GUEST COMMENTARY: Well-meaning company's campaign sends women mixed messages

Sunday, August 10, 2014 | 9:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:12 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 11, 2014

A Pantene commercial tells women to stop apologizing, and its Twitter counterpart, #ShineStrong, has gone viral.

It contrasts scenes of women saying things like “Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?” with snippets of them behaving in an assertive way.

Pantene’s commercial makes a good point, but there are bigger problems holding women back — including the role of beauty products in our culture.

For me, author Laura Kipnis explains it best. “Femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy,” she writes in her book, "The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, and Vulnerability."

What does that mean?

Kipnis explains in the book:  “If you’re a modern female, unfortunately something’s always broken: be thinner, sexier, more self-confident; stop dating creeps; get rid of those yucky zits; and put the pizzazz back in your relationship.”

What do we do when we want some pizzazz? We get makeovers, go shopping, get pedicures or maybe wash our hair with Pantene shampoo.

To feel feminine, we first look for problems that mar our personal appearance. Where do we get such notions? From other women, beauty magazines and advertising.

Kipnis maps what she calls a “feminine-industrial complex” and says: “Your self-loathing and neurosis are someone else’s target quarterly profits.”

Americans spend well over $50 billion per year on cosmetics. Think about the headlines on the beauty magazines you see at grocery checkouts. They say “10 tips to get a flat belly!” or “Get a bikini body in one week,” not “Why you look fabulous as you are.”

Can you imagine the economic impact if all women woke up tomorrow and thought “I look great”? Sales on fake nails, hairspray, mousse, makeup, spray tans, liposuction, Botox and more would plummet.

The irony? Ads for products targeted to women perpetuate the very lack of confidence that the new Pantene commercial tells us to fight. As we drive profits for companies like Proctor and Gamble, which makes Pantene, the shame and self-loathing we feel for our bodies is toxic to every part of our lives.

Try going on an advertising diet: Go cold turkey off of fashion magazines, chuck out your TV, install an ad blocker on your Internet browser. Then gauge how you feel about yourself after some time passes.

Connect with ways to feel feminine and sexy that don’t imply inherent personal flaws. I find that flirting always does the trick for me.

As for Pantene and its #ShineStrong ads, the company could do a lot more to further women’s empowerment if it refused to advertise in any magazine or outlet that perpetuated the cultural norms that tell women being feminine means being inherently flawed.

Women don’t need to apologize for existing, but they also don’t need to buy a specific brand of shampoo to become empowered.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Mark Foecking August 11, 2014 | 1:51 p.m.

Men get the same messages - use this shaving cream, drive this truck, wear these clothes, and you'll be surrounded by hot babes and be the envy of your friends.

While I agree with the basic message here - be happy with what you have - I disagree that it's in some way worse for women.


(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.