Join Date: Nov 2007
Boob deodorant – the latest joke from the beauty industry
Inventing problems with women's (and now men's) bodies and offering a 'cure' fuels the multi-billion dollar beauty industry
Ladies, I have some good news and I have some bad news. The first piece of good news is that I will never again begin a column with the word "ladies" because typing that opener makes me cringe at the thought of one too many all-female email threads organizing Sunday brunches, Girls-watching marathons and bachelorette parties. The second piece of good news is that American Apparel and Cameron Diaz say you can stop waxing all your pubic hair off.
The bad news: you need to start deodorizing under your boobs.
I can already hear your objections: "But the area under my boobs doesn't stink!" or "What kind of marketing genius not only came up with the term 'swoob,' but actually thought half the world's population might be dumb enough to buy into it?" or simply, "This is a dumb product aimed at inventing an insecurity and then claiming to cure it."
You would be correct on all three points.
In fact, inventing problems with women's bodies and then offering a cure – if you pay up – is the primary purpose of the multi-billion dollar beauty industry. More than 20 years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth challenging that exact phenomenon. Since then, the industry has only gotten bigger, and the range of made-up problems women need to "cure" only wider. Women spend $426bn every year on beauty products, paying $151bn more in fees and mark-ups than men for the same products – and that's not including the $10bn Americans spend on plastic surgery.
Poke around and you'll find a laundry list of painful-sounding or bizarre procedures, from labia trimming to anal bleaching to freezing your facial muscles with poison to prevent wrinkles. But even relatively benign and basic beauty upkeep would look awfully strange to an alien landing in the middle of New York:
The women wear shoes that are pointy and unstable and make it impossible to walk, and they rip out hair from everywhere but their heads but then they paint extra hair on their eyes, and they turn their fingernails colors found nowhere in nature, and they paint their lips impossible shades of red and pink and orange, and they draw lines around their eyelids and put color on top, and they try to make their whole bodies skinny except their butts and their boobs, which they sometimes fill with gelatinous sacks.
We are an incredibly strange species.
Of course, human beings throughout history have altered their appearance, to indicate membership in a group, to denote status or to appear attractive. What counts as "attractive" may vary wildly across cultures and traditions, but the pursuit of beauty is important to many human beings in many different societies around the world. An interest in the aesthetic isn't weakness or vanity. It's the foundation of art, of design, of architecture, of many of any given culture's most treasured developments. It's not shallow or frivolous for women and men to interest ourselves in our own personal aesthetic, devoting time and care to how we look. There can be an art in dressing and doing your hair and make up, not to mention a female-centric passing down of traditions and practices. Lipstick alone is not propping up the patriarchy.
But socially obliging women as a class to present in a certain way that necessitates the expenditure of time, money and effort is.
No one is legally required to shave their legs, blow dry their hair, get a facial or wear lipstick. But if you don't wear make up, you can be fired for it, and many employers have dress codes that require a full-done-up face. If you're a black woman and you wear your hair natural or in braids, you might be fired as well, or informed that your look isn't "professional" – even if you're not a woman at all, but a little girl.
And don't get to thinking that striving for attractiveness will solve your problems. Employers can fire you for that, too.
Beauty also pays you back. Beautiful women (and men) earn much more than their average-looking or unattractive counterparts. But beauty, especially for women, isn't so much inborn as an achievement. That truth is simplified in the teen movie trope of the nerdy girl transforming into a babe by whipping off her glasses and shaking her hair out of its ponytail, but the fact is that beauty is about a whole lot more than just genes – it's not just that it can be bought and paid for, it's that it usually has to be.
Yes, there are the lucky few who were born looking like our particular cultural ideal, but there are many more who are able to pay to come close. Think investments like braces to fix crooked teeth, whitening to fix a yellowed smile, dermatology for flawless skin, gym memberships and trainers and pricey healthy diets for a toned body, a skilled hairdresser and colorist for lovely hair, manicures and pedicures, well-made and well-tailored on-trend clothing, good make up and someone to teach you how to apply it, not to mention the luxury of time for daily workouts, careful shopping and the necessary beauty appointments.
You don't have to be rich to look great. But it sure does help.
That's because many of the ways we look "great" are about projecting a particular class status and social tribe. Sometimes it's about being in the know about trends or ways of wearing particular items; sometimes it's just about signaling wealth; sometimes it's about indicating that you probably also live in a particular kind of neighborhood and enjoy a particular kind of book and listen to a particular kind of music. But women stand on ever-shifting grounds of "appropriate" physical presentation, and we're pulled by what we enjoy, what we want to signify, and what we're supposed to exhibit.
All of that costs us money and time. It's never about finally being beautiful and getting to just exist as a pretty person. It's about achieving beauty. It's a series of efforts and improvements and rituals, and ongoing work of beautifying yourself. There's always something else that could be improved or fixed.
And when we live in a society where people make enormous sums of money selling unnecessary things to other people, you can bet that the stakes of acceptability continually get higher. I know very few women my age, for example, who have never gotten a bikini wax. My mom knows very few who have. I've never asked her, but I'm fairly confident I know more men who have groomed their body hair or purchased expensive hair and face products than my mom does, because in the past decade or so the beauty industry has identified men as a massive untapped market.
Yet I still know plenty of men whose beauty routine involves little more than a Gillette razor, deodorant and a comb; I know close to zero women who use so few beauty products. The little things add up: the extra minutes in the bathroom in the morning instead of at work, the niggling insecurities that eat away at your brain space and your self-esteem, the understanding that your existence on this earth requires putting yourself on physical display.
Beauty culture can be a lot of fun, and I'm not immune to it. Sephora knows I own enough lipstick for a bus full of human women. It's also a major burden. And when industries are so transparently trying to stoke our insecurities in order to get us to buy more stuff, our ears should perk up a little bit and we should ask: is this about the fun in playing with the aesthetics of our physical bodies? Or is this someone trying to get me to buy a thing by convincing me that something is terribly, embarrassingly wrong with my body?
A hint: it's usually Choice B. Luckily, the manufacturer of boob deodorant made this latest one easy.