Yes, Dove’s Real Beauty Bottles Commercial is Flawed. But Let’s Consider Where It’s Coming From.

Simple functionality can’t explain the incredible range of hourglass-shaped products aimed at women.
Screenshot: YouTube

Have you seen Dove’s “Real Beauty Bottles” commercial? The one which offers Dove body wash in bottles designed to mimic women’s body shapes?

You can understand the reasoning. Dove’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has always been about celebrating body diversity. So, why not offer alternatives to the typical hourglass design?

Ironically though, the execution completely contradicts that message, as the internet has gleefully pointed out:

  • It encourages paying attention to one’s body-shape, when that’s not supposed to be important.
  • It only offers six bottle designs, despite the huge diversity of women’s body shapes in reality. (And all of the bottles are white too.)
  • It’s really just a gimmick, offering only a very limited run of 6,800 bottles, spread among social media influencers in 15 countries. Meaning that even if ordinary women were somehow inspired to seek out the design that best matched their body shape, they wouldn’t actually be able to get one.
  • And, in being so short-lived, and only providing the same one, classic bottle design in practice, ultimately it implies that there may just be one best body type after all.

Writing in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost thinks that last is inadvertent; given how “hilariously stupid” this campaign has been (Jezebel), I’m inclined to agree. Regardless of any marketing campaign centered on bottles’ shapes, hourglass designs will always be much more stable and easier to grip than most of the alternatives, let alone those monstrosities provided by Dove.

That said, they’re not the only option. Which got me thinking: where had I seen so many hourglass bottles before? Why, with slimming drinks of course. What is up with that?

You know the answer, and it’s not ergonomics. Indeed, many marketers and advertisers are not shy about the connections they’re making between their products’ designs and the body ideals—and insecurities—they’re promoting, instead elevating them as a unique selling point. Most notoriously perhaps, in 2009, when Son Dam-bi endorsed “Today’s Tea” drink for Lotte Chilsung. Which:

(Source)

Not only sets up Son Dam-bi’s body as the one, singular standard for all the other women featured to define themselves against:

(Source, all screenshots: Paranzui)

But also makes sure to do so for teenage girls too:

And makes only the scene with the man humorous, to remind us how absurd it would be for men to ever do this sort of thing:

It’s really quite a feast of problematic messages. And, sadly, almost karmic in how Son Dam-bi herself has grappled with severe body-image issues in recent years, reports about her “still ‘frantically’ trying to lose more weight” emerging just as this post was published.

Usually, advertisers are less brazen, but they do still create and highlight a connection. See here for more examples and discussion from 2011 for instance, when there seemed to be a real trend:

(Source)

With that however, I don’t mean to imply they were the majority of slimming drinks. Nor are they in 2017, as a perusal of any convenience store fridge can attest.

But connections between bottle shapes and women’s bodies are definitely still being made, whether in the classic hourglass form or otherwise:

(Source: YouTube)
(Source: YouTube)

What’s more, if my search had extended to the packaging and marketing of slimming products in general, then I would have been simply overwhelmed with material. Wisely, I’ll confine myself to just one recent, representative example, that of Son Na-eun’s (Apink) commercials for Calobye:

(Source: Ezday)

Likewise, it’s never difficult to find an example of women’s bodies being used to represent a product or service. Again to give a recent for instance, below an obese woman magically loses weight and turns into model and actor Ray Yang, to represent a reduction in LG’s monthly installment rates (and, in a rare case of equal-opportunity objectification, has an obese man turn into model Choi Yong-ho too):

But it can seem like we’ve taken a long detour from a critique of Dove body wash bottles. So, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned on the way.

First, again, that hourglass bottles can’t be explained away by ergonomics, or claimed to be incidental. Who would even try, in the face of such overwhelming evidence?

Yet I’m often frustrated by the lack of mention in articles about their marketing campaigns, especially when writers otherwise wax lyrical over every other little detail. Why this blind spot exists, I’ll suggest a reason for in a moment.

(A rare exception: Apparently “the curve of the [sure] bottle beautifully captures both the swell of sea waves and women’s S-lines.” Source.)

