I remember learning in 8th grade that the “thigh gap” was supposed to be a good thing. I had never given thought the existence of space between my thighs—it didn’t seem like the type of thing that could be good or bad. Were people tired of obsessing over other parts of the female body and needed to move on to a new region?
It shouldn’t be a news flash that insecurities are not inherent. Babies don’t come out of the womb with opinions about backne, back fat, and crow’s feet. We learn about “problem areas” of the female body from friends, media, and the beauty industry. Sometimes we learn about a new “flaw” in a snappy ad selling its magic antidote. It’s a sweet business model for the beauty and fashion industries; create a new problem, then sell a product to fix it. But this model requires that people buy into it—both literally and in the way we reinforce these beauty standards in daily life. So how did we turn all of these normal human body things into things that need fixing?
Cellulite: “The new word for fat you couldn’t lose before”
For much of human history, cellulite was such a non-issue that we didn’t even have a word for it. Stroll through any gallery with paintings from the 1800s and earlier, and you can find paintings of nude ladies with dimply skin. According to Broadly, the word “cellulite” first popped up in France around the late 1800s, and for a while people thought it was the build-up of toxins under the skin. (It’s not—cellulite is perfectly healthy.) Vogue brought the term stateside in the ‘60s when its cover read: “Cellulite, the new word for fat you couldn’t lose before.” It set in motion an anti-cellulite craze that doesn’t seem to be losing steam. Now we can expect zoomed-in images of celebrity thighs to grace magazine pages every summer, with red circles highlighting the offending fat. And with distaste for cellulite comes a ton of anti-cellulite products and bizarre treatments. As of 2008, the market for anti-cellulite devices was worth $47 million according to the New York Times.
Stretch marks: Are we making progress toward embracing our stripes?
Stretch marks are another common and natural feature of our bodies that has been transformed into a flaw. NYMag found that an aversion to the little streaks goes back to the Ancient Egyptians and was even featured in some of Ovid’s poetry. But the fact that we’ve been hating on stretch marks for so long doesn’t justify our current fixation. Stretch marks are super common—80% of Americans have them—and they tend to form during growth spurts in puberty, rapid weight change, and pregnancy. Signs of our obsession with stretch marks are everywhere, from magazine features that let you guess celebrities by their stripes, to the 13.5 million results (at time of publication) that come up when you Google “stretch marks.” Happily, there seems to be a trend towards embracing these marks—models including Barbie Ferreia have publicly celebrated theirs, and brands like Victoria’s Secret and Lane Bryant have published un-retouched photos featuring stretch marks.
Armpit hair: How it became “objectionable”
These days, its waaaay less common to see a woman with her full-on, natural underarm hair than one who’s shaved it all off. As it turns out, people have removed body hair for aesthetic reasons throughout history, including the Ancient Egyptians and people living under the Roman Empire. But according to Mic, body hair wasn’t a topic of debate in the U.S. during the 1700s and 1800s. That changed as fashions changed. The first frontier was the underarm—in the early 20th century, dresses went sleeveless around the same time that razors were marketed specifically to women. One of the earliest depilatory ads refers to “objectionable underarm hair” which must be removed for “summer dress and modern dancing.”
Leg hair: Unshaven legs put you at risk of “dudeness”
Leg hair was next to go. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, hemlines went up and a shortage of nylon during WWII meant more women were wearing skirts and dresses with bare legs. Body hair has been a general target of disgust ever since. Veet produced an ad campaign in 2014, “Don’t risk dudeness,” which showed women with body hair literally transforming into hairy men. Beyond implying that body hair is uniquely male (??), the videos go a step further and suggest that women with a bit of stubble will be shamed and rejected by cab drivers, boyfriends, and pedicurists alike. Yup, Veet thinks that women can’t do normal life stuff if they don’t shave on the daily.
When Veet went live with the “Don’t risk dudeness” campaign, the response on social media was swift. Hundreds of comments critiquing the videos on both Facebook and YouTube caused the Veet marketing team to pull the clips from the web and issue an apology statement.
The path forward
It’s unlikely that the fashion and beauty industries will stop trying to make bank off of manufactured insecurities any time soon. But nowadays, at least we have better tools for pushing back against shame-y ad campaigns. The Veet backlash isn’t the only example—online petitions have pushed Victoria’s Secret to change its marketing and motivated Seventeen magazine to change its image retouching policy. Some companies have taken notice and are embracing body positivity in their advertising, while others feature women taking on everyday sexism. We have the power to shape the way companies market to us—both with our voice and with our wallet. So next time you see an ad that leverages shame to sell a product, let the company know you’re not buying it.
In addition to the fight against harmful advertising, there’s often an inner battle as well—trying to accept and even embrace your “flaws” can be challenging for all of us. But the effort is well worth your while. And, who knows, your body positivity might just rub off on those around you.