Creating a Body Confident Culture Through Commercial Semiotics


We work a lot in the beauty and style industries. And we love them.

Because at their very best they’re about dreams and possibilities. They can bring creativity and spectacle to daily life. They can offer new ways to express the self – more choices and ways to feel confident

But at their worst beauty and style can be about fixing us, reducing women and men to awkward bundles of problems to be solved and creating a cultural deficit of body confidence

We call on brands to become a catalyst for positive cultural change. Because we are in an era where body confidence amongst young women and men is at its lowest and is critically impacting mental, social and economic health. Because consumers respond with loyal and passionate advocacy when they see a brand that reflects a truer and liberating vision of beauty

Both of these brands stand for body confidence although the codes and cues they are using are radically different. Dove’s vision of body confidence is about being true to your natural body, to your genes, to as they would put it – real beauty

Illamasqua is a brand that allows you to create a look that reflects your alter-ego, that lets you tell the story of a different side of yourself. Confidence in your own skin comes from being true to all dimensions of the psyche. It’s a different interpretation of authenticity but perhaps it’s no less valid than Dove’s real beauty…

Dove and Illamasqua are both brands that of course are responding to beauty norms but they’re also creating new ones and through commitment to a vision of progressive change, they are building and expanding the language of body confidence.

Any brand communicating to and in the world is creating and shaping culture – there’s no separation, brands are part of culture. And the most powerful brands know this, and they shape culture with intention

We must understand that often there is a gap between what we intended to mean, and how that meaning is received by others. And that’s often tied up with knowing the cultural context you’re sending your message into, and understanding that it’s going to take on a life of its own and be passed around and re-appropriated

Brands need to take responsibility for what is understood. Think about your message and how it reflects, responds to and builds the context it’s being sent into.

As semioticians we believe that everything communicates – every font, sound effect, gesture, material, colour and so on. And we never communicate in a vacuum – context is everything

Take this iconic advert from Dolce and Gabbana. At the time it was slammed for looking like a gang rape. In a time where ‘rape culture’ was a concept entering the public consciousness. Many fashion ads show semi-naked models but it’s the composition and body language that makes this one upsetting to so many. Her normatively “perfect” body is explicitly communicated as a possession – we might assume she has great body confidence but this tableaux communicates vulnerability and detachment.

How about if the man on top of her did not have sunglasses on – if they were making eye contact? Would it have been different had the other men not been in shot… or if they weren’t looking at her?
Most people wouldn’t identify the small cues that amount to the connotation of a gang rape but the effect is visceral

Fast forward 8 years and Dolce and Gabbana have been through a huge cultural and communication evolution. Here they are showing a collection of clothing that communicates personal flair and creativity – not a showcase for the sexualised body. The women are moving through the streets, together but expressing themselves as individuals. The men in the shot are relatively passive in the situation. The context isn’t dream-like, even if the clothes are. The women are really inhabiting their environment rather than it being a stage-set for their image. Body confidence in implied or set up in all of these cues without needing to demonstrate a woman lifting weights or standing un-airbrushed in her underwear. There’s racial diversity too. But there’s still not much diversity in terms of shape, size or age

These are just two of many from just one brand. But you can start to see how the tiny details in just one image add up to something bigger. To create sustainable cultural change it’s not enough to just announce a body confident campaign. Brands need to really mean it, and build that meaning and intention in every decision. The way brand teams to talk to each other, to agencies, to models – what language do you use in a casting brief? In your consumer segmentation? Does that language build confidence or a deficit? How a figure is lit, the posture they assume, even the way a product is unwrapped. All of these can elements contribute to the received meaning a brand builds over time

We ask those working in any industries concerned with shaping identities, to use every aspect of their communication and product experience to create more possibilities. Because possibilities mean freedom and diversity. Do this by looking at culture. What stories are already out there that we can learn from to expand our possible interpretations of the body beautiful, or capable, or loved, or strong?

Culture is a big sprawling landscape. And body confidence can be communicated and interpreted in so many different ways and no single brand can be all things to all people

Here are 4 pieces of communication leveraging the idea of body confidence and each playing into a different cultural narrative. They show that just as bodies are so diverse so are the relevant and important expressions available to us.

Whatever your relationship with brands is – you’re already part of this conversation

To make a culturally and commercially positive and sustainable impact, brands need to know what aspect of the wider cultural conversation they want to progress, what they want to say, know how they’re going to contribute and make it their business to stay at the forefront of culture to make sure their message stays positive, relevant and progressive.