Dollar Shave Club (and why it’s not as feminist as you might think)

Dollar Shave Club's £5 starter set, consisting of three razor heads, a razor handle, and a tube of shave butter
Dollar Shave Club £5 Starter Set; Image credit: Dollar Shave Club

To shave, or not to shave? That is the question many women are faced with everyday. Every time we get in the shower, ‘should I shave my legs today? Will people notice if I don’t shave my armpits?’ My own relationship with hair removal has been a mixed one. At time I’ve been an obsessive shaver, scared lest a single hair should be out of place (read: known to exist at all), while at others I have reveled in the growing thickness of my leg hair and the bushiness of my armpits. I have now reached a point where I’m happy to let it grow for a bit, but equally comfortable shaving it all off and enjoying the feeling of having smooth legs. It is all about choice: and it is my choice, not anyone else’s.

It must be acknowledged before we go any further that in choosing not to shave I have benefited from white privilege, and the bonus of having very light hair. Most people would not notice if I grew my hair for a long time, because it is almost equally light as my pinky-white skin. Were I a woman of colour, I would not be given the same pass to experiment as I am as a white woman. Whether we like it or not, and contrary to how it should be, body hair and what we choose to do with it is political, and like all other areas of politics (and life) it affects people in different ways.

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Sometimes I like to take a few minutes to appreciate and reaffirm the control I have over my own body.  Sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself that your body is your own, and it’s up to you what you do with it.  Women are bombarded with messages trying to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies, and I think it’d be fair to say that there are few women who haven’t experienced someone else trying to exert control over their bodies, and through it their lives.  My body is essentially, to borrow a phrase, a machine for living, for experiencing life, but it often isn’t treated like that by others, and by society at large.  But it can be tiring constantly feeling like you have to battle to be accepted as just a person, with the right to exist without the constant pressure to conform to damaging and limiting ideals of femininity.  This may seem like a small thing, but when I’m being catcalled during some routine exercise, trying to treat my own body with the respect it deserves, when I see images of women who I will never be like, and when I generally hear messages that suggest that anyone but me is entitled to access to and an opinion on my body, it is comforting to know that, in a small way, I am choosing what to do with it.  This week has seen some particularly awful reminders of the fact that women are still fighting for the legal right to control of their own bodies, and I know that I am far more privileged than some in this respect.  To those of you who may find my body hair gross, disgusting, unladylike, I encourage you to interrogate your own feelings on this matter, what is it that makes you feel this way, and what makes you feel you have any right to a say on what I do with my own body?  I don’t usually like to bring politics into my Instagram, it’s a place I come for peace, relaxation, and enjoyment, but it just makes you think, what is going on that the amount of hair under my arms becomes a political statement? #hairyarmpits #feminism #mybodyismyown

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Exploration of my feelings about armpit hair

The conversation about body hair and what to do or not do about it came to the fore with the rise of Second Wave Feminism, and the ‘hairy feminist’ trope sits among those born in this period. But as feminism has become a contemporary and more openly accepted topic in the last few years, body hair has once again become a hot subject. Is it more feminist to keep your hair? Are we ‘bad feminists’ if we shave it off? Ultimately it is about each woman’s choice, but it is a choice that must be made in full understanding or the (patriarchal) world we have been brought up in.

As feminism has become more popular, there have naturally been those you seek to jump on the bandwagon. The rhetoric of ’empowerment’ has been all-too-easily coopted by the capitalist machine, to sell products that supposedly don’t make us better aligned with socially accepted beauty standards, but to ’empower’ us It is tempting to buy into these simple, positive ideas – if we feel good on the outside, we surely will feel good on the inside. But when you look at the structures purporting these ideas, you will often just find old foes.

Further to the ’empowerment’ strategy we also see companies jumping on board with the backlash against gendered marketing. Enter Dollar Shave Club.

Dollar Shave Club (DSC) is one of a raft of companies which have sprung up in the last few years offering the perfect way to stick it to Big Shaving. They offer razors, blades, and related products at cheaper prices, delivered to your home. All in all, not a bad way of cutting out some of the huge mark-up on bigger brands. Somewhere along the way DSC realised that they could use a burgeoning feminist community to sell their products to a wider audience. They began releasing adverts featuring off-beat looking women with multi-coloured hair, singing the praises of their budget-friendly razors. Cannily they released footage of their products being used to shave hair from a woman’s leg, a refreshing change to the already-smooth legs of conventional commercials. They noted their products as unisex, designed to be used by anyone and everyone.

