My professor clicks the next slide of his presentation, a Secret Deodorant commercial from 2013. My classmates and I sit in silence as the YouTube player begin, and a woman’s fast, quivering voice booms from the speakers.
Stress sweat. It’s different from ordinary sweat – it smells worse and it can happen anytime to anyone. Like when I fell asleep at movie night with all my coworkers and totally dream snorted myself awake. I actually popped my head back so fast I’m pretty sure I have whiplash.
The woman in the movie theatre scene transitions to one big pink tear drop with “STRESS SWEAT” underneath, right next to three tiny blue teardrops titled “ORDINARY SWEAT”.
My notebook, 500-page textbook, in-class worksheets, and black gel pen are all sprawled on the desk in front of me. I sit alone in the very front of the class, intently watching the screen as it quickly depicts the shiny, white-packaged “Clinical” deodorants that protect four times as much odor than the old ones.
In the row behind me sits a clan of four guys, empty desked.
My long, tangled blonde hair catches under my arm as I rush to write notes about how companies create problems so they can create marketable new solutions.
I hear the other lone girl who sits behind me click her pen. I can’t help but wonder what she writes, how this critical, in-class observation may pertain to the world around her. Or maybe it reminds her of a different commercial, where a woman is shown smearing white cream over her pearl skin, only to transition to an even smoother, glass-faced rendering after 12 weeks of using it nightly. Which could it be – Clinique? CerVe? Avène? Maybe it was Olay, or Glossier, or Neutrogena. Or it could’ve been bare Minerals, or that new brand the girls on TikTok have been buying – Drunk Elephant, or even the one that’s been around forever, Ponds.
I think about the array of perfectly packaged bottles in each woman’s medicine cabinet, loyally sitting in 12-hour increments. Waiting until their nightly inauguration, five seconds at most, until they return to their post after a two-count careless squeeze. I think about the woman who enters the reflection of her mirror, her eyes instantly darting to the different potential wrinkle areas of her face. They will all have names – forehead lines, crow’s feet, bunny lines.
My mom once relayed a message from my great aunt, saying not to drink from straws, they give you lines around your mouth. Another girl once told me she likes to keep a straight-face in social situations because she doesn’t want to get laugh lines. I heard once to relax your expressions when you’re thinking to avoid getting wrinkles on your forehead.
A world of women, all slightly reducing their daily experiences of life –no straw-drinking, no laughing, no thinking. Don’t focus too intently on what Secret’s subliminal message is, it might force a line across your forehead. Don’t sweat in a movie theatre, your coworkers will make fun of you. But make sure not to stress about it, because then your sweat will smell significantly worse, and you absolutely can’t bare the embarrassment of that. But oh wait! Here’s a perfectly packaged product that will ensure your sweat won’t metamorphosize into a gigantic pink sweat drop, which is way more detrimental than the three tiny blue sweat drops your body would’ve settled with if you hadn’t thought so much about it.
I sit, and watch, and think, and write. The boys behind me sit without pen or paper or textbook. They’re untouched, unenthused, untargeted. They sit with an unaffected gaze, all beside each other, probably relaxed from the thought of the money they’ve saved from never purchasing special anti-aging cream or clinically proven stress-targeting deodorant.
There are industries and markets and entire economical structures that depend and prey on women’s insecurities. They manufacture and twist our perception on something natural and beautiful, just so we’ll continue to support a narrative that has failed us for generations. As women we’ve been tricked to purchase products in attempt to mend something invisible – and in doing this sacrifice was it means to actually live.
The world deserves to hear our laughs and understand our thoughts. We deserve to swim in lakes and pools and rivers without thinking about the way our legs or stomachs look in the sun. We deserve to sweat after chasing after our dogs or playing with our children and friends at the park. We deserve to furrow our eyebrows when we read something that’s confusing, or intriguing, or fascinating. Because what happens when we censor our natural responses to life, just to uphold an unrealistic, unattainable image? What happens when we lose our life to fear of “imperfection”, and our essence is nothing but a loose pile of torn drugstore receipts?
We’re told time and time again that we would be better if we had this new thing, if our skin was tighter, if our teeth were whiter, if our hair was smoother. My challenge is this: our feminine identities are not rooted in the things we own, or the prospects of what feature to improve in order to become “better”. We are women because we’re unique, we’re talented, we’re strong, we’re sensual, we’re innovative, we’re thoughtful, we’re funny, we’re creative, we’re bold. Our reclamation comes from our soul, from our innermost workings reflected through our words and our smiles and our squints. Our communities are formed by demonstration of who we are internally. We can collectively repackage our womanhood, through shattering what we’re told to be everywhere we are – through awareness and acceptance that there will always be a commercial saying otherwise.
Graphic by Marley Hillman
- Packaged Womanhood: Reclaiming our Essence – by Marley Hillman - March 27, 2023