Why Sorbet should just leave Nancy to make her own decisions

I really thought that the Sorbet Group’s “Nancy” billboards – which implied that “unwaxed, unpolished” women would be “unloved” – would have annoyed and infuriated women everywhere. I was wrong. Because when discussions on the campaign started online there were still those who argued that it was a “first world problem”, that people were being overly sensitive and that only a “hairy bat” would be offended by it.

Well, this overly sensitive, hairy bat has a first world problem with the Sorbet Group’s marketing tactics, and isn’t afraid to say so.

Sorbet’s ill-conceived marketing campaign hinges on the concept of body shaming – that thing where you look at a person’s body and say hateful things about it in order to shame them into conforming to your ideas of what the ideal body should look like.

We know of people being called “fatties” or “skinny bitches”; well thanks to Sorbet we can now add “unwaxed” and “unpolished” to the list. Because some people will always insist that if you’re going to live in this world, you should just get used to people passing judgment on your body and what you choose to do with it.

I can deal with “unwaxed”. But “unpolished” raises my hackles because it implies that a woman who chooses not to wax is unrefined or lacks good taste.

Sorbet billboardThis echoes the point Ellen Friedrich, writing for Everyday Feminism recently, makes when she says that “in a world where women’s body hair is seen as almost socially inexcusable, its absence also becomes a class marker like ‘good’ teeth, clear skin, or a certain style of dress”.

“Unloved” meanwhile totally crosses a line – the bitchy line that tells women that if they don’t conform and groom themselves a certain way, no one will like them. It’s high school all over again. And really, aren’t we past that now?

Sorbet isn’t alone in its faux pas. Earlier this year Veet, which produces hair removal creams and wax, apologised for a set of adverts that portrayed women with body hair as men.

(The tagline? “Don’t risk dudeness,” which did a wonderful job of both body shaming woman and perpetuating gender stereotypes and homophobia at the same time. You can watch the advert here if you like.)

Why is body shaming a bad thing, you might ask. (I don’t understand why you still need ask what is wrong with being mean to people who can’t or don’t want to do with their bodies what you do with yours but I will humour you and walk you through it)

Because while some people have the confidence and self-awareness to recognise and fight back against other people’s potentially damaging expectations of them, other people aren’t and may simply internalise the hurtful things they are told about their bodies and really start to believe that there is something wrong with their bodies or their selves.

Let me take you back a good 20 years to my school days, when I first switched from a school in a predominantly Muslim area, where all the girls wore trousers under their dresses, to a Model C school where the girls wore knee-length skirts.

I soon found out that my leg hair, which I’d never given a thought to, provided my classmates with ammunition for teasing (teasing, bullying, body shaming - I’m still not entirely clear on where the boundaries there are).

It didn’t take long for me to find a Bic razor and start experimenting. And let me just say, shaving is the worst, especially when you’re doing it on the sly and nobody bothers to tell you anything about shaving cream, exfoliating, ingrown hairs and itchy regrowth.

I hated it and soon decided I couldn’t be bothered. So, I spent about a year feeling self-conscious about my hairy legs and enduring the taunting  before discovering how forgiving sheer pantyhose can be to the hairy-legged, at which point I stopped having to think about my hairy legs again. Except in PE.

Full disclosure: I am a Sorbet regular (shoutout to Precious at the Norwood branch) and if you must know, I am one of those people who is genetically predisposed to hairiness. The time and cost involved in dehairing basically my entire body is not to be underestimated. One can easily spend anywhere between R500 and R1000 at a single waxing session, which could literally last hours.

At this point you’re probably wondering why I, a regular waxer, have taken issue with Sorbet’s campaign and this whole waxing/polishing thing.

I would really rather not spend all this money on waxing. But right now society is having a hairless, porn star moment. And I recognise when men, women or children are judging me for my lip fuzz and unibrow. I would rather not suffer the pain of waxing or threading my sensitive eyebrows (which are always red, raw and painful afterwards) but I can’t get away from the fact that people look at me differently when I have a bushy brow and fuzzy lip. Because we have come to a point, as a society, where if I don’t wage a constant battle against my natural body, it means either that I’ve ‘let myself go’ or that I’m not professional or conscientious. And this makes me sad.

Today it’s body hair, tomorrow it’s skin lightening creams, vaginal and anal bleaching and labiaplasty. (Oh wait, we’re already there.)

Friedrichs suggests changing the way we talk about growing up (body hair is natural, not evil), to question the type of popular culture that makes fun of women’s body hair, to try leaving your body hair and seeing how you feel about it, and also educating yourself on why some women choose to remove their body hair and why others choose to keep it (the reasons are many).

This advice seems reasonable to me, and relevant too, now that I have a young daughter who is just as hairy as I am. (My hairy bat pup was born with a thick shock of hair on her head, a unibrow, a fuzzy lip and downy arms.)

So we are caught in a conundrum. On the one hand, I can tell my daughter to hang it all, to do what is easiest for her, and then feed her to the schoolyard bullies – who will later morph into campus bullies and workplace bullies – and on the other hand I could preempt any schoolyard teasing by buying into the kiddie beauty therapy industry and getting her waxed and polished so that she at least might be, as Sorbet implies, loved by her classmates.

Tell me you don’t have a problem with those options.

Deep down inside I hope my daughter will come of age in a post-Nancy world where women who choose to let their bodies be are respected as much as those who choose to engage in more grooming, and where there is no place for body shaming of any sort.

But if we don’t even recognise body shaming when we see it, we will be a long time getting to that point.

– Featured image via Wikimedia Commons