At long last, spring is upon us. Flowers are beginning to bloom, and the weather is warming up. In the fashion world, increasing demand for lighter clothing means that heavy winter coats are on clearance and clothing companies are marketing their Spring collections. Unfortunately, the season also traditionally ushers in a bevy of highly sexualized images of scantily clad ladies. Calvin Klein’s latest campaign is illustrative.
In anticipation of its spring 2016 collection, Calvin Klein commenced an ad campaign built around the hashtag #mycalvins. Launched on Instagram and advertised on billboards and in shopping malls across the country, the campaignfeatures celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner wearing the famous brand along with the words “I _____ in #mycalvins.” Some of the individual images are harmless and even inspiring (I reflect in #mycalvins, says fully dressed Kendrick Lamar). Many others are utterly inappropriate.
One particularly unfortunate set of images has recently drawn criticism. An enormous billboard in New York City’s neighborhood of Soho displays actress Klara Kristin lounging with her dress hiked up with the slogan, “I seduce in #mycalvins.” Directly to the right, rapper Fetty Wap’s face is displayed along with the slogan, “Imake money in #mycalvins.”
There is, of course, nothing new about the pairing of images. Women are constantly portrayed as sexual objects next to depictions of men that are fully clothed or much less suggestive. Intentionally or not, however, the juxtaposition here aptly highlights the uniquely female nature of hypersexualization in advertising. While I think that most American women are pretty well used to it, rarely do advertisers make the double standard quite as explicit as Calvin Klein has succeeded in doing.
The ad may be par for the course when it comes to modern advertising, but women are speaking out. In particular, Heidi Zak, CEO and founder of ThirdLove, a women’s lingerie company whose mission is to design bras that really fit real women, is taking Calvin Klein to task for the display. Launching the #MoreThanMyUnderWear campaign, Zak and her team approached passersby on the streets of New York to find out what real women (and a few men) think about the billboard. Unsurprisingly, many were offended by the ad, calling it “inappropriate,” “obnoxious,” “unnecessary,” “terrible,” and “offensive.” “It conforms to really unfortunate stereotypes,” said one pedestrian. “It’s a double standard,” says another.
Compiling the responses into a video, Zak’s team created a petition asking Calvin Klein CEO Steve Shiffman to remove the billboard. Zak also penned a personal letter to Shiffman explaining her request. “It’s striking that almost a century after women won the right to vote,” Zak explains, “companies like yours are still propagating these offensive and outdated gender stereotypes: Men go to work and make money, while women are nothing more than sex objects…We should be illustrating that women do more than simply ‘seduce.'”
Modern advertisements are so thoroughly saturated with harmful imagery that it is hard to know where one would begin to make improvements. As one woman remarked of the billboard, “So much is inappropriate about the way women are portrayed in this world…add it to the list…what are you gonna do?” Calling attention to the problem is a good place to start. One doesn’t have to entirely agree with Zak’s gender philosophy to appreciate that the #MoreThanMyUnderWear campaign, and others like it, are holding companies to higher standards. Here’s to calling out sexism and being empowered women—oh, and whatever I’m wearing, I certainly will not be in “my Calvins.”
I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.
Photo by Alex Proimos