The New York Times Says I’m a Sell-Out ‘Feminist’ Panty Model, But I’m Not Buying It
Breaking news: I’m a feminist who donated her body to prop up capitalism and didn’t even know it until The New York Times spilled the sad beans…
As the creator of a digital media brand devoted to investigating feminine constructs, debunking gender stereotypes and heralding women’s history, such a suggestion almost stung. But I’m not buying it
A few months ago, I flew up to Brooklyn and modeled Dear Kate “performance” (read: periods/prolapse/incontinence) underwear designed by STEM major-turned-startup founder Julie Sygiel. Having previously talked to Sygiel about the company and its mission to destigmatize the female bodily functions while also promoting size diversity, my Stuff Mom Never Told You co-host, Caroline, and I didn’t think twice about saying ‘heck yeah!’ when they later invited us to pose for a lookbook named for pioneering journalist Nellie Bly. (Full disclosure: Dear Kate has also purchased Stuff Mom Never Told You in-podcast advertising; Sygiel’s previous interview was not a part of that buy.)
And I’m still not thinking twice about it today, despite this week’s New York Times appropriation-themed Room for Debate section describing Dear Kates’ ad style of using non-modeling professional women like yours truly a “a regressive step back for women.”
In her piece “Selling Out Women, a Pair of ‘Feminist’ Panties at a Time,” Jennifer Pozner, a feminist media literacy expert and educator whom I’ve followed for years now and whose work I highly respect, highlights Dear Kate as a grievous example of how feminism is being co-opted and defanged by marketing departments.
“They previously ‘honored’ high-level women tech executives by stripping them of their expertise clothes and posing them in bras and panties at computers and conference tables, ensuring that any Googling by future employers would reveal the coders and CEOs in their skivvies before turning up their resumes,” Pozner writes, rehashing a 2014 viral campaign featuring a diverse group of women from Black Girls Code, Refinery29 and The Girltechie Campaign.
Lumped together with this small startup comprised of young feminists, Pozner cites Maxim’s made-over Hot 100 List, complete with introductory essay by Roxane Gay; Susan G. Komen-approved fracking drill bits; pink-washed guns; and women’s lib cigarettes as examples of how advertising aimed at the feminist gaze can distract away from issues like sexual objectification, breast cancer, gun violence and public health. And I agree that the broader trend of corporate empowertising, or wielding feministy taglines to ultimately profit from female consumers, often operates as a bait and switch. One moment, we’re getting misty-eyed over little girls embodying unabashed self-confidence, and the next we’re being directed toward Always brand tampons and maxi pads. But squaring Dear Kate and their models in the sightlines without giving a shred of credence to their product’s actual purpose, impact and inclusivity just read like punching down — or at the very least in the wrong the direction.
For instance, Pozner didn’t highlight how another one of Dear Kate’s viral campaigns challenged a Victoria’s Secret ad proclaiming “The Perfect ‘Body’” across a lineup of uniformly tall, thin models. Prompted in part by Dear Kate’s photo of real-world women bearing a real-world range of body shapes, the lingerie giant recanted by quietly changing the copy to ‘A Body for Every Body.’ Or how about considering the broader cultural implications of why non-model women’s bodies are viral fodder to begin with? How bizarre that cellulite is such tempting clickbait. Oh, and then there’s the recent New York Times’ style piece suggesting feminist underwear entrepreneurs are revolutionizing the lingerie industry by make products, much like Dear Kate, not intended to tantalize the male gaze. That doesn’t exactly sound like guns and cigarette butts to me.
Above all though, I felt no qualms about participating in the shoot because it was an opportunity to a) support a group of like-minded entrepreneurial women and b) embody Stuff Mom Never Told You messages of healthy body image and banishing taboos around basic health like menstruation, uterine prolapse, and female incontinence. As evidence that my feminist gut got it right, since the campaign I’ve heard from Stuff Mom Never Told You fans who felt inspired by our comfort publicly revealing our “undies bodies” (like “bikini bodies,” only with more coverage — how unscandalous), delighted to discover a brand that makes lingerie and athletic gear in a realistic range of sizes and relieved to have found a product that can handle post-childbirth incontinence.
Would it have been nice to get paid a modeling fee, which Pozner called out as adding insult to injury, “as if modeling isn’t a job?” Duh. But it would also be nice to always get paid for doing exactly the kind of feminist boots on the ground work Pozner says Dear Kate should be doing (in addition to making life while menstruating more livable): “challenging sexist, racist policies, organizing to elect women’s rights-supporting leaders, or donating proceeds to gender justice causes.” In fact, as if writing and media critiquing isn’t a job, contributing to online feminist discourse (case in point: this) and activism often goes unpaid as well. That doesn’t make it all equitable or sustainable because feminists can’t survive on retweets and pro bono blog posts alone, but it does point out how none of this production and consumption is happening in a vacuum and how sometime, the message — assertiveness, support, collaboration — is more immediately valuable than the money.
And speaking of money, when it comes to ‘empowertising’ and women entrepreneurs, if the selling (and arguably selling out) is never going to stop, is it possible that shifting the visual messaging away from shame toward strength could signify social progress in how we talk about and to women and girls, even when it’s through a retail megaphone? Is it possible advertising and gender equality can coexist in certain magical corners of the capitalist landscape? Considering how girl-targeted media distorted my idea of beauty and feminine aspiration growing up, I certainly hope so. It’s essential to hold companies accountable to feminist standards, absolutely. By the same token, if and when a brand — especially one run by and for women — meets that bar, buying in shouldn’t necessarily equate selling out.