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Selling confidence or starvation: How gendered marketing will call you a 'babe' and sell you diet suppressants

The positive message about empowerment is being tied to problematic cultural practices thereby undermining the likelihood that girls and women really benefit from this seemingly positive message.
UPDATED FEB 13, 2020
Khloé Kardashian, Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian (Source : Getty Images)
Khloé Kardashian, Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian (Source : Getty Images)

Flat Tummy Co. has been under fire for a while now. After 'The Good Place' actress Jameela Jamil made it her priority to call to attention the dangers of appetite suppressants, the brand has been receiving a lot of flak for their business model. 

But before we get to discussing the whys and hows, what is Flat Tummy Co.?

"Flat Tummy Co began after seeing women like us struggle with looking and feeling good... We’re all about helping women look and feel like the best versions of themselves. And that’s what we set out to do," says their website.

Basically, Flat Tummy Co. sells appetite suppressants online and are on the biggest players in the weight loss market. Their products range from the highly criticized lollipops (the same ones that got Kim Kardashian flak for endorsing it on her social media) to teas, and shakes. Their inventory in that manner is pretty narrow - limited to only a few products like these. 

But what makes Flat Tummy Co. interesting, and perhaps even more influential in their spectrum, is their reiteration that they're an empowering brand - they will call you a 'babe', tell you that you can own the world, and do as you please while they are selling you an appetite suppressant.

See, they're not selling you suppressants and what are -- as Jamil put in one of her videos online -- diarrhoea-inducing detox products - the big issue is that they are doing so under the garb of empowerment. 

Consider this, the following is a list of Flat Tummy Co.'s visions.

"Inspiring, inclusive, supportive and empowering" is how Flat Tummy Co. likes to best describe itself. But if Jameela Jamil's feud with the Kardashians is any proof - in addition to 'The Good Place' actress' other online campaigns around weight and body image - Flat Tummy Co. is far from these adjectives. In fact, one look at their Instagram shows that their inclusivity is simply tokenism because, at the end of the day, they are selling patriarchal standards of body image to women and young girls worldwide. 

"Instagram is a powerful medium for brands where the cost of making content is cheap and changes can be made instantly - nothing like TV campaigns where messages are crafted for broadcast at great expense," explains Robin Honey, an independent brand consultant.

Robin started her business in the 80s and thinks of herself as an old-school feminist. "I’m dismayed at how companies like this are able to sell their products by manipulating a ‘feminist’ position without any proof of efficacy or ethics," she says. 

She reiterates the idea that only because some things might seem like they are pushing the cause of feminism and empowerment, they needn't always be so. Particularly, Flat Tummy Co., "And just cause it’s pink and addresses you as 'babe' does not make it feminist."

Flat Tummy Co., however, is not the only one to blame. Like Jamil has been reiterating all this while, celebrities are equally complicit and normalizing the business of appetite suppressants and selling a certain idea of body image to young minds.

In an interview where Jamil discusses the toxicity of appetite suppressants and body images, she says, "Celebrities are so toxic, as is this influencer culture which has emerged.  95% of celebrities are complicit in the assault on women by not saying anything about it, by not calling out the use of photoshop, and actually by perpetuating the narrative that looks are the most important thing by only ever talking about looks, and having surgeries without admitting it.  Let me be clear, I don’t mind whether someone wants to have surgery or not, but if you have- and you don’t admit it? You’re committing a crime against your gender."

Robin further iterates this point, "I’m more dismayed at the young do not have the ability to look for that proof. When a celebrity is an endorser though it powers up the sales leveraging their personal brand - and they profit handsomely - Good The Kardashians exist to shill. Insta should require a statement that a brand is paying (influencer marketer credentials) to give women pause that maybe the product won’t help them look like a Kardashian before they pay for a product."

Mindy Erchull, professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington, who focuses on feminist issues, says, "These campaigns send the message that one way to be empowered – often a key way – is to focus on one’s appearance," she laments, adding, "[The claim that] one way to 'improve' one’s appearance to better conform to the narrow, largely unachievable, societal beauty standards for women would then be to use the products being advertised. Essentially, the positive message about empowerment is being tied to problematic cultural practices thereby undermining the likelihood that girls and women really benefit from this seemingly positive message."