Diet Plan: Wear Panties?
BU profs on whether yet another business is preying on women’s insecurities
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