Why we need to change the way we market to women

Following this week's Body Confidence event the author and self-esteem advocate Elizabeth Kesses argues brands must do more to portray women realistically in advertising and the media.

Elizabeth Kesses
Elizabeth Kesses

Flick through any women's mag and you'll be accosted by absolute perfection – young, super-slim models, with flawless skin, silky hair.

Magazines will say it is aspirational. Psychologists and researchers have proven that it undermines confidence – by up to 80% after you read a magazine.

We are at breaking point with our obsession with perfection,‎ with the added complication of over glamorised selfies and insta-editing. Most brands, most agencies and most media owners are currently doing nothing. Editors of mags are worried readership will drop and brands are fearful to break the rules.

Until now.

This week saw the first ever conference that addressed these issues; The Body Confidence Event in London. It launched off the back of a pledge – driven by an all-parliamentary committee – to stop altering images falsely and ‎portray women more realistically, more diversely. It goes as far as saying that highly edited ads should come with a warning.

The speakers were impressive - Caroline Dinenage, the minister for Women & Equality, Caryn Franklin of Clothes Show fame and now a women's champion among others. And the room was full of brand and ad agencies. Funnily enough there was not a single consumer magazine, not one newspaper and a sprinkling of social media companies as well as Google.


Karlie Kloss left Victoria Secret because of its values / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Inspiring brand owners such as Hannah Isichel, head of PR and marketing at Curvy Kate spoke about how her bikini sales have soared as a result of showing all sorts of women in its ads – age, ethnicity, disability, size. Kelly Knox – a "handicapped" model – talked about how we need to confront and own our uniqueness. ‎She mentioned to everyone having their own light, and marketing today is extinguishing it.

But there are too few brand campaign examples – Zara put size 12 models in its campaigns, but you can hardly tell the difference. And as for the Victoria's Secret "Everybody is beautiful ad", it should read "only slim photoshopped bodies are beautiful".

There are some great influences such as Karlie Kloss who left Victoria's Secret because of their values, and now focuses on inner beauty through her coding workshops. Or Iskra Lawrence who brought such success to American Eagle as a normal looking model. Indeed, she refuses to be called plus-sized.

Victoria's Secret: faces backlash over its "Perfect Body" campaign

It poses a bigger question. ‎Why are we still talking about beauty? Why are we still judging women on their appearance first? Ads need to change but they need to be less about hair,  skin and teeth maybe and more about talent and personality.

If we took all the beauty content out of women's mags there'd be almost nothing left.

Where is the front cover with a mathematician? Or a brain surgeon? Where is the role model that climbs mountains or travels to the moon?

Women are in a downward beauty spiral – and it's created new shackles that we left in the kitchen in the 60s. Instead of burning our bras we need to burn our straighteners. Or our false eyelashes.

For all of this has very, very serious consequences. Three quarters of teen girls are unhappy with what they look like. 6 out of 10 give up activities like sport and ballet, because they feel they look uncomfortable in the requisite attire. Adult women refuse to go to the beach for the same reason.

And it gets worse. Teen anorexia is starting younger and suicide rates are on the increase. ‎Ads don't cause these problems, but they don't aid the recovery.

During the conference I heard whispers that some attendees had had flak for attending – as if it was some extreme activist gathering.

Therein lies the problem. This isn't about extreme feminism or aggression. It is a positive nurturing and important initiative in the narcissistic society we live in. And all of us – in adland, media world and entertainment - have a corporate and social responsibility to do more.

Consumers are humans first, demanding authenticity and understanding that they have been lied to is the biggest bubble that's about to burst. If we don't stop pretending, faking it, they will out us all.‎ And it's everything – from the lack of female creative directors, film directors – to the anecdotal stories of models told by their agency they're 'too fat', to the men in board meetings ogling over a portfolio.

‎Companies that think they know best, talk down to their audience, refuse to listen, even add a negative comment to this article, they are failing to seize the business opportunity let alone the moral one. Today's "sexy" brands are tomorrow's relics, the shoulder pads of the now, and they have no place in the future.   

Elizabeth Kesses is champion for self-esteem and author of The Ugly Little Girl

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