“Strong” is the new “Beautiful”

As a branding strategist, I’m trained to analyze everything – images, words, the obvious, the subliminal.  I love watching commercials and wondering who on Earth wrote that creative brief? Sometimes I’m awed and inspired by the courage of companies who transcend the status quo – think #turnthefaucetoff, or JCPenny being the first major brand to show a gay couple in their ads; other times, and this is most of the time, I’m deeply disappointed by the lack of thinking that most marketers practice.  Think pharma ads with their cheesy grins and perfect lifestyles. Everything pink and blue, salt-and-pepper hair and catalogue-staged homes. It’s not that depicting perfect lifestyles is a bad thing – it’s just not really…REAL. It’s totally fake, and as a society we have been conditioned to prefer fake and “ideal” over raw and truthful. Dare I say, inspiring.  Imagine something with me:  Imagine if more marketing effort were put into coming up with thought-provoking commercials vs. “creative” ways to force people to watch another car careening through a rain-kissed road with a young attractive couple occupying the front seats… Ok, so I’m writing about this because I was recently inspired by  the amazing work of Kate T. Parker, a photographer who has developed a photo essay depicting strength (vs beauty) as a way to capture the essence of a woman.  It’s not the most radical idea out there, and if you Google “strong is the new beautiful,” you’ll find that a lot of people have developed some really smart mini campaigns around the idea.

So why am I inspired by this now?  Well, timing I guess. As the mother of three girls (5, 5, and 5 months), and a women in an all-girl household (save for the dog, Fergus), I’m acutely aware of the messages that women internalize about their identities – it happens slowly, and if you have kids, you can literally watch as one message is internalized and solidified in their psyche.  They are forming their identities using whatever they can grasp from their surroundings, and they are acutely aware of unspoken expectations about what it means to be a girl.  Everything from being expected to have long hair, to feeling sad if they’re not told that they look “cute” (something that everyone in their lives has conditioned them to expect- or else).  Now, my wife and I have made efforts to include trucks and swords as much as ponies and tiaras in their play room, and we regularly talk about how some families have a mom and a dad, some have two moms, some have two dads, some have only grandparents, one parent, etc.; but it’s only a matter of time before they start listening more to what society has to say about what’s acceptable than what their boring old mothers are saying 🙂 .  And this is where my profession as a marketer and my responsibility as a mother intersect, and why the light in my heart brightens when I come across a campaign as artfully and skillfully executed as Kate T. Parker’s.   And still, there’s a lot of work to be done here…

Shifting the acceptable nature of a girl from beautiful to strong is scraping the surface of a much broader conversation that we need to be having publicly.  Where we are now is at the beginning of awareness. We are saying that it’s ok to question ourselves and our habits of thought.  For instance, what images come to mind when we think strong?  Is it a male figure?  What is that?  Because it’s what we’ve ALL been fed time and again by mass media.  And it’s not just the male vs female depiction of strength that needs to be considered.  It’s the underlying meaning of strength.  Right? Because perhaps strong means that you can still be gentle and vulnerable. Strong can be black and blue as much as it can be pink and purple, and get this – boys can wear pink!  I love that we’re seeing a shift in the way girls are depicted, and I think the next step is to start shifting the way boys are depicted.  What fun it would be to see a little boy staying home to play princess with his dad while a little girl accompanies her mother to the hardware store.  How difficult would it be to produce that? Not very!  This isn’t just fun – it’s real.

As I step down from my soap box, let me end by saying that subtle changes to the imagery that we use in our advertisements WILL be noticed, and will make a difference for that little boy or little girl who is questioning who they are and what they want to be.  It may seem like such an insignificant shift to make, but I believe that if we reconsider and challenge the old definitions of strength and beauty, we can create a future of men and women who are secure and smart, unburdened by unrealistic expectations of who they ought to be (or not be). If we can break these chains, we might just have a chance at a more inclusive and peaceful society for generations to come.

Here’s to being strong AND beautiful – and Inclusive!

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