Next, this is by definition gendered marketing, which is usually predicated on and helps perpetuate a whole host of problematic gender roles:

Also, no-one is saying that slimming drink companies can’t distinguish their products from competitors’ by packaging them in this way. In addition, perhaps there are practical limitations to quickly conveying slimming on packaging, on a box, or on a bottle, or through their shapes, without using an hourglass motif. We do, after all, make exaggerated cola-bottle shapes to convey we mean a woman for instance (or we did: now it just feels distasteful). It may explain why articles don’t bother to mention that, because by default an hourglass design is chosen to convey slimming. And, being so common, that choice is unremarkable.

Which begs the questions: does it really make a product stand out, if so many other companies are doing the same thing? Are scenes of Son Na-eun dancing, hourglass hips highlighted with CGI (just in case we didn’t notice), really the best Calobye could come up with to make their product stand out? Or is their campaign just yet another case of using a celebrity to quickly grab viewer’s attentions (*cough* as per my opening image *cough*), which may then linger on the actual product in the 15 second time-slot, and somehow persuade the viewer that the product is responsible for those hips? Wouldn’t, ultimately, ditching the celebrity with the unobtainable body be cheaper, and using models with a range of body types have much wider appeal?

Perhaps I’m being naive. But surely marketers and advertisers have good financial reasons to ask these questions themselves, not just pesky sociologists and feminazis with axes to grind. And, given photoshoppers’ skills in crafting an hourglass waist (or S-line, or wasp waist, or whatever) for almost every woman that appears in an advertisement or photoshoot? Then no, I’m no longer convinced that it’s all that difficult to convey slimming through a representing a range of body types. Or that some patriarchal conspiracy is afoot either, so much as sheer laziness on the part of marketers and advertisers.

(Source: instiz. The image on left is from a photoshoot for a 2014 commercial for Oceanworld)

What I am convinced of is how incredibly tiring this must be for women, constantly being reminded that your body doesn’t measure up to this one, monotonous standard, even though less than 1 in 10 women can ever achieve it.

I’d read about this pressure many times before of course. It can be difficult to relate to for a guy, no matter how sympathetic. But now, it feels just a little less abstract.

Which, all in all, is not a bad lesson to take away from some silly bottles.

Related Posts:

One Size Fits All in South Korea, As Long as That Size Is Small

body parts psychologist couch(“Une illustration pour cet article sur le site d’Urbania.” Source: Pierre-Nicolas Riou, via
Illustration-ilustración
)

Sorry for the slow posting everyone: exploring some interesting side-possibilities revealed after embarking on last month’s project, I tumbled headlong into an aegyo-filled labyrinth, from which I’ve only just emerged. (Also, I’ve been grading.) Rather than present the treasures I’ve discovered now though, when everyone’s busy with Christmas and New Year’s, let me round off the year with some shorter posts instead.

This first is a link to Maxine Builder’s article of the above title at Racked, which I was interviewed for. It’s a good read, and quite thorough. So, assuming you’ve read it, I’ll just elaborate on my own comments:

According to James Turnbull…”There are almost no average-sized female K-pop stars.” This matters when these idols’ images are plastered on every TV screen and billboard. Turnbull estimates that approximately half to three-quarters of all advertisements are celebrity endorsements.

“Time and time again, I see opportunities for Korean entertainment companies to take some plus-size woman… or just someone different, and celebrate their difference. But they just don’t do it,” said Turnbull — because that skinny, sexy look sells. “It doesn’t give them any incentive to take that risk, and that’s why we get the same again and again.”

Frankly, I was worried that my comment about no average-sized female K-pop stars might have been a bit of an overgeneralization, and/or revealed that I’m out of touch with new groups. But if Omona commenters didn’t call me out on that, then I guess it still holds true. (Yay?)

Amber Sulli(Source: Pinterest)

As for not celebrating difference, I was mostly thinking of the Piggy Dolls debacle, and S.M. Entertainment’s and advertisers’ overuse of the very young, very thin Sulli—despite f(x) also including Amber, just about the only “tomboyish,” non-thin, and frequently mistaken as lesbian woman in K-pop, who appeals to many demographics otherwise completely ignored. Although I haven’t really followed the group in a while (partially because of that, partially because of poor Luna’s dramatic, ongoing weight loss and excessive cosmetic surgery), I’ve always been struck by the waste, and would be happy to hear she’s finally been receiving more endorsements and greater attention now that Sulli has left.

And/or, of any other entertainment companies that are diversifying their groups’ make-ups, however tentatively. One I do know of is DR Music, who added half-Caucasian, half-Black Alexandra from the US to Rania last month. Does anyone know of any more?

