Female empowerment: It’s not for everyone

By Jess Craig / Columnist

“Dear candidate, thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length and bust. You have the wrong body for ballet, and at 13 you are too old to be considered.”

This plays in the background during Under Armour’s “I Will What I Want” commercial.

During the advertisement, inspirational music plays while a ballet dancer sweeps across the stage in a series of spins and leaps. Her muscles bulge, her toes point — she embodies grace and beauty.

The commercial  features professional ballet dancer Misty Copeland who, despite being told she didn’t look the part of a ballet dancer — bone-thin and white — became a soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. A similar advertisement is CoverGirl’s “Girls Can” commercial, which features celebrities like Katy Perry, Ellen DeGeneres, Pink and Queen Latifah who talk about what they’ve accomplished despite the obstacles — people who said they couldn’t achieve certain feats because they were women.

“I heard that girls couldn’t rap — I rapped. Girls couldn’t own businesses — I own my own business,” Queen Latifah said in the video, while the words “challenge everything” and “be you” appeared in the background.

Both commercial campaigns are setting aside business-minded, profit-pursuing attitudes to inspire a different kind of action: empowerment.

But while Under Armour’s commercial truly inspires women and men to pursue goals even if an entire industry tells you you cannot, CoverGirl’s “Girls Can” commercial — despite its seeming intentions — goes awry and not only debunks the feminist movement but also reinforces the double standard placed on women today. 

Why does Under Armour succeed while CoverGirl fails? 

The difference lies in the companies’ industries. Under Armour is an athletic-technology retailer that targets both men and women and is part of an industry where gender equality has made great strides. CoverGirl, one of the leading cosmetic companies in the industry, primarily targets women and is a strong source of contention among many feminists who believe cosmetic companies prey on women’s insecurities to make profits. 

The problem with a cosmetic company promoting female empowerment is the internal contradiction, the fundamental paradox that reinforces the societal pressures placed on women: be successful, but be thin and pretty; traverse whatever industry you’d like as long as you wear eyeliner, mascara, foundation, blush and lipstick. Be you, but be a prettier version of you.

But the priorities of successful women are not to be “easy, breezy and beautiful,” but rather to be taken seriously and treated equally, regardless of attractiveness. Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode wrote in “The Beauty Bias,” “I don’t wear makeup nor do I wish to spend 20 minutes applying it. The quality of my teaching shouldn’t depend on the color of my lipstick or whether I’ve got mascara on. We like individuals in the job market to be judged on the basis of competence, not cosmetics.”

CoverGirl’s message would have more power if the company challenged the notion that attractiveness simply correlates to success. But because an empowerment message along these lines would discourage sales of CoverGirl products, the company won’t change anything.

While I applaud CoverGirl’s attempts to empower women, some companies should leave the empowering to others like Under Armour whose brand and commercial impacts all people  and sends a message we all need to hear: even if you don’t blend in with an industry’s superficial ideals, you can still succeed and excel.

Write to Jess at [email protected].