What doesn't kill you makes you beautiful

A case to show women with more grit and courage in advertising.

As I thought about International Women’s Day and how we still must celebrate it loudly until we are equal, I thought about how I truly feel about my womanhood, and how it relates to what I do, what we do: advertising. I had a lot of source material to draw from, with a recent, long stay in the hospital. So I was able to think about myself and how the industry would think of me right now as a woman vs. the woman I was before, well, "everything" happened.

Here it goes.

This story begins in May 2017, when I became pregnant. My happiness was extremely short-lived when only one month later, doctors discovered that my pregnancy had resulted in a rare blood disorder, called Pure Red Cell Aplasia (PRCA). Simply put, I could no longer make red blood cells on my own and had to rely on blood transfusions to keep me and my baby alive.

Even so, it wasn’t enough. My daughter died, prompting a still-birth at 30 weeks, and soon after, doctors discovered a life-threatening blood clot in my head that caused a stroke. Then came try after try to find a cure for the condition that had started this whole ordeal. After much trial and failure, doctors determined a bone marrow transplant might be my only hope. In October, I received word that a 22-year-old female match had been found and finally, I was back on the road to health. 

Today I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

As I mentioned, I had been in the hospital about 35 days between January and February 2019. Since I was away from most human life during the procedure—as my immune system was completely wiped to zero—I had a lot of time to think.

I scrolled through my Instagram feed, looked at magazines, and while I was so proud of the new inclusion of different sizes, shapes, colors, and lifestyles that were getting their due, it all still seemed a little too polished. Everyone was sort of perfect looking. For example, even though one woman used to be, like, a small-town state representative, she was glammed up—and I was bummed. It felt like we were still writing consumer descriptions about how we can get women to "look" happy, instead of championing the gritty things they did to get there. So I did a little planner exercise and wrote two very different consumer write-ups for me, at this exact moment. Each are true.

A 36-year-old married woman who has one three-year-old son, is not working due to an illness, has no hair, no eyelashes, purple-toned skin, can’t leave the house, often wears a face mask, has greying teeth, gets no period, cannot drive, and cannot drink coffee or wine.

Something tells me THIS would not go over well in a new business pitch. But that is because we so often focus on the features and small behaviors of consumers – because we sell hair-care products, and period products, and cars, and coffee, and wine and beauty products.

But what if we rewrote the descriptions of our women?

A warrior mother who has faced challenges one would not believe, with the courage of a million armies. She has the scars to prove it, but she doesn’t mind; she is proud of her war wounds and would like to show them off. She influences her friends because of her passionate nature and trust in herself. She does not come with the traditional trappings  of an ideal female market, but if we stand up for her, she will use her power and fight for us forever.

Gritty, courageous people—especially females—are incredibly powerful for a brand. They are powerful among their friend groups, and they are powerful in the world. 

They are also a new way to show women in ads and pop culture. Let’s say no to the "styled" machine of extensions, tans, whitened teeth, and crazy makeup. All of that puts pressure on women to look perfect again. Let’s not do that. Let’s show the courageous moments. Let’s show the gritty moments. Let’s show the women who are IN THE ARENA, whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood.

Let’s do THAT.

Because after all I have been through, all I want is to make women feel powerful and courageous. I can tell you it is when you are in the fight, taking blows, but still winning, that is when you know you are powerful.

And to the 22-year-old woman who donated so much bone marrow so I could live, you are the model of the woman in the arena—blood, sweat, and all. You are my hero.

Erin Swenson Gorrall is the SVP of comms planning at MullenLowe Mediahub.

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