Standing up to industry norms

Sara Sheridan shares her experience of undertaking a feminist marketing campaign featuring a diverse range of models

, 17 April 2017

When I launched a feminist business last year, I knew our campaign would have to be provocative. As a feminist, I have strong views about how women are traditionally represented and treated, particularly in the arts and media – such as headlines – and in fashion and beauty campaigns, as well as the more traditional spheres of film and theatre. I also have a specific interest in how we memorialise female achievement or – more to the point – how we don’t.

As a mother, I want my daughter to find female role models in her normal day-to-day life. I want that for all girls. This entails revisiting our history – it is, after all, difficult to see where we’re going if the view of where we’ve come from is obscured. For example, in Edinburgh, where I live, there are more statues raised to animals than there are to women. This is indicative of a wider lack of representation of women and our history not being honoured – with much of it hidden or lost. I want to change that, whether I do so by writing women’s stories in my work as a historical novelist, or by telling those stories in other ways, which is the aim of my new business – to make perfume inspired by heroines and market it in a way that challenges the patriarchal status quo.

I had become increasingly sick of doctored images of women produced by corporate advertisers who spend huge budgets on selling fantasies that play on women’s insecurities. As my friends and I have grown older, I’ve heard many of them (not all of whom self-identify as feminists) saying that products just don’t seem to include us anymore unless they are specifically for older women. And then, for those of us whose skin isn’t white or who are larger than a size 14, there are feelings of alienation long before the ageist policy of corporate advertisers kick in. We are bombarded with campaigns that overwhelmingly feature young, white, size 6-8 women. Worse than this limitation to one body type and the kinds of images we perhaps expect from perfume adverts – young, available women waiting on men and wistful, white-skinned women of a specific shape in a sea of flowers staring blankly past the camera.

We took the approach of asking the models to pick the images they liked best

The fashion and beauty industries are slowly waking up to the idea that not only are we diverse, but we want to see that diversity. However, they still have some way to go. For example, a recent Zara denim campaign with the strapline “Love your curves” was accompanied by an image of two blonde-haired white models in their late teens/early twenties who were probably a UK size 6-8. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t celebrate these women, but I do feel it’s important to see a range of shapes, sizes and skin colours and, frankly, if you’re celebrating curves, there might be more apt casting choices in this case.

In the light of the above limitations, standing up to the industry norm in my own work seemed important and that belief led my team to take an alternative approach to shooting our campaign. Many niche brands don’t use models at all – sticking with an image of the bottle – but when we discussed it as a team, there was overwhelming consensus that we didn’t want to do that, as it would have felt like we were sidestepping an important issue. Instead, we found models who self-identified as female and ranged from size 8 to 22. The youngest was in her 20s, while the oldest was almost 80. They had underarm hair, wrinkles, curves and creases, and we made a decision not to retouch any of the images. To me, it seems obvious that one size does not fit all. Why should we pretend that it does?

We took the approach of asking the models to pick the images they liked best – so that our choices for the campaign would be led by what they felt comfortable with. It seemed important to hand back that power to the models. Many of the women said the shoots we organised changed the way they felt about their bodies. One professional model – a black woman – talked about her typical experience in the industry when her hair was styled and make up applied: “In that moment I know I will be made the ‘other’. They never have products suitable for me.” Another said, “[I] have more body hair than some girls and this was something that made me feel ugly and was a topic of humiliation when I was younger,” adding that she felt empowered that we hadn’t asked her to remove her body hair or tidy it up on photoshop. Others said they were glad to be represented as they were in the images: “It just truly shows how happy I was in that moment,” one model told us.

We felt giving a platform to the voices of the women in our images would avoid objectifying them

We found these responses moving; we knew were doing something different and had taken that tack out of principle, but the responses we had from the individual women involved highlighted exactly why we’d wanted to make these decisions. We wanted to share that experience and started a blog. We believed this was important, both in the sense that we felt giving a platform to the voices of the women in our images would avoid objectifying them and also as a way to unite feminist voices from underrepresented women within the movement.

As a writer, I am also interested in how we use language and was therefore proud to post journalist and activist, Vonny Moyes’ piece on reclaiming the word Bitch on our blog. This is particularly relevant to our brand, as our product is named after an 18th century slur by the Duke of Cumberland on the Jacobite women – he called them “those Damn Rebel Bitches”. In keeping with this, we named our blog ‘Bitches Unite’.

