Sex In A Bottle: Deconstructing Perfume Marketing With My Kid

The 8yo Original Pigtail Pal and I were at the mall yesterday running some errands when a marketing poster at the department store perfume counter caught her eye while I was making a return with the cashier. She has been paying a lot of attention to the images displayed in stores lately, and I can tell she is giving them a lot of thought. The woman in the photo was wearing an evening gown and was very thin. The angle of the photograph drew your eye to focus on her exceptionally long legs. She was in a seated position reclining backwards with her legs spread partly open, the high slits in her dress causing the fabric to fall between her legs. The position of her body made her look like a prop and look on her face was a highly suggestive “Come hither” gaze. It prompted Amelia to ask if the woman was being sexy.

I answered that she was, but then compared that photo to one of a different model for a different perfume brand. The second model was wearing a women’s suit jacket that was open with nothing underneath. Her photo was also sexy, but in a different way. In this photo her eyes were closed and she had a sublime smile on her face, Her head was titled back, her smile turned towards her shoulder, her hands gently touching her neck. Her image gave off a feeling of self love and radiated beauty. Those two things together made it sexy.

(Unfortunately I can’t find either photo online to show you here.)

Amelia and I talked about how the two different images made us feel, why the first model was so thin, why it looked like the first model was waiting for someone while the other woman seemed to be by herself, why one photo focused on spread legs and the other focused on a happy face, and why companies would use those pictures to sell perfume.

“If perfume is supposed to smell nice and it is grouped into the groups you talked about then why aren’t they showing the different smells inside the bottle so you know what you are getting?” -Amelia

“Because they aren’t really selling perfume, they are selling the illusion of beauty and sex. The perfume isn’t the only thing people are buying when they buy this.” -Me

“They buy it to be sexy?” -Amelia

“Right, they buy it to feel attractive and sexy. People are drawn to the various scents, but the photos influence our feelings around the products and how we want those products to make us feel. That is called advertising. The companies do this to get our money. Feeling sexy is totally fine, but companies trying to sell that feeling to you isn’t always a good thing. Feeling sexy isn’t something you buy or get from other people, it is something you feel on the inside once you are more of an adult.” -Me

“You probably have to be in college to feel sexy.” -Amelia

“Right, or maybe a little bit in high school. Also, if you notice in all of these photos around the perfume and makeup counters the women are all white, all thin, all young and all more or less look the same. Women of all shapes, ages, and colors feel sexy and beautiful, but you don’t see that in advertising and that is why Mommy doesn’t like those photos. I don’t like when companies tell women how to feel about themselves.” -Me

“I would never listen to that because I would just listen to myself that I am beautiful. And I guess for third grade I don’t really need to be sexy but I would like to do a ninja obstacle course.” -Amelia

My work here is done. For today.

Amelia and I then walked hand in hand down to Bath & Body Works, whose lotions and potions  feature images of the scents inside and doesn’t rely on sex to sell. I bought my favorite oriental floral perfume and then I bought a little lotion with a light, sweet floral scent for Amelia who has no business being sexy in third grade but can certainly be a nice-smelling ninja.

I don’t mind her wanting to try on little bits of adulthood here and there, like high heels, makeup and perfume. When she is dancing around in my bras or asking to try my lipstick I just make sure she understands she is a visitor here, that the bras are too big and the lipstick too dark for a little girl. I teach her that everything that goes into being a woman is fantastic, and worth waiting for. I tell her there’s no need to rush it because being a confident little girl is equally fantastic.

People will always be selling sex in bottles and limiting versions of homogeneous beauty to her. I can’t stop that, but I can raise a girl who understands from a very early age that she is under no obligation to buy into any of it.

A simple trip to the mall to return some dresses led to a big conversation with my daughter on the marketing of beauty and sex.

A simple trip to the mall to return some dresses led to a big conversation with my daughter on the marketing of beauty and sex.

Comments

  1. Helga P. says:

    8-year-old going on 25. Third grade teacher is going to have loads of fun redirecting conversations with this girl withal all her talk of sexiness.

    • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

      Helga –
      No, actually my daughter is 8 going on 9. I’ve been forced to explain topics to her I didn’t think we’d approach until middle school, but our hypersexualized culture made it impossible to ignore or hide from. She is a very intelligent child who asks insightful questions so I felt it was best to answer them with the information she was looking for. Most kindergartners these days know the word “sexy”, I am a parent who decided to inform my child what it actually means so that I can teach her that “sexy” isn’t for kids, despite it being constantly marketed to them.

      I cannot raise my daughter in a bubble, but I can make sure she is brought up to think critically about media, to have a strong body image, and to receive an education about sex and sexuality that is both sex positive and age appropriate. As was made pretty clear from the post and Amelia’s own words, she very much understands that sexiness is something for older girls and not for girls her age. She is focused on being a happy and busy child, which is why sexualized images confuse her and why she questions them when she encounters them.

      To remedy your ignorance about my family, I recommend you read several other posts here to better understand how we approach the topics mentioned in the paragraph above. I think you’ll discover I’m quite invested in protecting childhood, rather than rushing my daughter through it.

  2. “You probably have to be in college to feel sexy” is now my new favorite quote!

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