Image Design by Emma Lehman
I’m scrolling down Instagram and I see something strange: an advertisement featuring women with body hair. Armpit hair, leg hair, and even pubic hair are all clearly visible in the viral ads for Billie Razors, a company that claims to be woman-centered and hair positive. When I learned that these advertisements were for razors, I was a bit puzzled. Why would a brand that earns its money from selling razors want to promote hair positivity among women?
It feels as though the number of Billie ads I am shown increases daily, especially on Instagram. Like its parent company Facebook, Instagram has a lot of advertisements and sponsored posts. Recently, Facebook has been heavily criticized for their advertising practices, as new targeted ads spark fear of surveillance and involve data mining that users feel they have not explicitly consented to.
According to Instagram’s FAQ section, the ads users see are personalized based on what posts they like, what websites or apps they visit, and who they follow. The company also mentions that any data collected by Facebook may be used to generate advertisements that it thinks are “interesting and relevant” to users. While you may be used to seeing a product all over your feed after searching for it or clicking on it even once, it is still important to be aware of how brands on Instagram are advertising to their specific targeted audiences.
Instagram’s algorithm has decided, based on my demographics and online activity, to show me products that it believes I am likely to purchase. So I see ads for Billie razors and other brands who proclaim they are ‘female first,’ ‘by women, for women,’ or ‘made for womankind.’ At first, I enjoyed seeing these ads. What diverse representation! A break from all the bras! How cool that woman-owned businesses are finding success on social media!
But then I begin to fall into the marketing trap. Suddenly, I feel the need to consume these products that are being so heavily advertised to me. This is a common feeling for young women who are exposed to advertisements that sell both a message and a product. In the case of companies who sell feminism in the form of a product, the practice has been coined ‘femvertising.’ Femvertising creates the illusion that in order to be a ‘good’ feminist, one must consume a product or service.
This marketing strategy is extremely damaging, as capitalist consumerism is fundamentally in opposition to feminism. Feminism is not something that can be bought or sold like a good or service. Similarly, products cannot represent feminism. This is especially true when we consider the history of advertising and consumerism, throughout which conventional beauty standards for women have been constructed in response to the white male gaze. Femvertising, then, can be reduced to a marketing strategy which relies on the language of body positivity and female empowerment in order to make money and sell products.
The multi-billion dollar makeup, fashion, and skincare industries make their money by convincing women they must change their appearances in order to better perform femininity. Historically, razor brands such as Gillette have encouraged women to shave by enforcing the idea that women’s body hair is unfeminine, ugly and unlikely to attract a man. As commercial feminism has become more palatable and mainstream, companies have started trying to take advantage of the new ‘trends’ in feminism through the use of hashtags and ‘empowering’ slogans. In the past 10 years, campaigns from Dove, Always, and other big brands have drawn criticism for using feminism inauthentically in order to make money off of their products.
In this article from Vox, feminist scholar and author Sarah Banet-Weiser argues that “advertising wants a certain kind of feminism, not a feminism that actually challenges capitalism or patriarchy.” It’s clear that femvertising is less about actually empowering women and more about creating “empowered consumers” out of women.
Billie razors, although they have ads that show real hair on women, are still selling feminism to young individuals who may be interested in feminism and the hair positive movement. It is impossible for a brand to celebrate body hair while also (either implicitly or explicitly) advocating its removal.
The practice of shaving dates back to at least the time of ancient Egypt, but the custom of women removing their body hair is a newer construct. Hair removal is tied to ideas of social darwinism, as body hair became racialized and tied to ‘insanity,’ primitiveness and violence in the 19th century. However, it was not until the 20th century that hair removal became the expectation for women in the United States. Shaving companies, headed by men, demanded that women shave their underarms after sleeveless gowns became popular in the 1910s and 20s. The expectation of hair removal expanded to include the legs, stomach, and genitals by the end of the 20th century. An increased demand for hairlessness leads to increased sales for razors, allowing the men in charge to profit off of a ‘problem’ they themselves had created.
