What do we think of this quote?
“Karma is like a boomerang…what’s coming back to you?”
Karma: Because We Love Reward AND Revenge
I do tend to roll my eyes when I hear the word “karma”. It’s very often put in a sentence like this: ‘Don’t worry, his/her karma will catch up with him/her.’ Maybe it’s the backbone of our Judeo-Christian dominant culture her in Australia, but I don’t think we can pin this one on either of those dogmas. After all, Karma is something we’ve borrowed from Hinduism, a philosophy-cum-religion which certainly predates Christianity.
As humans, we’re all attracted to the idea of being rewarded for our own good behaviour. We’re even happier – at least at some point in our lives – to think someone treating us poorly will be smote by some unseen hand, if not sooner, at some point later down the track. It’s like that Lily Allen song, Smile. Of course she smiles when she sees him cry – he was “f*&king that girl next door”, after all. Karma. When the punishment fits the crime, we love the idea of remotely served revenge. It’s very human.
So back to the quote. The active and latent meaning are pretty much the same when we see the text, and we’re free to interpret that in a way which makes the most sense to us.
What if it’s paired with a visual text? How would that change the active and latent meaning of being ‘good’ to avoid retribution?
“Karma is like a boomerang…what’s coming back to you?”
— Lorna Jane Facebook, 2016
Now the active messaging is the same, but the latent messaging has changed. Because of what we already understand about karma, seeing Lorna Jane Clarkson (founder and CEO of Lorna Jane) posed like this sends the malicious message that if you don’t buckle down and do the work now, you’ll be punished later by feeling ‘bad’ for not looking ‘good’.
Mean Girl Metadiscourse
In Lorna Jane marketing, we know what a ‘good’ body looks like, because it’s all across her branding. The models here are doing the work required to create good karma. And because there’s no diversity, we’re left in little doubt what bad karma looks like: that’s how this innocent question “…what’s coming back to you?” shows its teeth.
Lorna Jane has been widely criticised for her lack of body diversity, and was copping it left right and centre on social media, seeming to have bought herself some bad karma. I remember feeling as if I was in the thick of the tumult in 2016 when I wrote the paper this blog is based on. We saw a tearful Lorna Jane Clarkson burst into tears on 60 Minutes, sobbing that she was only human. But as journalist and former Lorna Jane employee Vanessa Croll put it: “…she is a human with a great deal of influence.”
It seemed like Lorna Jane was getting desperate for some good press. After the controversial pairing of Clarkson with “sporty sister” Body Image Movement founder and The Embrace Documentary director Taryn Brumfitt, Clarkson was photographed with Brumfitt, much to the rage of her followers. Brumfitt showed her cards and weathered the storm. Clarkson rode the body positive wave of The Embrace Documentary, reportedly saying, “It really makes you think about things.”
It seems like the cogs did turn, and when I finished my original paper, Clarkson had just released an Expression Of Interest style invitation to see just how much interest there was for purchase of Lorna Jane activewear beyond size XL. She earned herself more criticism, but it made good business sense. Her prime agenda is to sell her products after all. And as Leah Gilbert said, there’s plenty of other brands who do cater to health and fitness at every size.
At the same time she made what’s in my opinion a much more important gesture, one which she could have begun positive social change with – that is using greater body diversity in her marketing.
She started using one – let me say that again – ONE – ‘actual’ plus-size model pictured below, (I hate the phrase too but work with me).
I’m not a fan of tokenism, but I was impressed and moved. I thought Clarkson was using her Big Brand influence to be the change. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Two years later in 2018, the ‘plus size is nowhere to be seen’. I can’t even find her name in a lazy Google search.
Lorna Jane is back to promoting its activewear with women who have bodies just like Clarkson’s. Lean, lightly muscled (aka ‘toned’) but still ‘feminine’ and still very close to what the stereotype of a ‘good’ body for middle to upper-class women since the 1970’s, as Germaine Greer recorded in her epoch-making book, The Female Enuch:
“…the fashionable middle class are paying their respects to slenderness, even thinness…demands are made upon them to contour their bodies in order to please the eyes of others.”
–Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 1971
Lorna Jane has faced a lot of media kickback for the lack of body diversity in her marketing, and is (not unreasonably) dedicated to stocking sizes that sell – they still don’t stock larger than an XL, and they’re much harder to find on the racks. For this reason, when we speak of visual texts and how harmful they are in the wider world, Lorna Jane is an easy target.
I want to have a closer look at the metamessaging in her written texts.
Language Matters. Words Matter
I’m a freelance copywriter and think the language advertisers and the media use flies under the radar too often. As Clementine Ford has said, “Language matters. It bloody matters.” I mean think about it – we think in words. Words and language take up their own space in our minds, and I’m sorry – you and many others might like to think you can switch on or off to their connotations and messaging, but you can’t. I’m going to get a bit serious here because it does matter. It matters.
Big Brands Behaving Like Small Brands
Clarkson’s rags-to-riches story is the stuff folk tales are made of. Her hard work and ingenuity have put her at the top of the activewear game. The way Clarkson markets ‘herself’ is interesting, and this method began back in the 90’s. As written by Naomi Klein in No Logo at 10, big Brands wanted to be not just associated with the goods they produced, but the idea they represented. Nike was one of the frontrunners: Just Do It.
