Lorna Jane’s Malicious Metamessaging
An Analysis of the Latent Messaging Behind the Branding Philosophies ‘Move, Nourish, Believe’
Lorna Jane is an Australian Activewear label success story. Sick of black and monochrome colours and low-quality activewear, yoga instructor Lorna Jane Clarkson, the woman behind the brand, began sewing in her garage. The brand got big — a heady holistic approach to health, wellness and mindfulness just one Lorna Jane purchase away. So far, so good: an Aussie retailing success story.
But there’s a dark side to Lorna Jane. A ‘women’s leisurewear’ giant, the chain uses its power and popularity to pander to narrow, prescriptive body stereotypes and beauty ideals. The brand’s three word slogan ‘Move, Nourish, Believe’ are positive at surface level. The latent meaning in Lorna Jane metamessaging reveals the brand’s teeth.
“Karma is like a boomerang…what’s coming back to you?”
Paying it forward — and payback
Karma is a word borrowed from Sanskrit. Karma means: “Action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect).” It’s very often put in a sentence like this: ‘Don’t worry, his/her karma will catch up with him/her.’
As humans, we’re attracted to the idea of being rewarded for our own good behaviour. We’re even happier — at least at some point in our lives — to think someone treating us poorly will be smote by some unseen hand, if not sooner, at some point later down the track. When the punishment fits the crime, we love the idea of remotely served revenge. It’s very human. And we love to think that our actions today will help ‘pay it forward’ later in life; Karma.
In the quote “Karma is like a boomerang…what’s coming back to you?”, the active and latent meaning are pretty much the same when we see the text by itself. We’re free to interpret that in a way which makes the most sense to us, which in my case was indeed aligned with the Eastern philosophies the word came from.
What if it’s paired with a visual text? How does that change the way you interpret the quote?
“Karma is like a boomerang…what’s coming back to you?”
No ‘bad karma’ here, surely. But there is.
When we pair the written quote with the visual text, the active messaging may still stay the same — yoga, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. However, the latent messaging has changed. Because of what we already understand about the bodies Lorna Jane sees as ‘good karma’, seeing Clarkson’s very slim, very lightly muscled body posed like this sends the malicious message that if you don’t buckle down and do the work now, you’ll be punished later by feeling ‘bad’ — or worse, not looking ‘good’.
Mean Girl Metadiscourse
In Lorna Jane marketing, we know what a ‘good’ body looks like, because it’s all across her branding. The models here are doing the work required to create good karma. And because there’s no diversity, we’re left in little doubt what bad karma looks like: that’s how this innocent question “…what’s coming back to you?” shows its teeth.
Lorna Jane has been widely criticised for her lack of body diversity. At the time of writing, in 2016, Lorna Jane was copping it left right and centre on social media and television media — it’s what inspired this paper in its original form.
It seemed like Clarkson had bought herself some bad karma in the form of being accused of upholding sexist, reductionist ideals. We saw a tearful Lorna Jane Clarkson burst into tears on 60 Minutes, sobbing that she was only human. But as journalist and former Lorna Jane employee Vanessa Croll put it: “…she is a human with a great deal of influence.”
It seemed like Lorna Jane was getting desperate for some good press. Cue The Body Image Movement and Embrace The Documentary. After the controversial pairing of Clarkson with Body Image Movement founder, and “sporty sister” Taryn Brumfitt, Brumfitt’s fans and BIM followers felt betrayed. I have to say, I was one of them. In her upfront, positive style, Brumfitt showed her cards and weathered the storm. Clarkson rode the body positive wave of The Embrace Documentary, reportedly saying, “It really makes you think about things.”
It seems like the cogs did turn though. When I finished the first version of this paper, Clarkson had just released an Expression Of Interest style invitation to see just how much interest there was for purchase of Lorna Jane activewear beyond size XL. She earned herself more criticism, but it made good business sense. Her prime agenda is to sell her products after all: that’s business. And as Leah Gilbert said, there’s plenty of other brands who do cater to health and fitness at every size (although not many of them provide the convenience of in-store shopping, being able to try on a variety of items before buying on the same day).
