Why tear one's hair out over hairy legs in ad?

LONDON • In Arvida Bystrom's shoot for German shoe brand adidas, the model wears pastel pink and a lacy frock.

She also power-poses, taking up space - evidently never having been informed that girls in pretty dresses should keep their knees together.

She is petite, blonde and feminine, but with a facial expression clearly communicating that you should not get too involved in the business of this princess.

On her feet, a pair of pristine sneakers announce themselves as the footwear of choice for fierce gals in skirts.

And on her legs is the ultimate fashion accessory for this winter - hair. The hair, predictably, has offended those with delicate sensibilities. Bystrom has even reported rape threats against her.

However, body hair, it seems, is now mainstream enough to be marketed by big brands. Not body hair itself, of course. Rather, the feminist aesthetic of body hair is on sale.

Not long ago, a hairy female armpit loomed large on a screen in New York's Times Square.

Model Arvida Bystrom in the adidas advertisement. PHOTO: ARVIDA BYSTROM/ INSTAGRAM

The advertisement was for Swedish clothing giant H&M.

Some fashion pundits were surprised that a presumably well market-researched campaign had concluded that hairy women would not hurt a major fashion brand.

However, things can, well, get hairy for the advertiser because capitalist co-option of progressive symbols can also weaken their force - as proven over the years.

Think Coca-Cola in the 1970s using the aesthetic of the hippy movement to convince consumers that radical love meant buying the world a Coke.

Think Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara T-shirts in Irish company Primark's stores.

Think model Kendall Jenner in that Pepsi advertisement, which was derided by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, the big brand names try to milk any opportunity they can tap to stay relevant.

Their brand gets an easy-to-wear, machine-washable liberal sheen for their questionable cheap labour practices and politics, argue some astute observers.

As they note, radical ideology has become just another product for sale, voided of its context, intent and - eventually - power.

And yet, not every corporate uptake of progressive idea comes up empty-handed.

For example, Dove's use of the feminist language of body positivity is intended to make folk buy more shimmery lotions, of course, but it also battles the beauty myth and does some feminist work.

Dove can, however, be tone-deaf on race issues. It recently released an advertisement showing a black woman turning into a white woman through the use of its products.

People got mad - rightly .

There are worse ways for artists such as Bystrom to make a living than using global platforms to spread progressive ideas.

Still, the violent reactions she has evoked and the sexual intimidation she is experiencing are evidence that women are still not entitled to make the choices about their bodies that they want to make.

There is still something uncomfortable about seeing the work of the feminist movement used to make big business look good - for people on both sides of the divide.

Still, there is no need to tear your hair out in anger over the sight of a girl with hairy legs in an advertisement.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Why tear one's hair out over hairy legs in ad?'. Print Edition | Subscribe