This is the same format Lorna Jane uses, and as a brand based on a person, it makes sense. As a copywriter I’d be remiss for not telling a client with the glut of products we have on the market, you need people to be interested in your story, who you are, what your values are. It becomes harmful when a brand is so successful, it plays a role in dictating norms and reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Clarksons’ consumers ‘know’ on an intellectual level Lorna Jane is a business. On some other level it’s almost as if Lorna Jane the person is their (hash-tag) fit friend. The brand achieves this by connecting with consumers via social media, where it creates a pseudo-social and emotional relationship. It markets directly to women, which is no less than you’d expect, but the ways Lorna Jane chooses to market a potentially empowering product like activewear is by largely sticking to tired stereotypes, including unhelpful, sexist language conventions.
We started out with the image of LJ Clarkson herself in a yoga pose, asking us what kind of karma is coming to us. This type of language and visual text is sends a message that happiness and success is achieved only in the context of discipline and control.
“You can’t flourish in the absence of routine so learn to enjoy the burn of a workout. Who else agrees, that a workout can turn into a love hate relationship?”
“When you push past the limit, you break new ground. How are you getting out of your comfort zone today?”
— Lorna Jane Active Facebook, 2016
The visual texts narrow the meanings of words such as “flourish”, “routine”, “push”, “limit”, “break”, “new”, and of course “karma”, linking them specifically to the context of fitness and control.
Loaded phrases such as “enjoy the burn”, “love hate relationship”, “push past the limit”, and “break new ground” [all italics and bold my emphasis] encourage a link to masochism and a semantic change in the way followers contextualise the meaning of the words when they’re not performing the sub-culture (ie when you’re out of the gym, off the running track etc). This has the effect of changing the ‘image’ – or signifier – of the word in our minds, and narrowing its connotations into something wholly or mostly negative.
“Women’s Language” – Words of the Weak
According to the author of Advertising to The Other: Women’s Use of Language, and Language’s use of Women, “women’s language” has two definite characteristics: hesitancy and hyperbole.
Women’s language avoids the taint of impropriety by displaying hesitancy or tentativeness. This hesitancy is expressed in two ways: a tendency to make assertions using tag-question form, and a reliance on “hedge” or filler words…
Language is hyperbolic when frequent underlining or italicizing of words and expressions occurs, when unremarkable comments end with exclamation points, and when emphatic words are sprinkled throughout.
— B. Stern, 1997
What does that mean? I’ll give you some examples of the activewear giant using ‘women’s language’ to mimic spoken language between women.
Hedge-word, hesitancy, hyperbole.
Both of these were from the Lorna Jane Active Facebook page in 2016:
“Um, hello #FITKIT goals. Anyone else feeling a little inspired by this look?”
“Is it love, or is it LOVE!!”
It seems like their Facebook messaging has improved somewhat, but is still little changed:
So why does it matter? Because “women’s language” is the verbal equivalent of not taking up physical space. By using ‘cute’ filler words to soften or infantilise the most straightforward of statements reinforces a woman’s position of not being allowed to sit at the big table with the men. A brand with as much reach as Lorna Jane could use its influence to empower its customer base by challenging the patriarchal head-patting of gendered language. But it doesn’t. Instead, it makes a feature of it in its branding.
The question is why.
The answer? Because the latent fears of loss of control, being judged undisciplined by their “sweat sistas”, and being cast out of the pseudo-community become the true drivers of Lorna Jane customer purchase – and if you’ll allow me some hyperbolic italicising – that’s what the brand wants.
Lorna Jane: For
All Women Lorna Jane
The way Lorna Jane Activewear markets its product matters because of its popularity and enormous reach its social networks have; the enormous reach into our cultural psyche. In an environment when the prevalence of rape culture is slowly becoming a national concern, Lorna Jane tells consumers to be disciplined enough to push their bodies “beyond the limit” and endure discomfort, for the superficial reward of achieving a ‘good karma’ body.
Overwhelmingly, the effects of ‘fitspiration’ sites – a format Lorna Jane follows – have been proven to contain representations of body images and perceived lifestyles most followers will never attain. According Body Conscious: Promoting a Thin and Ultra-Athletic Physique Has Unforeseen Consequences, this type of marketing discourse instigates unhealthy lifestyles, including disordered eating.
Claiming to be “for all women”, Lorna Jane’s pandering to infantilised, minimising language conventions; promoting small, ultra-thin body types in the bulk of visual texts, and other linguistic choices evoking ideals of female masochism, the mean-girl metamessaging is decidedly for one woman, but overwhelmingly against women.
Sounds like bad karma to me.
Australian comedy trio Skitbox’s Activewear Song resonated so strongly it received 17 million views across Facebook and YouTube between 23 September and 12 October 2015 alone.
If you’ve read this far, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. As I said, I’m a freelance copywriter when I’m not busy penning feminist rants. If you want your story told by someone who cares about the words they put out in the ether, I think we should chat, don’t you?
Want to learn more? Look up my references.
Bartky. S.L. (1984) Feminine masochism and the politics of personal transformation. Women’s Studies International Forum. 7:5. 323-334.
Brumfit, T. (2016) Embrace Documentary. Southern Light Alliance, Transmission Films, Kojo Productions. 1 hour: 30 mins.
Greer, G. (1971) The Female Eunuch. Paladin: London. 33-36.
Horton, K., T. Ferrero-Regis, and A. Payne. (2016). The hard work of leisure: healthy life, activewear and Lorna Jane. Annals of Leisure Research. 19:2. 180-193. DOI: 10./1080/11745398.2015.1111149.
Stern, B. (1997) Advertising to the “other” culture: women’s use of language and language’s use of women. National Forum. 77:2. 35+.