At the same time she made what — in my opinion — was a much more important gesture. A gesture she could have begun real positive social change with : using greater body diversity in her marketing.
She started using one — let me say that again — ONE — ‘actual’ plus-size model pictured below, (I hate the phrase too but work with me). I’m not a fan of tokenism, but I was impressed. It was progress. I thought Clarkson was using her Big Brand influence to be the change. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Clarkson’s ride on the publicity of Tarryn Brumfitt’s body positive train was, as I had cynically predicted, brief.
Two years later in 2018, the owner of this beautiful body is nowhere to be seen’. I can’t even find her name in a lazy Google search. (And I do mean lazy — because isn’t that the idea of all Google’s algorithm changes?? If you find her name, comment below.) In her 2018 book Embrace Yourself Brumfitt still backs her decision for the collaboration — at the same time allowing herself wiggle room to distance herself from the Lorna Jane brand’s lack of commitment to body diversity:
“I can’t predict the future of the brand, but I expect more great things are to come…”
2019. Lorna Jane is still promoting its activewear with women who have bodies just like Clarkson’s. Lean, lightly muscled (aka ‘toned’) but still ‘feminine’ and still very close to what the stereotype of a ‘good’ body for middle to upper-class women since the 1970’s, as Germaine Greer recorded in her epoch-making book, The Female Enuch:
“…the fashionable middle class are paying their respects to slenderness, even thinness…demands are made upon them to contour their bodies in order to please the eyes of others.”
Lorna Jane has faced a lot of media kickback for the lack of body diversity in her marketing, and is (not unreasonably) steadfastly dedicated to stocking “sizes that sell”. They still don’t stock larger than an XL, and XL is much harder to find on the racks. For this reason, when we speak of visual texts and how harmful they are in the wider world, Lorna Jane is an easy target.
The real harm lies in the fact that Lorna Jane is a brand which is bigger than the products it sells. This is an intentional marketing strategy, and it is potent.
Language Matters. Words Matter
As a writer and language enthusiast, I think the language advertisers and the media use flies under the radar too often. As Clementine Ford has said:
I mean think about it — we think in words. Words and language take up their own space in our minds, and you might like to think you can switch on or off to their connotations and messaging, but you can’t. I’m going to get a bit serious here because it does matter.
Logos: Philosophies to Define Us
Clarkson’s rags-to-riches story is the stuff folk tales are made of. Her hard work and ingenuity have put her at the top of the activewear game. The way Clarkson markets ‘herself’ is interesting, and this method began back in the 90’s. As written by Naomi Klein in No Logo at 10, big Brands wanted to be not just associated with the goods they produced, but the idea they represented. Nike was an early adopter of this strategy: we only need to see the ‘swish’ or the words ‘Just do it’ to think of them. It’s not just that it might be a good product; the philosophy is something consumers aspire to embody.
This is the same format Lorna Jane uses, and as a brand based on a person, it makes sense. It becomes harmful when a brand reaches high levels of success, becomes a cultural influencer, and dictates norms.
Clarksons’ consumers ‘know’ on an intellectual level Lorna Jane is a business. On a subconscious level it’s almost as if Lorna Jane the person is their #fitfriend. The brand achieves this by connecting with consumers via social media, where it creates a pseudo-social and emotional relationship.
Overwhelmingly, the effects of ‘fitspiration’ sites — a format Lorna Jane follows — have been proven to contain representations of body images and perceived lifestyles most followers will never attain. According Body Conscious: Promoting a Thin and Ultra-Athletic Physique Has Unforeseen Consequences, this type of marketing discourse instigates unhealthy lifestyles, including disordered eating.
Lorna Jane markets directly to women, which is no less than you’d expect, but the ways it chooses to market a potentially empowering product like activewear is by largely sticking to tired stereotypes, including unhelpful, sexist language conventions.
We started out with the image of LJ Clarkson herself in a yoga pose, asking us what kind of karma is coming to us. This type of language and visual text is sends a message that happiness and success is achieved only in the context of discipline and control.
“You can’t flourish in the absence of routine so learn to enjoy the burn of a workout. Who else agrees, that a workout can turn into a love hate relationship?”
