One vintage ad warns women, “Don’t let them call you SKINNY!” while another promises that smoking cigarettes will keep one slender. If the task of morphing their bodies into the current desirable shape isn’t enough of a burden, women are also reminded that they stink.
In these vintage ads, a woman may be emitting a foul odor from any body part—her armpits, her mouth, her hair, her hands, her lady parts—but she never knows it until her husband is walking out the door, suitcase in hand. And what about her skin? According to such ads, she might drive that man away with her so-called coarse pores, old mouth, tan lines, zits, wrinkles, middle-age skin, hairy legs or lip, visible veins, or horror of all horrors, dishpan hands.
The Do I Offend? blog chronicles such vintage body-shaming advertisements geared toward women, and the baffling shifts from one feminine ideal to the next. Cynthia Petrovic, a Southern California artist known as RedTango who designs and sells a retro-themed gift line, got hooked on these advertisements when she was in college. Now, she has a garage full of antique and vintage magazines, which she’s been slowly pilfering for the most sexist (and funniest) ads targeting women.
For the past couple years, she’s been uploading these ads to Do I Offend?, where she adds a snarky headline and sorts them into categories like “A Weighty Matter,” “Toilet Torment,” and “No Boob Left Behind.” We talked to Petrovic about her collection and what she’s learned about how the ad men on Madison Avenue have gotten rich selling women shame.
Collectors Weekly: How did you first get interested in these ads?
When I was in college, I came across a 1930s romance magazine called “True Story” in an antiques store in Orange, California. Flipping through the pages, I found an ad for Waldorf toilet paper, which was a little comic strip. A man has become so cranky toward his wife that their marriage is on the rocks. As it turns out, cheap toilet paper is the thing that’s driving him crazy because it has bits of splinters in it. The couple holds the tissue up to the light, and they see little pieces of wood in it. Waldorf advertised repeatedly in these magazines. In some of the ads, the wife was cranky, and then it was their little girl. Eventually, the whole family was affected by this scourge. I found it so funny.
After that, I got addicted to finding these old romance magazines from the ’30s and ’40s—“True Romance,” “True Story,” and “True Secrets”—as well as the homemaking magazines like “Woman’s Home Companion” and “Ladies’ Home Journal.” But the romance magazines were where I found the ads that really take the cake. They’re the most entertaining, and just shameless. The most common premise is that a woman does not want to offend a man. These ads speculate about whether your husband is going to walk out on you because you’re not using a feminine hygiene product or your scalp smells when you’re dancing or you have undie odor.
Yeah, the advertisers got really creative with that in the 1930s. As a bonus, they’ve also instructed you on how to do the “armhole test” so that you can smell your own funk and determine whether you’re acceptable or not for a night out. Maybe people just didn’t wash as much—which brings me to my favorite ad.
This one is the prize, the reason why I collect these, a crowning achievement. Whoever thought it up in the ad department needs an award. A woman is in bed asleep, and her underthings are hanging on a chair nearby—slip, girdle, bra. And they’re whispering about her. They’re saying, “She would’ve been more popular if she had washed us” with the soap the ad is shilling. Literally, her underwear is gossiping about her. You can’t get more demented than that.
Collectors Weekly: I love how the woman is always wondering whether her husband thinks she smells bad. Why doesn’t she just ask him?
I thought about that, too. It seems like a lot of the marital dilemmas in these ads could be solved if the couple just talked. But it’s got to get to the point where he literally puts his hat on, picks up the suitcase, and rushes out the door in disgust. There are ads that illustrate that very plainly: He’s going to rush out the door while she’s sitting there crying into her handkerchief. Somebody else has to come and clue her in, or maybe she goes to the doctor. I don’t know whether people didn’t communicate and talk the same way they might now, or whether the ads would’ve made somebody laugh back then. I’d like to know.
Collectors Weekly: For example, would a woman’s date ever be so offended if her skirt is gaping at the button?