The hair positivity movement grew out of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 70s, which protested the extremely pervasive and restrictive expectations that women’s bodies be hair-free. Today in pop culture, women like Miley Cyrus, Amandla Stenberg, and Instagram user @januhairy have promoted hair positivity by growing out their body hair and supporting other hairy women.
The conversation around body hair has been and continues to be both gendered and racialized. The white male gaze has always determined whether women should have hair and, if so, where it should be allowed to grow. Light and thin hair is for the most part considered acceptable, while dark and thick hair is often not. For women of color, trans women, or those with PCOS, this discrepancy is especially harmful. Even within ‘hair positive’ circles, women with darker or coarser hair face pressure to conform to conventional beauty standards. Either decision — to shave or not to shave — comes with its own set of consequences. This article by Lucy Diavolo, a trans woman, explains that although the choice not to shave can be a source of power and visibility, it also comes with internal doubt and transphobic abuse from strangers. Diavolo connects the presence of facial hair to beauty standards and what it means to ‘pass’ as cisgender.
While Billie mentions quite frequently on their website that they support those who choose not to shave, the very fact that they are a razor company targeted at women reinforces the idea that hair removal and womanhood are linked. The company also tells women who choose not to shave that they can, and should, buy skin care instead. On Billie’s website, a drop-down menu categorizes products based on whether one’s answer to “Do you shave?” is yes or no. If the answer is no, they suggest buying body wash or lotion instead of a razor. By presenting these options, Billie makes it seem as though those who don’t shave must somehow make up for it by buying a different product. This idea is very strange and simply untrue.
I doubt the sincerity of advertising campaigns by Billie and other companies which claim to support women’s empowerment and autonomy. All over the Internet, there are people writing articles and books on ‘How to Market to Gen Z’ and ‘How to Sell to Teenage Girls.’ I found multiple analyses of the Billie ads that praised the company, one which compared its marketing practices to other corporations that have created a tribe of consumers “with shared values.” This analysis of Billie suggest to me that their ultimate goal is to profit rather than promote feminism or hair positivity. The company’s advertisements use the rhetoric and imagery of progressive social movements, which garners increased publicity and sales. As a consequence, most people overlook the hypocrisy that is present in these companies’ messages.
We should be critical of how self-proclaimed ‘gen-Z friendly’ brands market their products to young people who are interested in feminism. Feminism is a movement and an ideology with countless interpretations and goals, not something that can be encompassed in a razor or a pair of leggings. It’s dangerous to equate feminism with the buying of products, as this causes the separation of feminism as a trend from feminism as an ideology.
In 2016, writer and Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler described the buying and selling of feminism in the podcast What Would a Feminist Do? as “a way of selling women to advertisers, and framing feminism as less about being a sort of political and social ethic and more about being a truly individual state of affairs where your empowerment counts as feminism.” Zeisler’s comment captures the true problem behind femvertising, which is that it cheapens and undermines a legitimate movement.
It is deceptive for a company like Billie to constantly promote their razor ads while simultaneously saying that their audience can simply choose not to buy the razor if they don’t want to shave. This occurs quite frequently in femvertising campaigns. Brands often falsely equate feminism with the choice to buy one product over another, buying into the harmful concept of choice feminism. Just like the ‘choice’ to wear makeup or go on a diet, the ‘choice’ to shave is one that is rooted in patriarchal expectations. It is also a choice that, due to social and cultural factors beyond their control, many women do not have the opportunity to make. Women with visible body hair experience discrimination and harassment in the workplace, as well as from family, friends, and strangers.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that anyone who buys Billie razors or any similar product should feel guilty, ashamed, or like a ‘bad’ feminist. Nevertheless, buying these things definitely does not make one a feminist, much less a ‘good’ feminist, since feminism can not be achieved through the buying and selling of products.
Targeted advertising preys on young people, especially young women, and urges them to consume as much as they can. Billie is just one company who has found success in appealing to an online audience that is young, diverse, and increasingly aware of traditional marketing tactics. Femvertising in any form is something that we as feminists must make an effort to challenge and counteract.