Inspiration from two killer books on women, business and society

This year a lot of books have shaped my thinking and enlightened me. ‘Women’s issues’ are not actually just women’s issues of course, they are everybody’s issues. And I hugely respect men who take an interest and care. So here’s an interesting fact: I’d always cared about feminism but last year, a boy made me more aware of feminist issues, encouraged me to speak up more, to make my own decisions, to drive when he was in the car. And to him and other men who support women, I owe a huge thank you.

My interest caused me to have more conversations and to read more than just the occasional article in a magazine. It has been so rewarding. I share below my thoughts on and inspired by two of the best books I’ve read which are about women, business and society.  

1. ‘Business as unusual’ by Anita Roddick, Founder of The Body Shop

I love this woman so much and every time I read from this book I feel a sadness and loss at her premature death. She stands for everything I aspire to: commercial success with a strong moral conscience and an activist stance. Anita Roddick represents leadership at its best: leadership that is courageous and has the guts to speak against the status quo. 

Anita writes so honestly in this book, which is a real change to the bullshit vague ‘change’ and ‘hope’ waffles we read from too many business or political leaders so often. She describes how she set up The Body Shop, how she battled with shareholders, managers and advisers to keep human rights and environmental issues on the agenda for the Body Shop. Anita Roddick was against animal testing; for fair trade; a pacifist who campaigned against wars; and a feminist who saw talent in diversity. What I particularly love about the book is how candid she is about her industry and how she’s not trying to sell the Body Shop’s products in the book at all. In fact she says ‘I am not interested in just selling shampoo and soap. The simple fact is that I’d rather promote human rights than a bubble bath‘. 

Under Anita Roddick, The Body Shop campaigned hard on driling in the Niger Delta (they were the only company with the guts to stand up to Shell!); they helped Greenpeace and ‘Friends of the Earth’ campaigns and ran anti-war rallies, and had full-time human rights activists on their payroll. 

“I think the business community has tried to operate politics and commerce in completely separate arenas for far too long, believing that neither should interfere with the other. I disagree fundamentally – I’m for interference. As far as I’m concerned, political awareness and activism must be wove into the fabric of business. In a global world, there are no value-free or politically disentangled actions”

– Anita Roddick, p168, Business As Unusual

I could not agree more. Businesses run our world: they use most of the world’s resources in terms of water, energy, minerals, metals etc; they have huge buying power, and run huge ad campaigns to shape consumer behaviour. How any CEO can act as if only the bottom line is their business is beyond me, and yet that is still how most CEO compensation and commercial decisions work, with a few tack-ons and PR around other metrics to give the impression that something else matters. 

The other issue covered in this book is women’s self-esteem which is more closely related to The Body Shop’s products of course.   I first got interested in The Body Shop when I heard about it from my dad when he did his MBA several years ago. The Body Shop was one of his marketing class case studies. Most beauty businesses’ underlying marketing message to women is: ‘You’re ugly, you need all these products to make yourself look good, you better cover up your reality with all these make-ups and lotions’. The Body Shop’s message is ‘You’re beautiful, here’s some products that will help keep your skin and hair healthy, and well, everyone needs to wash’. Diving into the campaigns run by the Body Shop,  I’m so glad Anita Roddick walked the planet.  One of my favourite campaigns she mentions in her book is that of the Ruby doll – a woman that represents the way women’s bodies are meant to be.

The Body Shop's campaign to challenge beauty stereotypes through Ruby
The Body Shop’s campaign to challenge beauty stereotypes through Ruby

Here’s one thing you’ll be surprised to know: the makers of Barbie actually threatened to sue the Body Shop for the Ruby doll!! 