No, a guy would be amused at that. He probably wouldn’t say anything because he would enjoy peeking at her underwear. He definitely wouldn’t be choking on a sandwich in disgust. Men are never as critical of a woman’s body as women are, whether they’re talking about themselves or others.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most dangerous products were targeted toward women?
A big product that was advertised for women’s personal hygiene starting in the 1920s was Lysol. In those ads, they didn’t say you can use it as a douche and to clean your floor. Now, we’re just cleaning floors with it. Can you imagine the injury that was done? Some of these products were toxic. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the makers of Kotex sold something called Quest deodorant powder to sprinkle on your menstrual pads, and that chemical gave women cervical cancer. Still, today, how careful are we with the beauty products we sell people? Many cosmetics even now contain known carcinogens.
Collectors Weekly: How else were women shamed about menstruation?
Many 1930s ads actually treat the period with a kind of maturity that flies in the face of the rest of the ads. They’re telling menstruating women, “Go ahead, enjoy your life.” They’re showing women on horseback or doing other stuff that you probably wouldn’t do: wearing white pants, playing tennis, going out to dinner, going to the theater. Early Midol ads say, “You’re going to have a great time, and the pain won’t bother you. Don’t let your period get in the way.” That’s a very modern idea. This is 80 years ago, and they’re telling women, “Get out and live your life.” I like that. That’s different from the rest of the ads that say, “You’re no good. You’ve got to fix yourself.”
Collectors Weekly: How did ads insulting women evolve in the mid-20th century?
Like I said, there were periods of time where the woman-shaming ads seemed to recess into the background. During wars, maybe you knuckle down a little bit, but then when the war is over, it bursts back out again. These ads resurfaced after World War II, but from what I can tell, they matured a little bit. During the late ’40s and early ’50s, the ads targeting women just didn’t reach the same peaks of insanity they did before the war, but you would still have ads for Kotex and the practical stuff that you need. In the ’50s and ’60s, you started to see ads for breast enlargement. Then during the ’70s, we underwent a big social revolution where women stood up, and said, “We’re not going to be treated as objects anymore.” But even then, the shaming ads didn’t completely disappear. In that decade, you still had companies using those tactics to sell deodorants and breast-enhancement products.
Collectors Weekly: That early ’70s ad boasting about all the attractive women who weren’t good enough to become flight attendants is amazing.
That was right when the women’s lib movement was going strong, and women were saying, “We’re not going to be playing traditional female roles anymore, we’re going to get out into the world, really get out in the workforce, and make our stand.” Still, these ads popped up. Through all of that turmoil and social change that was going on back then, there was still this ad that says, “We only pick the prettiest women to be flight attendants.” It just never dies.
Collectors Weekly: How does this sort of shaming manifest today?
Nothing’s really changed. Ads and the media still insist that you have to be physically perfect and socially acceptable to avoid embarrassment. Seriously, look at the world today. Women are more objectified than ever. It’s changed form. I don’t think you’re going to see the same kinds of magazine ads we had back in the 1930s, but back then, people didn’t have the Internet and the tremendous mass media the way we do now. What we see now are women-against-women cat fights and women being taught to hate their bodies in a different way through snide remarks in television shows, reality shows celebrating bad behavior, and trash tabloid websites. It’s a different kind of assault, not just through products but also through images and memes constantly reminding women that there are other women that look better than they do.
In our gossip-obsessed culture, everybody is expected to be 20 years old forever and sexually available. Even when you’re pregnant, you’ve got to be hot. What makes me sick is that there’s no moment of a woman’s life from birth to death where she’s not supposed to be “on” sexually, starting with Bratz dolls and padded bras for girls to stories of women in their 60s and 70s getting breast implants. Everything is about being skinny now, because only the rich can afford to buy organic groceries at Whole Foods and do the crazy detox diets. Most overweight people are poor, because they can only afford fattening fast food. But all the ads on Facebook and all the lead stories on the covers so-called health magazines are about losing belly fat, which links them to the shaming magazine ads of the past. What’s particularly brutal about the way the media beats up on women today is that it’s not just in magazines, it’s everywhere you look.