“When you push past the limit, you break new ground. How are you getting out of your comfort zone today?” — quotes taken from Lorna Jane Facebook captions, 2016 and 2018.
The visual texts narrow the meanings of words such as flourish, routine, push, limit, break, new, and of course karma, linking them specifically to the context of fitness, discipline, and control.
Loaded phrases such as “enjoy the burn”, “love hate relationship”, “pushpast the limit”, and “break new ground” [all italics and bold my emphasis] encourage a link to masochism and a semantic change in the way followers contextualise the meaning of the words when they’re not performing the sub-culture (ie when you’re out of the gym, off the running track etc). This has the effect of changing the ‘image’ of the word in our minds, and narrowing its connotations into something wholly or mostly negative.
“Women’s Language” — Words of the Weak
According to the author of Advertising to The Other: Women’s Use of Language, and Language’s use of Women, “women’s language” has two definite characteristics: hesitancy and hyperbole.
“Women’s language avoids the taint of impropriety by displaying hesitancy or tentativeness. This hesitancy is expressed in two ways: a tendency to make assertions using tag-question form, and a reliance on “hedge” or filler words…Language is hyperbolic when frequent underlining or italicizing of words and expressions occurs, when unremarkable comments end with exclamation points, and when emphatic words are sprinkled throughout.”
What does that mean? I’ll give you some examples of the activewear giant using ‘women’s language’ to mimic spoken language between women.
Both of these were from the Lorna Jane Active Facebook page in 2016:
“Um, hello #FITKIT goals. Anyone else feeling a little inspired by this look?”
“Is it love, or is it LOVE!!”
So why does it matter?
Because “women’s language” is the verbal equivalent of not taking up physical space. By using ‘cute’ filler words to soften or infantilise the most straightforward of statements reinforces a woman’s position of not being allowed to sit at the big table. A brand with as much reach as Lorna Jane could use its influence to empower its customer base by challenging the patriarchal head-patting of gendered language. But it doesn’t. Instead, it makes a feature of it in its branding.
Lorna Jane: Not ‘For All Women’. For Lorna Jane Clarkson
The question is why. My answer? Because capitalism and success measured in dollar signs is part of the patriarchal systems of control, and it’s easier for Clarkson to leave slender body ideals unchallenged. Because in rubbing salt in the wounds one acquires just for being a woman in a patriarchal society is easier: and it makes Clarkson a lot more money to keep her buyers insecure, and drinking her kool aid. Lorna Jane consumers avoid being judged weak or ‘bad’ by their “sweat sistas”, and being cast out of the pseudo-community become the true drivers of Lorna Jane customer purchase — and if you’ll allow me some hyperbolic italicising — that’s what the brand wants.
Social network discourse leeches into our cultural psyche. In an environment when the prevalence of rape culture is slowly becoming a national concern, Lorna Jane tells consumers to be disciplined enough to push their bodies “beyond the limit” and endure discomfort, for the superficial reward of achieving a ‘good karma’ body: lithe and pretty.
Claiming to be “for all women”, Lorna Jane’s pandering to infantilised, minimising language conventions; promoting small, ultra-thin body types in the bulk of visual texts, and other linguistic choices evoking ideals of female masochism, the mean-girl metamessaging is decidedly for one woman, but overwhelmingly against women.
Sounds like bad karma to me.
In writing this article I used, and recommend the following source material:
Bartky. S.L. (1984) Feminine masochism and the politics of personal transformation. Women’s Studies International Forum. 7:5. 323–334.
Brumfit, T. (2016) Embrace Documentary. Southern Light Alliance, Transmission Films, Kojo Productions. 1 hour: 30 mins.
Greer, G. (1971) The Female Eunuch. Paladin: London. 33–36.
Horton, K., T. Ferrero-Regis, and A. Payne. (2016). The hard work of leisure: healthy life, activewear and Lorna Jane. Annals of Leisure Research. 19:2. 180–193. DOI: 10./1080/11745398.2015.1111149.
Stern, B. (1997) Advertising to the “other” culture: women’s use of language and language’s use of women. National Forum. 77:2. 35+.