The advertising industry sold us the perfect woman – do we finally understand the price we paid? | Women


OWhen Billie Eilish appeared on the cover of Vogue’s June edition sporting a corset and a gorgeous set of platinum blonde curls, staring at the camera and daring anyone to object, it was truly shocking. Many on social media berated her, vigorously and mercilessly, for “selling out.” Eilish was unfazed. She is, she says, an adult. She has every right to dress as she prefers. And at that time she preferred a corset.

She was asserting her femininity, her adulthood, her right to present herself in a way that made her feel good. She was growing, not giving in.

Eilish should be free to wear whatever she wants – so why the disappointment? We run a company that specializes in understanding female audiences and specifically how they relate to the brands and marketing that try to appeal to them. And for 15 years, we’ve listened to women tell us how difficult it is to conform to what they feel are punitive ideals.

The truth is that the ideals designed, perfected and sold by marketers are powerful. We hear it all the time in our research – mental “should-be” lists (usually slimmer, often nicer, always prettier). Women resist and then fail to overcome the influence of brands that tell them they are too wrinkled, their hair is too dry, their parenting is too lax, and their breasts/lips/glutes lack plumpness.

A Barbie advertisement from the 1960s. Photograph: Retro AdArchives/Alamy

Whether we like it or admit it, women live with the idea that it’s our job to respond to the ideals set by others (usually men). We may no longer live in a world where the only way to achieve any kind of security is for women to make sure they reach out to those with power and resources (almost always men). But the dynamic, which tells us a story about how to be a “good girl” and meet the needs of men at every stage of life, still has a huge influence. Little girls are taught that to be a “good girl” means to be sweet, gentle, sweet and emotional – caring qualities that will serve them well when bearing children and caring for the family. From the age of six, the Fawcett Society revealed in a recent report, girls avoid subjects that require them to be “really, really smart” (science and math). Girls are impressed at an early age by the importance of looking attractive – the same report showed that more than a third of children aged seven to 10 think their appearance is the thing that matters most to them .

This focus on appearance continues into early adulthood. In the UK, our own data shows that women aged 18-24 believe their most defining characteristic is their intelligence, but at the same time they believe that society considers their most defining characteristic to be their appearance. The “good girls” then have the opportunity to be “perfect moms” (the zenith of female success), who in turn show their daughters how to be good. And so on. When they get older, the script for women fades and so do they. A period of beige, dissolving into invisibility, begins.

Modern marketing – initially populated and run almost entirely by men – took these imperatives and ran away with them. It was an exciting and foolproof strategy. Since the 1950s and the ubiquitous images of smiling housewives, marketing has honed particular ideals, crystallized them, painted and decorated them, and then resold those images of perfection to women.

And because perfection is impossible to achieve by mere human women, it has spurred a bottomless appetite for products. Girls could choose from toys only in soft, pastel and soft colors. They were given dolls to care for and make up, preparing them for a life of benevolence, kindness and financial dependence. Young women have been advised by brands to be slimmer, have softer skin, whiter skin, shinier, blonder hair and the straightest teeth, all in the service of marital ambition. They were given shampoos and body lotions in the same pinks and pastels as their childhood toys. Moms were shown how to raise baby, always smiling, always kind (never tear their hair out in sheer frustration always, always put their needs last, never wonder, in the ad, where dad got to ). The women on the other side of the maternity ward (say it quietly: “older women”) simply didn’t exist. They have been helped to stay as young as possible in whispered campaigns focused on anti-aging products. But they have never been photographed.

For about 70 years, this diet of perfectionism concocted by advertisers (it’s still the case that 65% of those who write ads are men), this is what the women consumed. And we are all now aware that failing women on a daily basis can (surprise, surprise) make them sick. By the age of 16, more than 50% of girls say they are unhappy with their appearance. Two-thirds of women believe that advertising is at least partly responsible for the rise in eating disorders among young women (37% between 2016 and 2019); our own research found that 75% of women in the UK say that “the appearance of models in advertising makes women feel bad about themselves and harmful”. The pressure to be a nice girl comes to a head when women are simultaneously parenting, working, and caring for aging parents: 81% of women surveyed at this stage of life say they feel unable to cope. Nearly three quarters of working mothers say they find it difficult to cope, and 40% describe themselves as “hanging by a thread”.

Admittedly, marketers have made efforts over the past 10 years to consider this possible negative impact on women, but so far have only elicited a well-meaning but rather superficial response. Women can now be larger than a size eight and still appear in advertising (thanks, Dove and anyone who followed in your footsteps); women of color are now also featured in advertising – although usually only in a range of other ethnicities, rarely, if ever, playing a starring role; “Older women” are well represented by Helen Mirren, but do not often appear in any other form. In its most illusory form, marketing’s response has been to work – with great enthusiasm and smugness – to re-empower the women it criticized. In reality, this usually means that attention is no longer about telling women how to present themselves, but rather about telling them how to behave.

The awfully named “fempowerment” movement strikes us as just another perfectionist stick with which to beat women. Where once women had to be thin, now they have to be strong. Where once women had to be beautiful, now they must be brave. Barbie tells women to “dream big” as if their own lack of imagination is the cause of the gender pay gap (almost double the national average in creative ad agencies). Pantene tells women to stop apologizing, when they might just be polite. Sometimes the messages these types of campaigns convey are a coded way of telling women, “Just act a little more like men, will you? Or, even more twisted, the message is that women are somehow guilty of believing the perfectionist narratives in the first place.

Starling Bank… doesn't accuse women of financial incompetence.
Starling Bank… doesn’t accuse women of financial incompetence. Photo: Lensi Photography/Starling Bank

But a glimmer of hope – an appropriate response – appears on the horizon. If you look closely enough, in most product areas there will be a brand (usually made by a woman) that breaks with this twisted tradition. Instead, he stays in his lane and tries to do something useful for his customers. Brands such as Mom Frida, with its ingenious range of postpartum and breastfeeding products. Or Third love, which makes underwear for the wearer, not the viewer. It’s available in soft materials and half-cup sizes – an antidote to Victoria’s Secret’s scratchy, ill-fitting, soft-porn masculine fantasy clothes. Or Starling Bank, which does not accuse women of financial incompetence (thank you for this campaign on the tube, NatWest), but is committed to making money easy to manage with a friendliness and transparency that was previously unavailable to customers. These brands earn their place with customers by simply being good, not by making women feel bad. It’s not that hard to figure out, is it?

Brandsplaining (Penguin Books) is available now (RRP 14.99). To order a copy for £13.04 visit


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