Yesterday at the gym, I saw a girl who looked around 18 lifting inordinately heavy weights in the section that seems typically reserved for the boys. She looked fierce. She was young and svelte, but had the sort of muscle definition that would contest with a professional gymnast’s. In all honesty, I think I was in a state of admiration for the girl’s confidence. Confidence to learn how to lift weights, first of all. Confidence to stand in front of the mirror in full view of men with protruding muscles and heave the metal rods above her head without caring what they thought of her. Confidence to take pride in perfecting her physical strength in a way that is typically reserved and encouraged for boys of her age, but not so much for girls.
As I was leaving the gym, I felt my body was tired but my mind enlivened by the questions this girl posed to me and my conceptions of gender. I’m ashamed to say that I would quite possibly be too afraid to approach the bench in terms of lifting weights – both literally and figuratively. But, inspired by the girl, I found a new resolve: do not fear the weights.
Today, while perusing the internet, I stumbled upon this ad that reaffirmed my deep desire to not feel tied to preconceived ideas of femininity.
Much like the girl I saw in the gym yesterday, Gisele here represents a quintessential image of bodily power that eclipses gender inscriptions. I will sing my praises for this ad at the same time as raising my concerns.
‘Femvertising’ or ‘feminist advertising’ describes companies leveraging of feminist ideals to benefit a capitalist, consumer marketplace. Some campaigns aren’t completely at fault, and ads like “Throw Like A Girl’ or even the Snikers ad where tradies shout affirmations to passing women on the street instead of catcalls, propel the concepts of feminism in a far-reaching and positive way. However, the underlying capitalist motives have not gone unnoticed. It makes sense for companies to tailor their advertising in order to appeal to a growing consumer market, and women are truly asserting themselves as being the sex that buys more, spends more and is more involved in consumerism.
But it does not make sense to hijack the ideals of feminism, a movement that stands for equality across all demographics; gender, race, sexuality, age and religion, for capitalist gain at the expense of human rights. An example of the misuse of feminism in the name of a capitalist endeavour is seen in ELLE UK’s recent campaign, where various celebrities don a t shirt that says ‘this is what a feminist looks like’. The only problem with these seemingly good intentions is that the t shirts were made by women in Mauritius who earn a sweatshop daily income. To me, this shows just how crucial it is to interrogate a company’s motives before signing up to a campaign.
Some companies have executed their motives better than others, but I think all should face the same sort of inquiry, if only to prohibit a polluting of an already misunderstood school of thought.
In saying all that, I am an avid supporter of this advertising campaign. Hell, it even gave me shivers. In this instance, I think perhaps more significant than the capitalist undertones is the empowering way it represents women’s bodies in the face of intense public scrutiny. Gisele is not just punching and kicking her way to a better ‘bikini body’, but is utilising her body as an attack against these judgements that move, ghost-like across the walls behind her.
Despite my praise for physical strength and personal endurance, I am by no means ranking it above another attribute on a hierarchy of desirability. Some people are just not very physical, and this is ok, too. But for too long the idea of physical strength and power has been reserved for the boys and has been stuck under the umbrella of ‘masculinity’.
Because this ad denotes a traverse into a different ‘gender norm’, Gisele’s bodily strength is not only tearing down archaic notions of ‘femininity’, but is relinquishing men from the burden of what is means to be ‘masculine’. It shows that the hunger for physical activity is not gender-specific, and therefore also indicates that some people’s lack of physical prowess is similarly not refined to any one gender. I’m talking specifically about what people generally think of when they think of ‘femininity’, especially as pitted against the supposed anthesis, ‘masculinity’.
For too many, ‘femininity’ still equates to passivity, meagreness, compassion, or empathy. Some of these characteristics are clearly positive, and being considered compassionate and empathetic would be considered a compliment. But when this is linked to a gender, and when someone from the opposite gender should exhibit these traits, then they are often criticised for seeming ‘weak’, ‘unmanly’, the list goes on…
Strength should transcend gender, just as beauty should not be limited to a specific notion of ‘femininity’. And if the powerhouse that is media is beginning to grapple with these social ideas, then I suppose we can only hope for even better, stronger, more provocative and more fearless messages to come.