Girls for sale (*one size only)

Why do advertisers still portray women as bimbos? Could it be - whisper it - that we actually want them to? PETER YORK reports on the double standard that won't go away

You know the hair arc? That's when a model swings her gorgeous glossy hair through 360 degrees in slo-mo in a shampoo, conditioner or colourant advertisement. Or the tumble, where piled-up formal hair is released, Rapunzel-style, as a mass of silken rope. Or the Manhattan pout, where a model draws a perfect mouth in lipstick on her wonderfully blank flawless face. Or the catwalk-sashay, where supermodels, two and three abreast, advance like a dream army of the future.

Course you do. On a girls' night out, with a bit of chardonnay down you, you can knock them off to a T, as accurately as Dawn and Jennifer or those Smack The Pony girls.

Why are hair and beauty commercials so formulaic, so cheesy, so Cindy Crawford, so beyond parody, so eminently deconstructable, so different from all the other clever, oblique, indulgent attitude-packed stuff we get on British TV?

Why, I hear you say - you Independent-reading, independent women - why do they never show real women - not dogs, you understand, but women with real features, a few sugar-bags on the mid-section and some under-eye damage caused by jolly nights on the sauce? Why don't they have recognisable older women? Why no real problems, no real settings, no Pot Noodle underclass people, no Kathy Burke? Why no humour, no self-parody? You know when those L'Oreal girls say "because I'm worth it", they're completely weightless from the lack of irony.

Business analysts could point to the big hair and beauty companies. The major brands are international, most owned by one of three massive "personal care" conglomerates. Their advertising is overwhelmingly produced in Manhattan or Paris to be consumed everywhere - from mud huts to igloos - so it can't be ambiguous. And as for the culture of these businesses, it's serious. These are people who see the pursuit of scientific beauty as an all-consuming, full-time professional job.

Weird, you'll say - get a life. And can all this old-style, beauty-fascist propaganda really go on while women are becoming so fulfilled, confident, individual etc. On one level, those ads are cliched, insulting and irrelevant to a fair few educated middle-class women. And, on a rational level, they're not even class-correct. You absolutely don't wear giant hair or Cindy make-up when you're on the ladder in an investment bank or a Premier League law firm. That's for the birds.

And yet... Will women ever be happy with how they're portrayed in ads? Could it be that the advertisers know women better than they do themselves? Could it be that those commercials work? Could it be that you can parody those ads because you've committed them to memory, because they're so universal and utterly compelling?

Shape, a new health and beauty magazine, asked five London advertising agencies to create distinctive images of 21st-century female beauty. Free to represent women exactly as they wanted to - without the client watching over their shoulders - could they come up with images women actually approved of?

In my view, the results will disappoint. The first agency (with a very long name) TBWA, GGT, Simons Palmer, shows a pretty made-up face in supermarket shrink-wrap with a bar code and a "best before" date, followed by a shy little PC strap line "refuse to be labelled: inner beauty is eternal". While this thought is advanced as a teensy bit challenging, most women will be wondering about the eyelash credits.

Another treatment, from Delaney Fletcher Bozell, seems nearer the mark with a Miss World line-up of clones, where Miss Uganda looks like Cindy Crawford, too. They've also got the neat idea of a gene glinic: "buy your child blue eyes and get a nose of your choice free" - biotechnology will produce a market for pattern-book beautiful children. And there's a beauty magazine for 2035 with a made- up three-year-old on the cover, on the reasonable grounds we've got used to 14-year-olds now.

Another four-stroke agency, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper (now is that branding?) said

they wanted "to make women feel better about themselves, but with humour. In real life, even models sometimes have snot hanging out of their noses". This profoundly subversive approach led them to propose a beauty doing a dramatic shot - milky back exposed in a slip-dress, head to camera - deconstructed by the sight of a bit of lav paper dragging on her Manolos. And they've got the snot - a very unconvincing dab of custard - on an airbrushed cosmetic face. Plus a topless stunna floating in an ideal summer sea with a few naughty fart bubbles drawn on. Now, that should stop your mum hankering after a face-lift.

WCRS - the sensible acronym for Wight Collins Rutherford Scott - says that "no matter what, the ideal is getting thinner and thinner". Their neat little graphic solution is a matchstick on a black page: "the perfect woman" - ie you can never be too young or too thin.

The St Lukes agency - now there's a nice name - returns to the genetics theme, on the grounds that, even pre-genetic engineering, "most women already want to change something about their bodies". They're still using the old crude approaches - diet, exercise, surgery, cosmetics - but in a time to come, we can look forward to What Genes magazine (incorporating DNA Choice) with "a 47-page pullout featuring the DNA codes for 100 of the best-looking movie stars EVER".

I have to say I'm afraid I believe it. Give somebody a neat bit of kit and a promise of perfection and they'll use it. The fact is everyone wants everything and if they'd asked me I'd have contributed something called Perfect Plus, whereby a woman can achieve The International Grade A fruit standard and then - and this is the neat, genuinely 21st-century bit - customise it to express her vibrant, funny, sexy, individual, etc, inner self. Perfect but singular. Like the Julia Roberts' mouth when it was first invented as popular imagery.

Anyway, the debate will run and run. The only certainties are a) that more women everywhere, of every class and condition, will act more American about these matters and b) that men will catch them up. The fact is that more perfect-looking men than women now take their clothes off in advertising and that many more boys are reporting sick from the pressure with anorexia, low self-esteem etc. And what is Men's Health about if not a Shape for boys?

Read Peter York's regular advertising column in `Culture', page 9. The first

issue of `Shape' magazine is currently

on sale.

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