Shame Sells… But Who’s Buying?

In the advertising and marketing worlds, it’s true that sex sells, but so does shame.

Shame Sells But Who's Buying |

(If you get the band reference in the title, one billion bonus points to you.)

Its effects are no less insidious than the massive culture that objectifies women to sell everything from diet supplements to fitness equipment. “Here’s some giant knockers, now buy this protein powder.”

This week, someone brought to my attention an article about ten reasons to add bone broth to your diet by a doctor with a bone broth diet book. (Imagine that.) Seemed harmless enough, but when I clicked the link, I was wrong.

First, let me say I’ve got nothing against bone broth! I love it, and I make a few batches a week to sip on or to use in cooking. Yes, it has nutritional value. Yes, it’s a traditional food. But let’s be honest, some of the claims people make about bone broth are grossly overstated:

  • Erases wrinkles
  • Makes your gut glow
  • Makes stress disappear
  • Zaps cellulite
  • Melts fat

You get the idea.

Though the exaggeration of the benefits is bad enough, what I read next as my eyes skipped down the post stuck out like a sore thumb:

“8. Bone broth can fight cellulite.

Because the collagen in bone broth strengthens your skin’s connective tissue, it doesn’t just erase wrinkles – it helps smooth out that unsightly “cottage cheese” cellulite on your thighs. (Hello, swimsuit!)

(Note: The article was quietly edited earlier this week after several people spoke out about it.)

There’s virtually no evidence to support that claim.

Other nuggets include a comparison to bone broth as, “Spanx for your face,” – there’s a visual for you – and the prescription of a twice-weekly fast of nothing but broth so you can “lose weight rapidly.”

I’ve sincerely held out hope that the holistic health and wellness communities would take the higher road and shun shame-based marketing, but the people looking to capitalize on your purchasing power are circling like sharks around chum.

Mainstream advertisers have realized this market is insanely profitable, so they’re shoving their traditional messages into pretty packages full of bone broth, “natural” supplements, and gluten-free this-and-that.

The average person is already bombarded by dozens, if not hundreds, of advertisements daily from mainstream diet and fitness companies that relish the opportunity to tell you how fat, wrinkled, grey-haired, ugly, and inadequate you are. And now, it’s coming at you from the holistic angle, too.

As if the false promises and marketing hoopla weren’t bad enough, there are two bigger issues looming here.

  • Health still being reduced to what you look like and,
  • Shaming people into buying whatever it is you’re selling.

Logically speaking, you know that the complete picture of your health goes beyond skin deep. It goes further than your weight, further than your body fat percentage, and further than your bumpy, wrinkly, saggy bits.

Yet it’s still so common to hear how clients improved their diet, started exercising, and sleeping better which leads to feeling like a million bucks, but if the scale doesn’t budge as much as they wanted, the whole effort is deemed futile.

Your health is so much more than your weight on the scale. Click To Tweet

Marketers can’t wait to sell you on quick weight loss but time and time again, experience shows that shedding weight quickly and keeping it off are usually at odds with each other.

And now we come to shame-based marketing.

Cellulite. It makes me so angry to have to even go here.

It’s normal to have “unsightly cottage cheese” cellulite. Yep, normal. Even really f*cking fit people – yes, elite athletes – have it.

Here’s a photo of Elizabeth Akinwale, CrossFit Games competitor, and her cellulite. (Read her post here.)


The horror.

I wrote about my own cellulite a few months ago.

There’s nothing wrong with cellulite. In fact, 90% of women – yes, you read that right…NINTEY – have some cellulite.

The only reason we think it's ugly and unsightly is because people with something to sell tell us it's bad. Click To Tweet

News flash: You can wear a swimsuit even if you have cellulite. And if you’re convinced that cellulite makes you bad or ugly, there are deeper issues that you may need help addressing.

Trying to change from a place of self-loathing, hatred, and shame doesn’t work for a lot of people. Even if it does jump start you into acting, it’s unlikely to address the underlying reasons you feel that way in the first place.

Will marketers ever stop with this nonsense of pointing out your flaws, telling you you’re bad, and then offering you a “solution?” Unlikely, as long as there’s money to be made and someone with an open wallet nearby.

How do you avoid it?

Get attuned to shame-based marketing. Yes, it’s even present in alternative holistic health circles that exist outside the mainstream.

Vote with your dollars by supporting companies that refrain from these tactics.

Change the conversation, starting with the language you use to think and speak about yourself. Are you constantly focusing on  your “flaws” and imperfections instead of what makes you incredible and unique beyond skin deep?

(Looking for more strategies? Check out my post here.)

