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Diet Plan: Wear Panties?

BU profs on whether yet another business is preying on women’s insecurities

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Can wearing the right underwear help you shed weight? Despite the seeming absurdity of the claim, women in Massachusetts, New York, and Florida say they were conned by it.

The women have filed separate lawsuits against Maidenform Brands and Wacoal America, claiming, in the words of the Massachusetts filing, that the lingerie firms “prey upon women’s insecurities about their body images” and then fail to deliver—all to chase a slice of the $20 billion spent on weight reduction each year by Americans.

Keith Hylton, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor at the School of Law, says the Massachusetts case, alleging breach of consumer protection laws, hinges on whether the firms’ claims “can reasonably be construed to warrant the results that the plaintiffs claimed were warranted”—that is, a farewell to flab. Hylton says such claims have become a “minefield” for consumer goods companies, citing a lawsuit against Subway, sued last year because its foot-long sandwich was just shy of that length.

Marketing material for Maidenform’s Flexees Instant Slimmer (price: $38) and Wacoal’s iPant ($60) claim that the garments contain embedded minerals and nutrients that seep into the wearer’s skin and can melt fat. The Massachusetts plaintiffs quote Wacoal’s advertising vows that its product “works with your body to visually reduce the appearance of cellulite from your waist, hips and thighs as you move,” while Maidenform pledges that its underwear provides “slimming benefits” and helps wearers “fight against cellulite.” A Wacoal spokeswoman declined a Boston Globe request for comment on the suit, but Maidenform told the paper that it had recently determined that its fabric supplier might not be able to substantiate its ad claims. The company defended its products, but it also offered refunds to unhappy customers.

BU scholars in business and sociology say that in peddling a supposedly wearable diet, companies scavenge off female fears and cultural prejudice. “In contemporary American culture, fat people are so thoroughly maligned, and fat shaming is so widely acceptable, that the fear and hatred of fatness is rampant,” says fashion and beauty marketing expert Ashley Mears, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of sociology.

“There is lots of evidence to suggest that fatness is beyond the control of individual efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” says Mears. Fitness is easier “for more privileged people with access to more expensive diets and exercise regimens, yet it is socially acceptable to express outright hostility towards people seen as fat for failing to work hard.”

James Post, the School of Management’s John F. Smith, Jr., Professor in Management, is quick to point out that this would hardly be the first time that commerce has parlayed people’s desperation for better looks into profit.

“Marketing has a long, not-so-glorious history when dealing with women,” says Post, citing a quote from makeup mogul Charles Revson: “In the factory we manufacture cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.”

The undergarment retailers “are surely exploiting public concerns with image and self-worth,” Posts argues, although he’s not sure that the courtroom is the appropriate arena to combat that. “The best way to send a message to the companies is to not buy their products,” he says. “A brand’s value reflects its image, reputation, quality, and other intangible but real elements. If these companies are really marketing snake oil, and they are exposed, the value of their brand will diminish.”

Leveraging that prejudice is not the province of just businessmen. The underwear firms are similar to Spanx, which has not been charged with making false claims, “the multibillion-dollar shapewear company founded by a woman,” notes Kabrina Chang (CAS’92), an SMG assistant professor of business law and ethics. Nor are apparel companies outliers. “Have you picked up the latest issue of Cosmo?” asks Chang. “Have you walked down the face cream aisle at CVS? Preying on body image issues is a gazillion-dollar industry.”

Chang sees different values at work in videos from Dove (here and here) that promote women’s feeling better about their God-given looks without embellishment. Critics have variously decried the films as canny sales pitches or playing women for saps (in one video, women try a “beauty patch” that does nothing, but the placebo effect makes them feel better-looking).

Chang sees it differently. “Genius marketing? Maybe,” she says, “but certainly a more uplifting, values-based message” than that of the lingerie firms.

7 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments on Diet Plan: Wear Panties?

  • Mark on 05.07.2014 at 7:40 am

    Please protect me from myself.

  • Jane on 05.07.2014 at 10:26 am

    Goodness, what a waste of judicial resources. I figured out long ago that if something sounded too good to be true that it was more likely than not false. That doesn’t seem to be such a deep thought. I guess I don’t care if a few insecure women were disappointed not to have shed any pounds by buying expensive underwear. Long ago someone said, “No one ever lost money underestimating the stupidity of the American public.” My guess is that you could substitute any country’s citizens for Americans. I am much more concerned about the Enrons and Madoffs in the world.

  • Joe on 05.07.2014 at 12:41 pm

    > “There is lots of evidence to suggest that fatness is beyond the control of individual efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle,”

    Gimme a break. Everyone’s body obeys the laws of thermodynamics. You’re helping no one by spouting this dis-empowering drivel, in fact you’re contributing to someones type 2 diabetes right now.

    > Fitness is easier “for more privileged people with access to more expensive diets and exercise regimens,”

    Holy cow. How expensive is it to eat less calories? How expensive is it to go for a walk or a jog, or do sit ups and push ups? Those excuses are bogus. Talk about self deception.

    • Actually... on 05.08.2014 at 2:01 am

      A lot of studies show that obesity-related health outcomes are directly related socioeconomic status. It may not seem expensive to go outside for a walk, but that time isn’t a luxury some people have, particularly those down the ladder who need to work. Or maybe they can’t afford to leave their kids alone at home for half an hour. There are so many factors that go into being able to engage in preventative health measures. Same goes for making healthy food – it is certainly more expensive to buy produce that doesn’t last very long than to buy processed foods, in addition to time constraints. And genetics are genetics. Predisposition is not really made up. While it certainly can be a case of self-deception, these excuses are very real for many people.

      • Joe on 05.08.2014 at 11:08 am

        How about taking your kids with you to the park? Go for a walk with them, set an example. I’m sure you’ll respond with something like “what about parents of children who are allergic to oxygen” or something like that.

        Regardless, maintaining a healthy level of body fat is much more about your diet than level of activity. Its perfectly possible, and not unrealistic, to stay in a healthy BMI range without doing any extra exercise outside normal daily stuff.

        Also, frozen vegetables are cheaper than frozen pizzas, or other unhealthy foods. Same with frozen fruit. Whole wheat bread cost the same as white bread. Water is a lot cheaper than soda. People are slaves to the quick dopamine release, high sugar high gylcemic-index food. There ARE affordable ways to eat healthy. Maybe instead of giving people excuses to pull out the next time they smell a big mac, we should educate people on how to shop efficiently.

        I’ve never bought soda, products containing high fructose corn syrup, or any bleached grains at the store my entire 2 years living off campus, on a budget of $50 per week.

        • Elizabeth on 09.03.2014 at 9:50 am

          Oh Joe — you are so privileged and you have no idea. You have some good ideas but you are totally ignorant about how hard it is for many people to buy the food you list. Many poor people live in food deserts where there are only corner stores and grocery stores are a long way away. And these are people who need to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. So they don’t have time to get to the grocery store to buy frozen veg and fruit, etc. So stop assuming that everyone has it as easy as you.

  • Hmmm on 05.07.2014 at 1:06 pm

    Should’ve mentioned how even Dove, with all their videos about loving yourself, still sells skin lightening cream in countries like India.

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