I was convinced. The hairy leg advert alone would probably have done it for me, and I was tired of sending huge sums (sometimes as much as £20 a packet) on average products. The utilitarian design and approach appealed to me, so I sent off for my discounted starter set, and haven’t looked back. It is for the most part a good product; the multi-blade heads achieve a smooth finish, and although you soon build up a backlog if you don’t pause your subscription, it is nice to have them delivered to you, and to have the reminder that I don’t need to wait for my razor to go rusty before I change it (although their insistence that you should change it once a week seems excessive). There is an environmental impact – this type of razor is certainly not the most eco-friendly. It would be great if they could add on a return service so heads could be reused somehow. I will be looking into more environmentally friendly ways of shaving; it seems that the old-fashioned safety razor may offer the best solution currently, although as a clumsy person with sensitive skin they do slightly intimidate me.

Dollar Shave Club razor set, with the phrase 'Put that rusty old razor out of its misery' and 'Change your blade each week' emblazoned beneath a small skull logo.
Dollar Shave Club razor set

I like the products, but make no mistake, the DSC experience is not a unisex one. Design itself of course does not need to be gendered, but it is clear that DSC handles are modeled closely after men’s razors readily available on shelves across the country. It could be a Gillete, a Wilkinson, or any other standard brand. There is no aesthetic sign that they have attempted to ‘de-gender’ their products. The ‘Dr Carver’s’ products that you can add on to your subscription (shave butter, moisturiser, etc) have branding that is almost identical to those of the likes of the Gentleman’s Hardware and Bulldog brands, and the razor’s packaging even features a tiny skull. This is not to say that there is anything inherently ‘masculine’ about these designs and images, but it does suggest something about the market DSC is trying to sit withing.

Any suspicions this might have raised are only confirmed by the monthly magazine included with our subscription. ‘Mel’ is absolutely and unashamedly aimed at a male audience. Recent articles discuss how to look after your balls in hot weather, ‘Potential Reasons why your Girlfriend is Suddenly Horny’, and ‘What do men really mean by “good pussy”?’ The website has an entire section simply entitled ‘Dicks’. It may seem unlikely at this point, but there is a lot of content that engages more thoughtfully with what masculinity means in the present day, as well as bringing a more journalistic approach. The ‘About’ section notes that there is no playbook for how to be a guy, so they’re trying to work it out. Articles on #MeToo and male victims, Devonte Hart, and the fetishization of ‘Hustle Porn’ sit alongside other on how to ‘make your load bigger’, and ‘Why do guys always have to touch the top of the doorframe?’. It is certainly a mixed offering, but one that tackles a broader remit than we might expect (the fact that this is driven by the need to create some sort of sincere brand identity is a discussion for another day).

The one glaring fact is that this content is not aimed at women, or even attempting to be gender-neutral. It shows that the target audience of the product is still and will continue to be men. The facts fall into place when you consider the fact that DSC is a subsidiary of Unilever (though it started off as a heavily investment-funded independent, Unilever bought it in 2016). Rather than escaping big corporations, we’re just being drawn in by a disguised version of them. The general-release American TV adverts for DSC are firmly in the male-oriented camp (a man is punched in the balls when buying razors in a store), and there is no reference to any attempt to create a razor for everyone, whatever their gender.

Unilever spent over $8.5 billion in marketing in 2017, and the ‘feminist’ branding of DSC is just part of this. When your budget is that huge, and your reach so wide, you can easily afford to put thousands of dollars into targeting ‘niche’ communities like feminists. This is not a new practice, and all large companies do it, highlighting different areas of their brand of different products to different groups of consumers. To some extent, this is fair enough. If you have something you think is relevant to some people more than others, why not tell them about it The problem occurs when you start suggesting that your company stands for something it doesn’t, it part of a movement it isn’t, and its on the way to achieving something it won’t (and doesn’t want to). We (women, on the internet and social media) are presented with an entirely different version of DSC than our male counterparts. We are being shown the results of a carefully calculated marketing campaign, which coopts feminism to sell more of the same old products, making money for the same old people. Marketing increasingly relies on narrative and impressions – we are given the impression of an off-beat, small-scale, feminist company trying to tackle injustice, be it rabid capitalist mark-ups or the pink tax, one razor at a time. But the DSC is not as feminist as it wants you to think it is.

‘Feminism is coopted to sell more of the same old products to make money for the same old people’

So, buy the products if you like, keep your subscription (I probably will, for now), but do this in the knowledge that you are not sidestepping the system, merely being presented with an alternative and perhaps more deceptive version of it.

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