Starting out, we asked our models product-specific questions but also gauged their views on their own bodies and their experiences in connection with them. Since the blog launched, we have also featured several alternative voices in the beauty industry, activists and women who work professionally in areas where their appearance has been an issue – from the armed forces to the music industry. We also made the decision to feature male feminists. We sought out men who could articulate their feminist beliefs and who had made an impact by doing so. So, for example, we spoke to literary agent Jonathan Ruppin, who talked about the day he realised his privilege in being a white, middle-class man and became an activist committed to helping eradicate sexism within his industry. Another man featured was Julian Kynastan, who founded Illamasqua and has said: “Beauty is many different things to many different people… I think it’s disgusting that the industry has tried to shoehorn one particular kind of beauty into the mass market.”

When I revealed our images publicly, we received some strong reactions: “This looks like a pig,” said one woman about a size 8 to 10 model. For hours afterwards, it felt like our office had been besieged by a body-shaming squad. However, some of the critics gave an impression of feeling guilty: “It seems a little real,” one woman posted, with what we took as a twinge of regret. “Wrinkles won’t make me want to buy perfume,” wrote another. Another simply said “This isn’t beautiful”, while an arguably more constructive criticism we received stated “This belongs in an art gallery, not on a dressing table.”

Women derive power from being invited to portray themselves as they are

We decided to highlight the negative side of this feedback. We did this by placing the quotes onto the images they referred to and posted them as statements on our social media streams. Again, what came back was a mixed flood of support on the one hand, and anger on the other. It felt as if we’d made an important statement and though I was disappointed at the deluge of negativity, this also ran alongside support for the visual statement we’d made. “What is all the fuss about?”, one woman asked. “This is how we ARE.”

The feedback wasn’t all from individuals. We quickly also encountered a corporate response. All our advertising on social media ended up being flagged as offensive, leading us to be banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram also took down some of our posts, as they effectively considered the images to be pornographic. It was galling to be censored in this way but despite explaining our methodology and making an appeal, we haven’t received any response to our social media queries so far.

History has taught us that change doesn’t just happen. It occurs because someone has taken a stand, and often that stand seems shocking at the time. If nothing else, my experience of undertaking a marketing campaign underpinned by the feminist principle of body diversity has shown that there is support out there for a more diverse and realistic depiction of women’s bodies and that women derive power from being invited to portray themselves as they are. We will not be backing down on our principles.

Image descriptions and credits

Front page and first image in article: Black and white head and shoulders shot of a black, full-figured model (Stephanie). She is looking directly at the camera and smiling, while her right hand is level with her long wavy hair, casually flung back. Light stretch marks can be seen on her visible shoulder and she wears a black patterned bra, with glossy make-up on her eyelids and lips.

2: Screen shot from social media campaign (no longer available online). This shows a left-rotated black and white face shot of a black, short-haired model (Osato). She holds her left hand up over the left side of her face and is looking up and to her left, as if deep in thought. The following text is overlaid on the image in red capital letters: “I THINK FOCUSSING ON THEIR STRENGTHS RATHER THAN THEIR FAT ROLLS WOULD LOOK AND FEEL BETTER.”

3: Colour head and shoulders shot of a white, grey-haired model (Alex), taken from a low angle. Her head is raised and she appears proud and steely. She is topless and her long straight hair covers her breasts.

4: Screen shot from social media campaign (no longer available online). This shows the nose, chin and shoulders of a black, afro-haired model (Shaheeda). Her left hand is pulled back behind her head to reveal her armpit hair. She wears a white vest, with a Monroe facial piercing and light lip gloss. The following text is overlaid on the image in red capital letters: “I DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THE NAME, BUT THE HAIRY PIT IS NOT GOING TO MAKE ME BUY A LUXURY PRODUCT.

Photos by Bethany Grace. All rights reserved with REEK.

Sara Sheridan is a historical novelist. Fascinated by female history, she is a cultural commentator who appears regularly on television and radio. In 2014, she was named one of the Saltire Society’s 365 Most Influential Scottish Women, past and present. She launched REEK. perfume in Autumn 2016

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