Advertisements and magazine articles have long been undermining our body-image to sell us products, making it nearly impossible to adopt sustainable lifestyle changes and instead, convince us to buy more. Marieke Eyskoot explains how sustainability starts with changing the system, and why she began her movement to stop brands from profiting off image shaming.
It’s early September, meaning we’ve just come to the end of another season of ‘bikini body’ publicity and unrealistic beauty ideals. Magazines are full of the latest workout tips, or even extending to how you can use make-up to shape your entire body, highlight your good bits and shade away your cellulite thighs, wobbly belly and/or saggy boobs (m/f/x). And let’s not even start about body hair. Why would you choose to keep this natural part of yourself, when there are many creams, razors and even surgical procedures you can purchase to remove it?
And these widespread body shaming tactics are far from limited to the summer season; in fact, this is the year-round norm in commercial communication. Deep down, we all recognise the pattern. We are being shamed into buying products, made to feel like we are not good enough so that we will spend money on the items that’ll solve this.
At the same time, we are well aware that people and the planet are in trouble, and that we need to change our consuming behaviour to get us out of this climate and social crisis. But how come we have such a hard time actually doing this? Well, partly because of the shaming system. These norms and taboos are being continuously reinforced in the publicity that surrounds us, teaching us time and again that we’re not good enough until we buy more. Our body image has long been commercialised to get us to buy into the latest fast fashion trends and plastic-encased beauty products, putting our own mental health and the environment in danger. We need to actively recognise and resist the way shaming for profit works, to not only save ourselves, but the planet too.
Between the fashion, accessories, beauty, gadgets, sports and diet industries and the mainstream media, we are constantly being sold a narrative that we are not good enough. We’re not beautiful enough. Our skin isn’t smooth or the right shade. We’re not skinny or fit enough, don’t wear the right clothes and are not on trend. We don’t look like models, which is almost impossible anyway, as (even though things are changing in this area) they’re almost without exception very young, slim, tall and white.
The ideal we have to live up to in the lifestyle business is ridiculously limited. We’re talked into having a problem, which makes whole generations of us develop a negative self-image. Businesses are getting rich thanks to our low self-esteem, doubts and insecurities, and the planet is suffering too. This commercialisation of our body image lies at the heart of our struggle to change our behaviour – as long as you don’t like yourself, it’s okay, because then you remain vulnerable for the idea that you can fix this by shopping. The pressure on our looks doesn’t only affect our happiness, and our mental wellbeing, but also how sustainably we can act.
Personally, I think we need to move towards a new system. Where we are all celebrated, included instead of excluded, and where (sustainable) products are offered that make us feel good about ourselves, which we can buy when we actually need them.
To give you an example – a few years ago I stopped shaving my armpit hair. Because that doesn’t really feel right to me. That hair just grows there, it belongs there, why should it go? (And, equally important, why should women remove it, and not men?) I actually like the look of it if I’m honest, I find it rather sexy. Yet this part of my body only needs to be erased, deleted, to sell hair removal products. Have you noticed that in almost all shaving cream or razor blade commercials, there is actually no hair in sight? They just set the products over perfectly smooth legs and armpits – it is such a taboo that even the ads don’t dare show it.
What I do sometimes remove, however, is my leg hair. I just don’t love that as much. This is not hypocritical or inconsistent: it is me making my own choices. It’s taken me years of my life to learn what my own preferences are; I’m not saying do not ever wear make-up or grow out all your hair. I’m saying take back your freedom and do you.
My personal experience has led me to launch a movement called #SustainabilityAgainstShame. It addresses problematic representation of our bodies (such as size, shape, colour, wrinkles/cellulite, sweat, body hair, hair colour, skin discolouration/freckles, acne, ability, menstruation etc.), our looks (outdated, not on-trend, not like everyone else or the celebs, not right for your body, not gender-conforming, too sexy/modest etc.) and our lifestyle (what we eat, how we work out, who we fall in love with, how we identify ourselves, etc.). And there is so much more.
This movement belongs to all of us. We are sustainably-minded people join forces to stop shaming. Find out how to participate on the campaign page on my website, and how you can urge brands, shops and media to sign the #SustainabilityAgainstShame pledge.
And of course this goes way beyond the internet. It really helps to start being conscious of this way of communicating, resist the message and spread the word. It can be such an eye-opening moment to hear someone talk about how this works. Every time we have these conversations, we grow stronger together. Imagine what would happen if we all decided to no longer be convinced to dislike (parts of) ourselves.
Let’s put the link between shame and sustainability on the map and stop the stigmas – normalising our bodies and changing the system.
Read Lizzie Goolden’s feature on why we need to talk about period poverty.
Find out how to have a more sustainable relationship with your libido.
Aja Barber on why we need to keep our movements intersectional.