There are two images from the 2017 global Women’s Marches that stay with me. One, from Athens, focuses on two…
Domina, Australia’s first ‘beauty adviser’ was a woman of ingenious thrift. In the early 1900s she cautioned women against buying lotions, scents, cleansers, oils, or in fact any kind of personal hygiene product in favour of her own crafty solutions. Toothpaste? Don’t trust it! she railed in 1903. Try myrrh, borax and water instead. Offensive breath? Have a glass of mineral water! When one woman complained of “excessive perspiration” Domina suggested taking three baths a week with pine cones. She warned another woman in 1908 against deodorant: “it is dangerous to actively interfere with the action of the skin and prevent perspiring.” Soap would be quite sufficient.
Domina dispensed her advice in the twilight of the Victorian era, when older feminine ideals of home economy and natural beauty blinked into the dark unknowns of a modern mass market. By the 1920s her remedies had been replaced by the alarms sounded by advertising. “A bath is never enough”, shrieked a deodorant company. “You can never know when you’re offending!” A breath freshener company asked a fictional Irene if she was “going to be an OLD MAID?” Her bad breath had apparently left her weeping and alone at a ball; the “pity” of men with peculiarly delicate noses.
The post-war world teemed with commodities and with them came new fears and desires. As middle-class women left the four walls of the home and shopped their way into public life, their bodies were imagined as sites of contamination and disorder. Companies plied their wares by depicting female bodies as unruly, leaky, smelly, wrinkly and freckly; in need of constant regulation. Being a woman meant being a product of consumer activity. Femininity now had to be bought.
I like to remember this history when I walk past mink eyelashes on sale for $150, fake-tanning studios, gyms, plastic-surgery clinics, or in fact any time I turn on the television and see beauty companies demanding that I love my body the way that it is while presenting me with a hungry, duck-faced model plucked and tanned to within an inch of her life. I like to remember that there is nothing natural or inevitable about packaged femininity. For a large part of our history, women were warned against buying products if they could make them at home.
If women are presently encouraged to recognise themselves through consumer activity, if we are told that our bodies must be continuously and artificially remade through beauty regimes, then this is a consequence of a peculiar historical moment when women’s expanding public freedoms were co-opted by a burgeoning market in commodities. At the very moment that women were entering new public spaces they were told to fear and doubt the body that took them there.
It’s a contradictory history. On the one hand, in their roles as wives and mothers responsible for the household, middle-class women shopped their way out of the home and into male-dominated public spaces via the new department stores. On the other hand, women’s consumption was directly related to their oppression. They adorned themselves as decorative objects for male approval, and household provision was just another form of unpaid labour. Women were both consumers and commodities, and consumption itself was gendered female.
Feminism’s approach to consumerism has been equally conflicted. Second-wave feminism’s assessment was scathing: burn your bras, throw away the make-up, hand-knit your yoghurt and let the hair on your legs grow long and ponderous. Don’t just expand the definition of beauty, recognise that beauty is not crucial to selfhood, they said. Women are capable of achieving much more.
But in the last twenty years, the pendulum has swung back. Postmodernists argued that left-wing anti-consumerism was just a lament for a lost, pre-war masculinity and at the same time liberal feminism encouraged women to embrace hedonism and self-gratification. Women need not be made to feel guilty for indulging in pleasure, it was argued.
The best example of pro-consumerist feminism is seen in the slew of 1990s American sitcoms that equated women’s liberation with having a choice of shoes and clothes. According to academic Eva Chen, these shows presented empowered, confident women in a world of conspicuous consumption and sexual abundance. They would advise each other to “try” as many men as possible to “see if they fit for size”. She says it’s a vision that works nicely in tandem with free trade and global capitalism.
But when you look a little closer, there’s actually very little to differentiate these women from traditional romantic heroines. In spite of their cleverness, they rarely discuss anything outside romance, nor do their desires extend beyond finding a husband to settle down with. Chen says that they all end up basing their self-worth on “the same eroticised and fashionably adorned female bodily charm that capitalism and patriarchy have always prescribed”. People appear to be like businesses: you need to work hard to improve your competitiveness in a sexual marketplace. And the standard of beauty is impossibly high. Not everyone can afford it or is even capable of it, which is why you don’t see many poor or old women and why these sit-coms are set in New York and not Dhaka.
I think that the reason why women will never find meaning in consumerism, and why feminism should be anti-consumerist, is partly found in history. Women are not biologically pre-destined to feel like they need to be made-up before they can step outside. Corporations at the turn of the 20th century had to convince women that they were lacking or deviant without their products. And, as Domina suggests, it took some work. As much as corporations want you to believe that their product is unique, or that it will make you empowered and independent, chances are you’re buying a standard, mass-produced item whose sales depend on you disliking your own body.
Consumer culture forces women into a ceaseless regime of self-surveillance in order to maintain competitiveness in a sexual market and then blames women, rather than ridiculous standards of beauty, if they lose. It takes words like choice, freedom and independence that have traditionally had broad, universal social meanings and confines them to individual consumption. No wonder the girls in American sitcoms, beneath the facial peels and labels, seem so anxious, self-obsessed and fragile. They’ve pegged their sense of self to the whims of fashion and profit-seeking companies.
And this critique is only from the privileged end of consumption. What about production? Under what conditions are those summery dresses made? A feminism that rejoices in consumer culture is one that denies the experiences of women in poor countries, the 30-40 million women worldwide who work in the global clothing industry. Liesbeth Sluiter from The Clean Clothes Campaign paints an evocative picture: “They are women whose children sleep beneath the sewing machine and begin to help out as soon as their fingers can manage to thread a needle; some who wear nothing but black clothes to work when menstruating, because toilet visits are restricted and stains on their clothes will shame them; pregnant women who stand all day; women who are sexually harassed and psychologically intimidated.’’ On top of this we could add that they will invariably be paid less than men for the same work, simply because they’re women.
The issue seems obvious: if you’re worried about whether your eggs are battery-farmed or free-range then you should also be worried about your clothes. The same labels that we see on food products should also be placed on clothing. But more than this, we should buy less and buy locally.
From the intimate violence of impossible beauty standards against which women are measured and found lacking, to the companies that create fear in order to sell you the cure to that fear, to the women in clothing factories on $37 a month, consumerism brings misery.
The packaged self is an anxious, unethical and historically recent delivery that should be left in its box and returned to sender.