vanessa raditzBy Vanessa Raditz, BCAction member and volunteer

I guess we’ve reached the point where companies realize that by marketing feminism, they can buy a whole new wave of women’s loyalty to their products.

An ad from Pantene (you can watch it below) has been going viral online, receiving praise from Business Insider to The Huffington Post as a strong feminist portrayal of the double standards men and women receive in the business world: words like “Boss” become “Bossy” for women, “Persuasive” becomes “Pushy”, “Dedicated” becomes “Selfish”, and finally, “Neat” becomes “Vain” and “Smooth” becomes “Show-off”. The ad ends with the empowering lines: “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be Strong and Shine.”

These messages are resonating with women across the world who have experienced this double standard time and time again. The ad highlights some sexist perceptions of women that keep them from advancing in the corporate world. You know what else it does? Sells TOXIC shampoo.

Pantene is up there in the cosmetic offenders who use ingredients like propylparaben with known reproductive and developmental toxicity. The Environmental Working Group gives propylparaben a “10” as one of the most toxic chemicals in use. Their tagline “don’t let labels hold you back” takes on a whole new meaning when we think about the toxic ingredients found on the labels of everyday products — which you likely need a chemistry degree to understand. And then there are all those toxic ingredients that are nowhere to be found on product labels but lurk in everyday products just the same. We have our broken and outdated chemical regulations to blame.

For me, THIS is a feminist issue: many products that are targeted to women contain many known toxic chemicals, some of which are particularly toxic to female reproductive systems because they mimic estrogen in the body. For me THIS is a justice issue: companies should have to prove that their products are safe before they hit the shelves – and our bodies.

But beyond Pantene, the real issue on the table here, whether it’s shampoo, cleaning products, or couches, our regulatory system does not protect us from toxic chemicals, and this endangers everyone’s health. Yet it’s impossible to shop our way out of this toxic mess. Even if Pantene took a couple of the most toxic chemicals out of their products, we are still swimming in a toxic soup in the air, our water, our food, and products we use every day. Some of these chemicals don’t break down for decades, and some accumulate all the way up the food chain to human breast milk. And to the extent that we focus on “shopping our way out of the problem” we leave people who do not have the economic means to do so stranded, and leave fundamental issues of equity out of what should be an inclusive movement for health justice.

The real story here is not that one company made a supposedly feminist advertisement, but that much of our government is still not listening to advocates decrying toxic products like these, a movement fueled predominantly by women and mothers. This lack of political will is what allows companies like Pantene to unconscionably continue profiting from sickness and suffering.

If Pantene’s ad is a feminist one, then the feminist revolution in this context is reduced to buying toxic shampoo, instead of dismantling deeply seated ideas of gender, and working towards a world where all people and our bodies are respected.

So Pantene, are all of us who are concerned about your products being Pushy in saying you should take our health seriously? Because I think the science on your products is quite Persuasive. I refuse to “share” an ad giving an irresponsible company free publicity. Pantene is not my revolution. Instead I’ll work for the regulatory changes that will force you and all other companies to clean up your toxic products.