Boots No7 cosmetics may look good, but we don’t need it to speak up
Last Friday, the Boots pharmacy brand, No7, launched a new beauty campaign featuring world renowned author and feminist advocate, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Titled “Ready To Speak Up”; the print, TV and online campaign propose that when a woman wears the right makeup she can speak up for what she wants.
The first banner ad features an attractive and confident looking Adichie posing behind copy that reads “Make-up is just make-up. It’s how you feel wearing it that matters.”
Let’s look at the first part of the copy – makeup is just makeup. I understand the sentiment behind it, objectively speaking. But makeup is hardly just makeup. Just like a book is not just a book or fashion is not just fashion. It has context, purpose and symbolic meaning – both negative and positive. I’d describe makeup as the primary kit of an aesthetic culture where cosmetic alteration is used to express and modify self-presentation and/or feelings of self-appreciation.
The second half of the copy which states “It’s how you feel wearing it that matters” makes a relevant point. A woman can look good in makeup but still have low self-esteem, while another can wear makeup in a way that boosts her already existing confidence. But if self-esteem were really of importance to No7, then it would have been more relevant to ask how a woman feels when “not” wearing makeup. Alas, such a question would not sell No7 products.
As a makeup wearer myself, I especially enjoy the way that beauty products tickle my senses with colours, textures and scents. However, I am in no denial that my makeup choices are also informed by ideas of womanhood. Ideas, that judge women on their appearances in different, far more demanding, ways than men. In short, my wearing makeup has nothing to do with my being “ready to speak up”, which I need no makeup to do, but a lot to do with being “ready to look good” in a way that appeals to me.
Furthermore, it’s a complex relationship that was established already in my childhood: as a little girl, I loved Barbie dolls, make up dolls, paper dolls, you-name it-dolls. Admittedly, I dressed my favourite Barbie doll – the one that represented my inner self (if I may be Freudian) – in black from head to toe and drew tattoos on her. I cut her long black hair short and painstakingly painted red lips and pointy cat eyes on her.
But even if my preferred makeup was not stereotypically “feminine”, it was symbolic of a cultural upbringing where a significant part of femininity was about appearance.
Which brings me to the point I wish to make, namely that not everything a feminist does is feminist. I feel expressive, attractive and sensual when I wear makeup, it’s that simple. It’s not feminist of me to wear it. What perhaps is feminist is that I don’t care about the judgement of others; women who oppose makeup, those who worship it, or men who (at least in theory) claim to prefer natural beauty. I am not concerned with anyone’s opinion precisely because I am not lying to myself about why I wear makeup. The same goes for the times that I don’t wear makeup, I feel equally indifferent to the praise or disapproval it warrants.
In this light, I welcome the “Ready To Speak Up” campaign. Adichie is expressing herself as she wishes to as she consistently has. She is ignoring the assumption that being intelligent and being made up eliminate each other.
But I am weary of the trend of opportunistic marketing campaigns co-opting and depoliticising feminist messages. It is (at best) misguided to suggest that a woman needs makeup to be ready to speak up. At worst, No7’s campaign is precisely the type of somnolent chorus that creates an unending fixation with the outer to the detriment of inner beauty – it is at worst part of a tradition that in fact discourages women to “speak up” about any other thing than their looks.
However, the No7 campaign is indicative of the key feminist theme of our times – choice – where anything from prostitution to labiaplasty to wearing a burka can be considered feminist as long as it is a woman’s “choice”.
I’m not equating wearing makeup with any of the above, nor am I saying that a woman should not be able to do anything she wants to. I’m certainly not questioning Adichie’s outspoken feminist credentials which in fact I value. What I am saying, is that if there is one choice that every woman should make in this instance, it is to not be fooled into equating a marketing campaign targeting individual lifestyle choices with a feminist revolution targeting psychological change.