2. ‘Unspeakable things: sex, lies and revolution’ by Laurie Penny, journalist, feminist, activist and self-described ‘troublemaker’

Here’s a book as bold as its title. Laurie Penny is a legend, and I was so happy to find out recently that she’s moving to Harvard for a year too! (I am moving for 2 years for my MBA). She’s 27 and since a young age has been a loud voice for the subjugated in society. I read her column in the New Statesman and I always nod reading it. It’s like reading something you know to be true that is unsaid. Her book is exactly that – a brilliant polemic that you can read cover to cover in one sitting because it’s so absorbing.

You will not agree with all the things in her book. Or you will not agree with most of them at first – which was my reaction. I’m lucky enough to have worked in a white-collar job in a top-tier firm where women do have opportunities, and I do have women role models, and I have met amazing guys who really mentor and coach and care for your professional development. My life and opportunities are nowhere near perfect, but better than average. But Penny’s book is not just about London professionals. It’s about all women, and what she says rings true when you think about it deeper. And there have been plenty of incidents in my time too where I’ve felt less than equal. Reflect and you will unravel yourself and your social conditioning as you read this book. 

What I admire about Laurie is her guts – if you’ve watched an interview with Laurie you’ll know she’s not one to stay quiet or sugarcoat things. This type of person is so rare. She is one of the few women who I really look up to because she isn’t pursuing male approval or societal approval or constrained by vanity – and it’s really hard to overcome one’s subconscious desires and conditioning to pursue those things, to fit in, to be liked. She talks and writes real, unafraid and unwilling to please. 

In her book, she was brave enough to write publicly about her battle with anorexia; her rape and the backlash against her from threatened men who have nothing better to do but to hate feminists. Incidentally, many men who complain about feminists don’t even know what the word feminism means. ‘Feminist’ does NOT mean aggressive woman who is angry at men! As I mentioned in a previous blogpost (on the co-ownership mindset), feminism refers to the belief in equal rights and opportunities for men and women. So why men would respect women who believe women should have anything less than 100% rights is really odd to me. Do these men just like women with low self-esteem?! And what about those dumb women who claim to be ‘feminine’ rather than ‘feminist’ as if those are mutually exclusive (I’ve heard this statement said with pride so many times). Next time someone says it, I’ll be like ‘Please specify exactly which rights you believe men should have but women should not’.

My favourite chapter in Laurie’s book is about love in the neoliberal world. She describes what she terms LoveTM. LoveTM is the product we are sold every day in countless movies, books, advertisements. It is the fairytale romance ideal that all little girls are told to aspire to. LoveTM happens between rich heterosexual white couples in a monogamous relationship. This utopic ideal has no room for poor women, coloured women, fat women, ugly women, old women, single mothers, homosexuals, transsexuals, and anyone who deviates from this strict norm in other ways. The rest of us are all irrelevant side-stories according to LoveTM and our lives are regarded either sinful or worthless because we don’t look like Barbie dolls and aren’t in Barbie-Ken couples. The other interesting concept that Laurie Penny introduces is that of the ‘love object’ – love objectification is almost as bad as sex objectification for women. It reduces us to the supporting role for the hero. When what so many of us really want and should have every right to, no matter what we look like or what our sexuality is, is to be the hero, the main character, in our own stories. 

A running theme through Laurie Penny’s book is women’s self-esteem. One can argue that things are improving by pointing to a few examples like the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign by Always, or the Dove campaign featuring old women. But I believe Penny is still right in most of her bold assertions. True equality is still pretty rare and as a culture, we’re still geared to making most women feel inadequate. If we were to do an analysis of advertisements, what we’d see is women who do not represent real women in our diversity. Even the coloured women that have finally started featuring in some adverts as the token diversity model are not really representative of coloured women on the street. This is a worldwide problem: the women we see on screen and in ads look different from most of us consistently. 

My own view is making women feel inadequate is a way of selling products and that happy women buy less. I’ve been reflecting on this more and more as I pack up my life here in London to move to Boston and go through all the clutter I’ve accumulated over years. As women, some of us are constantly chasing that gap in our wardrobe, when what we should really be chasing is that gap in our self-esteem which can only come through meaningful actions, not meaningless purchases. 


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