (Steve Jobs knew very well that you didn’t ask consumers what they wanted, you gave them something you knew they’d want if you told them about it). Men, who have become accustomed to watching fabulous porn fannies, begin to expect it. Social pressure builds up (a bit like anal sex, which used to be unheard of, but is now expected). Oh, you’ll probably never see an actual ad, except perhaps for a subtle little reminder in your Discovery magazine, rather like the ones the dentists place. But suddenly, something that used to be unthinkable becomes entirely possible.
And Bob’s your uncle, your bits aren’t good enough anymore, and yet another aspect of your body is commoditised. Everything, absolutely bloody everything, requires that you fork out a bundle of cash just to be able to live with yourself. I’d just got my head around pedicures — finally — and now the goalposts shift again. I want to weep.
Ja ja, as Ivo argues, this is about freedom of choice. (“Besides, my friends,” he writes, “are you seriously objecting to pretty pussy?” The ball-breaking feminist in me would like say that that’s a classic dickhead comment, but I get the joke.) Sure, if people want to do this to themselves then that’s between them and their therapist. But this is an area of our lives about which many of us women are profoundly insecure. It’s fine for men to fret about the size of their dicks, but then they haven’t been subjected to the sustained assault on every aspect of their anatomy.
If you’re a man, you can still get away with being a revolting slob. You aren’t waxed, shaved, plucked, tanned, painted, dyed and slimmed to within an inch of your life. You don’t grow up knowing — through what friends and family say to you, through the pictures you see in magazines and on TV, through who gets the chocolates at Valentine’s and who doesn’t — that you’re not pretty and no boy will ever be interested in you. You don’t get to grow up, finally, and make your own way in the world only to discover that there’s all this other stuff wrong with you, and you’re back to square one. (That’s something women specialise in, although men are coming under more pressure to be perfect too.)
The truth about living in society is that eventually you have to do what everybody else does too, because that’s the way it works. You will never be good enough, but you can spend a lot of money trying. Analysed as a body of work, this is the message from the beauty industry, and it’s brilliant, because there will always be another sale.
Oh, I love the chick stuff as much as the next woman. Who doesn’t want to be pretty and sexy and loved? But I can see the way this is going, and it depresses me. Because, while insecurities make good business sense, playing on them makes it even harder for us to be happy, as if it wasn’t bloody difficult enough. I might work in marketing. But dammit, there are times when I absolutely hate the things marketers do.