We’ll Create a Cure; We Made the Disease
I haven’t posted in a long time. I’m between jobs, but actively working on The Art of Being Broken (finally). I thought I’d post a chunk of the chapter I’m currently working on :).
I read an interesting article a while ago about the daughter of a surgeon in the early 1900s. She was a high school student and a budding entrepreneur. When I was in high school, I tried to have several businesses with my friends. They failed spectacularly, because we were in high school and didn’t understand about having things like business plans and marketing and things people would actually want to buy. This girl didn’t really either, but it didn’t stop her from trying.
The reason that it’s relevant that she was the daughter of a surgeon is that the thing she was trying to sell was a special chemical that her father used to keep his hands from sweating during surgery. The chemical had to be suspended in a red acid, so it could irritate sensitive skin, and could stain or even eat through clothes, but it would stop sweat for three days. I suppose if someone is cutting into someone else with a knife, then not having sweaty hands would be a fair trade off.
This girl, for whatever reason, decided to try sticking some on her arm pits and found that it worked just as well there. She found that she could reduce the irritation by shaving her arm-pits, and it stopped her from smelling in a way that she didn’t want to smell, because she was a little princess and odor was so peasanty or something. All the other girls had to do things like bathe and wear perfume, and now she was better. She figured she could make money making other girls want to be like her. The problem was that no one cared.
Other deodorants and antiperspirants had been around for a little while, but they were greasy and uncomfortable, and no one thought they needed them. Everyone smelled like that. That was the way bodies worked. They thought that blocking perspiration was probably wildly unhealthy too, and no one wanted to take the risk of stopping a natural bodily function. For men, it was even a particular badge of honour, announcing that they were manly men who did manly man work and had sweat-trophies to prove it. A few women bought her product, but not enough to make it worthwhile to sell. Poor girl. It looked like her teenage money making dreams were crushed.
Along came an advertising agency with a bible-salesman turned copywriter assigned to the case. He was brilliant. He started with the idea that people probably didn’t want to stink but were afraid to stop sweating for health reasons. His solution was to brand the product as something created by a doctor to stop the embarrassing medical problem of “excessive perspiration,” which was true in the way that a drunk driver might honestly announce that he’s only had two beers, without mentioning that it was after downing a bottle of whiskey. If a doctor said that sweating too much was a problem, and he’d gone to all the trouble of inventing a cure, then maybe it really was something that women needed!
With the new problem well developed, it was being sold internationally within a year. Of course, because there’s no such thing as enough money, he did a survey to find out why everyone wasn’t using it. It turned out that everyone knew about it, but only about a third of the women surveyed used it. The reason the rest didn’t? Sure, it wasn’t unhealthy any more, but they still didn’t think they needed it. They didn’t perspire excessively. It wasn’t just a matter of telling people there was a remedy for their underarm odor, he had the monumental task of convincing two-thirds of the people on the planet that what their bodies did naturally was a serious embarrassment.
He did it. He ran one of the greatest ad campaigns in the history of the world. It was so good that Satan called him up for lessons. He put out an ad telling women that they probably stunk and no one would tell them and that was the reason they couldn’t get or keep a man and even if they did have a man, their man probably didn’t like it and might leave them for a woman that didn’t stink. Playing on the insecurities of women and shaming them about their bodies was such an effective strategy that sales doubled and tripled and within a few years they were making millions. Women were shaving their armpits and rubbing them with acid and were grateful for it.
A hundred years and a bunch of marketing later, we are all thoroughly convinced that the hair in women’s armpits is disgusting, and that body odor is foul and offensive and needs to be hidden beneath layers of chemicals so that we can be around other people without making them sick.
It was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, and now it’s so ingrained in our popular imagination that it’s difficult to even begin to conceive of our world without it. The thing that scares me is that it’s not all that uncommon. I remember loving the song Misery by Soul Asylum when I was a teenager. It was the 90’s and it was very cool to be jaded. I was, as you might recall, very interested in being cool, so I listened to alt-rock by people in ripped jeans and lumberjack shirts and rocked out to their jaded lyrics.
In Misery, David Pirner sang the lines, “we could build a factory and make misery/we’ll create a cure; we made the disease,” and a generation of kids went, “yeah,” and grew up to be conspiracy theorists who believe that Big Pharma invents viruses so that they can make money selling the cures (I’m not convinced they’re wrong). At a slightly less sinister level, people in the know look at marketing as not so much about finding people with a need for a product and getting it to them as amplifying or creating a feeling of need for a product that didn’t exist before the product needed to be sold.
We buy security. We buy comfort. We buy convenience. We buy the trappings of lives we aspire to because we’re told we should. We do this because it’s become human nature.
The first sin was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist before the snake sold it. The first mask, the first shell, the first hiding of who we are and what we’ve done, was a solution to a problem that they made up. God had made them. God had loved them into being in his own image. They had walked with God just as naked as they were after eating the fruit, but now they needed to cover up the bodies that God had given them. Now they had shame. Who they were was embarrassing. God couldn’t see them like this. But God knew them. They weren’t really hiding anything. “Who told you that you were naked?” was God’s question. “What made you think that who you are needed to be hidden from me?” He was hurt, but he didn’t love them any less.
That wasn’t how he had left them, but he didn’t walk out of the garden saying “You screwed up. Now I see who you REALLY are. I’m done with you.” He started picking things up again.