Listen to This Korean Girl’s Perspective on Korean Men’s Absurd Body-Image Standards

왕쥬 가슴 비법 ABCDE(Source: YouTube. See there for her secret method!)

Remember my last post on assessing celebrities’ impact on Korean body-image standards? Where I stressed that it was crucial to listen to what ordinary Koreans thought of them?

I’m going to start with 여신왕쥬 (Goddess Wang-ju), who doesn’t mince words about what impact they’ve had on her. Or, more precisely, about what impact they’ve had on Korean men, who constantly compare her to slim, big-busted K-pop stars.

That’s a sweeping generalization about the men of course (my apologies), but you’ll soon understand her need to rant once you listen. NSFW warning for the Korean swearing:

Wang-ju is a little difficult to pin down: she’s made hundreds of videos, on a wide variety of subjects. Generally though, she seems refreshingly outspoken, and funny, a combination which has won her hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, Facebook, and Afreeca TV.

Unfortunately, this video seems to be the only one a fan has added English subtitles to, so I’ll have to let readers know if I find any more (or please let me know!). In the meantime, for Korean speakers, here’s her most recent one on body-image, from two days ago:

Update: Some great news!

The Skinny on the Thigh Gap

Mannequins with jeans(Source: Lion Hirth @Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

My latest article for Busan Haps, on (mostly) US teenage girls’ latest body image obsession, and why, to my great dismay, they themselves prove to be largely responsible for its success. Researching it taught me a lot about how people negotiate the messages about body image perpetuated by the media — read: never assume any groups are simply passive consumers — and how crucial it is to examine the role of social media to understand body image in 2015.

Also, I mention that, in December, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority forced Urban Outfitters to remove a photo of a model with a thigh gap; since writing, France’s Parliament has also moved to make it a crime to use models below a certain BMI. I’m still not convinced that demonizing one body type (or part) is necessarily the answer though.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments, either here or in the article.

“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

Lee Hyori Bad Girls SBS Inkigayo 인기가요 25 May 2013(Source)

Ahem. But really, they’re just a very small part of my July interview with Colin Marshall for the Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast, where we also discuss:

…what Westerners find so unappealing about Korean plastic surgery; the associations of the “double eyelids” so often surgically created; why he used to believe that Koreans “want to look white”; the meaning of such mystifying terms as “V-line,” “S-line,” and “small face”; the uncommon seriousness about the Western-invented concept of the “thigh gap”; how corn tea became publicly associated with the shape of the drinker’s jaw; Korea’s status as the only OECD country with young women getting thinner, not fatter; Korean advertising culture and the extent of its involvement with the “minefield” of Korean irony; the prominence of celebrities in Korean ads, and why the advertisers don’t like it; how long it takes to get tired of the pop industry’s increasingly provocative “sexy concepts”; the result of Korea’s lack of Western-style reality television; how making-of documentaries about 15-second commercials make the viewers feel closer to the celebrities acting in them; why he doesn’t want his daughters internalizing the Korean sense of hierarchy; why an expat hates Korea one day and loves it the next; how much homework his daughters do versus how much homework he did; the true role of private academies in Korea, and what he learned when he taught at one himself; the issues with English education in Korea and the oft-heard calls for its reform; the parallels between English test scores and cosmetic surgery procedures; the incomprehension that greets students of the Korean language introduced to the concept of “pretending to be pretty”; and how to describe the way Korean superficiality differs from the Western variety.

Apologies in advance for not being much more succinct when I spoke (I’m, well…er..uhm…working on that), and by all means please feel free to ask me to clarify or elaborate on any of those topics.

Also note that Colin has interviewed over 30(?) other expats and Koreans, men and women, and Korea and overseas-based speakers for the Korean component of his series, all most of whom are much more articulate and entertaining than myself, so I strongly encourage you to browse his site. I myself was blown away by Brian Myers’ interview yesterday, which was full of insights and observations that all long-term expats will be able to relate to (and will be very useful listening for those thinking they may become one), and Bernio Cho’s is essential if you want to understand the Korean music industry better. And those are just the two I’ve listened to so far!

A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

Operation Beautiful: An Interview with Korean Body Image Activist Min-ji Kim

Minji Kim Busan HapsRemember this immensely popular guest post from last year? Click on the image for my interview of its hardworking and inspiring author, body-image activist Min-ji Kim. Frankly, it’s well overdue!