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Pirelli’s new “feminist” calendar is nothing of the sort

The term "beauty" has become more flexible—but that's just a first step

By Jessica Abrahams  

Helen Mirren will feature in Pirelli's new calendar

Pirelli is an Italian company that produces high-performance tyres for racing cars. Based on a logic that I can only assume runs as follows—racing cars are popular among men; and men like naked women—Pirelli has also produced, since the 1960s, an annual calendar of women in various states of undress.

The 2015 calendar was fetish-themed, featuring women wearing latex outfits and carrying whips. But since then, Pirelli appears to have had a change of heart. In 2016, it was praised for replacing the hyper-sexualised, hyper-Photoshopped beauties typically found in such calendars with down-to-earth studio portraits of accomplished women from Serena Williams to Amy Schumer. Many of them were still undressed, but no matter: “The 2016 Pirelli calendar breaks tradition and stereotypes,” declared Vanity Fair; “A new dawn for feminism”, said Bustle.

Clearly pleased with the response, the company is busy challenging the patriarchy once more with its 2017 offering, teasers for which were released this week. The Hollywood-themed calendar features sophisticated black-and-white photos of successful actresses of different generations, up to 71-year-old Helen Mirren. The poses are more intimate, less provocative. All the women are at least partially dressed, although we still get a few glimpses of bras and knickers. They wear little make-up and are apparently Photoshop-free.

Once again, the results have been well-received. The Huffington Post said the calendar has “feminist flair.” Stylist called it “empowering.”

And, of course, we shouldn’t complain. It’s a step in the right direction. Although, one still might ask exactly what business a tyre company has producing a calendar featuring only women. Why that’s still relevant as a marketing ploy. Exactly what photographer Peter Lindbergh can mean when he says that he wanted to portray a “different beauty, more real and truthful and not manipulated by commercial or any other interests,” given that he has just photographed a series of women considered to be among the most beautiful in the world, in a high-budget photoshoot involving professional lighting and hair and wardrobe artists, for a corporate calendar operating in a male-dominated industry.

Still, we should think of the positives. At least there are no nipple tassels.

There has been a narrative of late that it is OK to place a woman’s value in her beauty and sex appeal as long as we don’t dictate what that should look like; as long as we don’t say that women have to be skinny and young and blonde and toned and white in order to be beautiful.

Pirelli is not the only culprit. Dove’s “Real Beauty” advertising campaign, for example, tells women “you’re more beautiful than you think” and that “beauty comes in different shapes, sizes and ages.” But the message is that you do still need to be beautiful to feel confident. And they are still trying to sell you beauty products.

Women and girls are under enormous amounts of pressure to look a certain way, and we do need to see more images of women without make-up, without Photoshop, without all the bells and whistles. But broadening our concept of beauty to encompass a wider range of women—the old as well as the young, the big as well as the skinny—is only a first step. The Pirelli calendar and the Dove campaign are not “empowering” because they still reveal our cultural obsession with women’s appearance. What we really need to do is stop valuing women primarily for the way they look.

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