Marketers tell women what they should want to be. That doesn’t mean women have to listen

OPINION: Being a feminist consumer is not about buying the right lipstick or stamping the word “feminist” on everything, writes Lauren McKeon. It’s about putting serious thought into how you spend your money
By Lauren McKeon - Published on November 28, 2018
a shoe display
For women, shopping is often about conforming to the world’s expectations — a way of making sure that we’ve got the right hair, make-up, and shoes. (iStock.com/urbancow)

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In the past week, I’ve filled and emptied my virtual shopping cart countless times. Black Friday, the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, is no longer really a single day but a weeklong event — it starts with pre-sales and ostensibly concludes with Cyber Monday. For me, though, sale lust won’t end until Boxing Day (which itself has become Boxing Week). And although I tell myself sternly that I won’t spend a fortune, I still can’t seem to stop myself from just seeing how much seven new pairs of pants and 10 new bras would cost. Answer: too much, hence the shopping-cart tango.

I’m not alone in this: should-I-or-shouldn’t-I conversations dominated my circles over the weekend, even though everyone said they had better things to do than obsess about sales. Still, the lure of low prices is evidently hard to resist. Last year, Black Friday sales were up 18 per cent from the year before, hitting $7.9 billion. Cyber Monday 2017 was the biggest day in online shopping history — $6.6 billion. It seems likely that this year’s numbers will be higher still: by early Cyber Monday, online spending was already on track to outpace last year’s event. The final tally was estimated at nearly $8 billion.

And it’s not just the siren song of a good sale that causes us to fork over our cards or click “Buy Now.” In one 2011 study on Black Friday consumption rituals, researchers compare shoppers’ view of the day to a military mission. The shopper, they write, “recruits a group of bonded people” — i.e., family and friends — then “creates a detailed plan of attack, before going into battle, getting in and out as quickly as possible.” The researchers add that “Black Friday is a unique consumption ritual that blends elements of traditional shopping with holiday rituals.” It’s like Christmas but with better stuff.

I’ve always been keenly aware of feminism’s fraught relationship with consumerism. Marketing departments tell women that we can shop our way to personal betterment. That we can afford to do it — and, in fact, that we should buy as much as possible in pursuit of aesthetic excellence. (Look at all these deals!) We’re also told that we #DeserveIt. Last weekend, my inbox was filled with emojis — prayer hands, lightning bolts, flames — as well as with subject lines such as “The only thing you should do today” and “FOMO is NEVER sexy.” But do I really want to use the full force of my capacities for strategic-planning and relationship-building to crowdsource the best deal on lipstick?

Marketers also subject women to more than a dash of what researchers call “feminist consumerism” — the idea, that through spending, we can support or even outright achieve the equality we’re after (particularly when we buy brands that claim to support feminist goals). It’s a thorny concept, to say the least.

One of the most prominent examples of feminist consumerism is also one of the modern era’s first: the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. As the authors of a 2008 study published in the feminist journal Signs put it, “Dove’s critique of beauty ideology is diluted by its contradictory imperative to promote self-acceptance and at the same time increase sales by promoting women’s consumption of products that encourage conformity to feminine beauty ideology.” In other words, it’s feminism as a means to a corporate end.

But is shopping so bad? It’s worth noting that there was a time when leisure shopping symbolized women’s rising social status. In the 19th century, cities were seen as the domain of men; a woman wandering the streets was downright radical. As the author of Shopping for Pleasure, Erika Diane Rappaport, writes, “Perhaps nothing was more revolting than the spectacle of a middle-class woman immersed in the filthy, fraudulent and dangerous world of the urban marketplace.”

Obviously, shopping is no longer the revolutionary act it once was. For women today, shopping is often about conforming to the world’s expectations: it’s a way of making sure that we’ve got the right hair, the right make-up, the right clothes. What matters most in all this is the message we send when we shop. Being a feminist consumer shouldn’t be about buying new lipstick or stamping the word feminist on, well, everything. It should be about supporting women- and trans-led businesses and companies that subvert traditional standards of what we should want to be — about putting serious thought into where we spend our hard-earned cash.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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