So the next time a marketer ponies up, points out your flaws and (subliminally) asks, “Are you buying,” you can say, “Not today.”

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Shame Sells But Who's Buying |

Questions or comments? Does shame sell? Write your thoughts below!

22 thoughts on “Shame Sells… But Who’s Buying?

  1. I’m optimistic that things are starting to change. Even as recently as a few years ago, we would not be having this reaction to such a lazy, formulaic post about why X is the next miracle to fix all of the everything that is wrong with our bodies.

    I’m glad you wrote this, and I’m glad you’ve got a place to use your voice about what matters to you <3

    We're better for it.

    1. Hey lady!

      You know, I think there is change happening, too. It sucks that in this industry, the vampires have come out to play, but I guess that’s the way of “progress”, isn’t it?

      It feels nice to stretch my legs a bit, you know?

      Hoping we get to meet someday, for real. I appreciate you so much!

      1. I’d rather be a healthy, happy and strong size 12 than a weak sickly size 8 any day and that’s what I would be if I weighed the average chart says I should weigh. And I am NOT afraid to own it! Thanks Steph!

        Lioness on a mission to build THE Pride.

      2. I was a recent attendee of the Strength Summit. At the time, I had been working/struggling independently to accept all bits of myself. Many of your guests really helped put things in perspective and I’ve felt far more confident in who I am and in my body since the summit (thank you!). That being said, I have noticed all of my social media feeds filling with gimmicks for cleanses, wraps, supplements, topical treatments, magic foods, etc. Affirming my newly established confidence, I removed myself from groups and wrote personal messages to the hosts explaining that I am perfectly happy with my aesthetic and am not interested in changing my appearance. I do not have an interest in supporting businesses that target and monopolize on a person’s insecurities. I’ve not yet had any replies.. but I have far fewer ‘marketing’ posts telling me what I should look like. I’m good with that!

        There is an aspect of virtue to your post and I fully appreciate your perspectives. Thank you for sharing.

        Shame and guilt have no place in the journey of self-improvement.

        1. Andi, that is so great to hear! I’m really happy to hear you took some action on it. Way to go!!

          “Shame and guilt have no place in the journey of self-improvement.” –> You hit the nail right on the head!!

  2. Thanks Steph! As I get these bullshit ads
    “Buy this, buy that” several times a day, that’s after they’ve told you they’re product is “absolutely free”. It’s not too cool our addresses are getting sold consistently to these bogus companies.

  3. I love this post and your refreshingly intelligent, soulful insights; thank you for shining light into this issue and many more! I was listening to your podcast this morning and thought ‘I bet Steph was a damn good teacher, but I’m glad she took the scary leap and now can touch so many more people!’ Keep on being you 🙂

    1. Hi Aly! Wow thank you for that. It’s weird because I think this is all stuff we know in the back of our minds, yet sometimes, until it’s spoken (or written) we don’t realize how pervasive it is. The leap was scary but I’m glad I made it, too 🙂

  4. Preach it!

    As a marketing writer in the health industry by day, I struggle with this very issue. I do my best not to email copy, blog copy, or product copy for my company that resorts to these tactics…but oftentimes the higher ups want the writing to be “more compelling” (aka sell more). One of the problems, though, is that so few people seem to realize that they’re resorting to shaming tactics. When my boss tells me to rewrite copy to mention something about anti-aging in a Mother’s Day ad, for example (I know, I know…), that doesn’t register as shaming because, in his head, who doesn’t want to look younger? After all, that’s what he’s been taught his entire life – that women, and particularly mothers, want to reduce wrinkles and look 30 even when they’re twice that age! My point: shaming isn’t always intentional in marketing and advertising…most people aren’t cued in to this conversation, and they don’t think about the potential impacts of their words other than if it will drive clicks…they don’t think about WHY it would drive clicks. After all, before I dove into the holistic health community, I wouldn’t have thought twice about any of this.

    Ignorance doesn’t mean innocence, of course. On the bright side, the more people publicly talk about the problems in advertising and marketing, the more the norm will start to budge. Whew. Sorry for being so long-winded!

    1. Hey Chelsea! It’s a fine line for sure. You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with providing people solutions to their problems. And certainly, it’s possible to address pain points without being gross or doing it from a place of shame. And I agree, it drives clicks, but that’s where making the consumer more aware can lead to them voting with their dollars and clicks 😉 I appreciate your thoughts on this one from your perspective!

  5. Thank you so much for writing this Steph! I, too, am trying to change the way my team sells content and programs to align with my message… you continue to be a strong voice for change in our field and I’m so thankful for women like you!

    ~Missi Holt

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