Slim Chance

Britain’s Crazy Decision to Ban ‘Beach Body’ Ads

Are ads featuring slim, beautiful models, promoting a “beach body” image, sexist and worthy of banning? We need to grow up.

04.30.15 9:20 AM ET

Sharpie-wielding political activists have overtaken London Underground, writing outraged slogans on posters featuring a svelte, bikini-clad model next to an innocuous question: “Are you beach body ready?”

They’ve scribbled “NOT OKAY” and “Fuck Your Sexist Shit” over the model’s cleavage, signing their work with a now-viral hashtag, #eachbodysready.

A Change.Org petition calling for the removal of Protein World’s campaign on the grounds that it aims “to make [people] feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model” has received nearly 60,000 signatures.

And on Saturday, 750 people (and counting) will attend a “Take Back the Bikini” rally in Hyde Park to protest Protein World’s body-shaming ad campaign.

Well, good on them! Their vandalism, hashtag activism, and protests have made international headlines and prompted the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to scrub the weight loss supplement campaign from Underground stations and ban it from appearing again “in its current form.”

The advertising watchdog has been investigating the “beach body ready” campaign, responding to some 360 complaints that it objectifies women and promotes unhealthy body standards.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the ASA said they are pulling the ads “in the next three days.” (Protein World told The Daily Beast that the campaign’s three-week run in tube stations was already scheduled to end next week.)

The ASA will now determine if the campaign “breaks harm and offense rules or is socially irresponsible.”

So the feminist and body-image activists triumphed over the evil, patriarchal corporation, effectively censoring what they deemed an “unrealistic” and “unhealthy” body standard.

Most important, they’ve rallied government officials around battling body-negativity in our body-image-obsessed culture, with its fetishization of slim and toned figures.

But in determining what’s “realistic” and what’s not, they’re policing women’s bodies and perpetuating our body-image obsession.

Protein World’s ad campaign went up in London’s tube stations several weeks ago, prompting a scathing, widely-shared editorial in The Guardian.

Writer and co-founder of the Vagenda blog, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, had returned from Cuba to jarring reverse-culture shock in the “dark, putrid bowels of London’s underground system.”

It was only after visiting Cuba, a totalitarian country where there are no advertisements, that she realized “how much my field of vision is occupied without my consent by images and messages that want to sell me stuff (and, being a woman, it’s usually based on claims that it will make me look better).”

The emphasis here is mine. Cosslett is not simply deploying the language of sexual assault in a heavy-handed metaphor. She’s applying victimhood rhetoric to the larger feminist cause, depicting women as emotionally fragile and easily-traumatized, no matter how banal the offense.

Cosslett feels “attacked” by marketing messages from brands like Protein World, which “will continue their sexist advertising tactics for as long as we let them.”

But her “call for resistance” is patronizing to women with its demands that they be protected from everyday imagery. Now that the ASA is intervening with Protein World’s campaign, they won’t be assaulted by the sight of a model’s navel on a large billboard in the tube.

British 'Beach Body' ad fight

Protein World

How they’ll avoid “beach ready” bodies taunting them at bus stops and in newsstand windows all summer is another matter.

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Surely there are plenty of British women who won’t think twice when they come across this everyday imagery. And what exactly is so harmful about a model in her bathing suit on a billboard, the poster girl for a slimming protein powder?

Charlotte Baring, a second-year student at the University of Bristol, launched her campaign calling for the ads to be banned around the time that Cosslett wrote her Guardian piece.

“What struck me is that the ads aren’t about fitness at all,” Baring told The Daily Beast. “They’re about image. Is it really necessary to sexualize a woman or even a man to sell a product? It’s not everyone’s top priority to look a certain way.”

So what is the solution? Are we to protest and censor all advertisements for fitness and weight-loss products that show bikini-clad, conventionally attractive women?

Would the outcry over Protein World’s campaign have been so vociferous if the company had chosen a female bodybuilder as their model?

Likely not, since swelling muscles don’t represent a destructive feminine “ideal,” one that has altered men’s expectations of what “real” bodies look like and led women to compare themselves exhaustively to “unrealistic” beauty standards.

I imagine the women criticizing Protein World’s billboard campaigns would have cheered Lane Bryant’s recent “I’m No Angel” lingerie campaign in the U.S., which featured models with curvier, more “realistic” bodies compared to the ones we see in Victoria’s Secret ads.

A majority of women on social media whooped and applauded Lane Bryant for doing just that. But some criticized the brand for “skinny-shaming.” Others said its claim of representing “all women” was disingenuous because the campaign didn’t include trans and disabled women.

Perhaps women have a bigger problem on our hands than sexist advertisements: We are obsessed with body image, and instead of taking any ownership or responsibility for our body-image anxieties, we blame society. We blame the patriarchy. We blame advertising agencies for shaming us with images of slim-waisted, busty models in their bikinis.

My only issue with Protein World’s “beach body ready” campaign is that it’s not clever. It’s a well-worn cliché, splashed on the cover of women’s and fitness magazines every summer with some gimmicky regimen and promise: “10 Steps to Achieve the Perfect Beach Body.”

But we should know better than to be personally offended by this consumerist rubbish. We should recognize advertisements of “beach bodies” and weight-loss supplements for what they are: tedious, familiar fantasies that we can ignore or indulge in as we wish.

Feminists do a disservice to the movement when they censor something as mundane as an ad featuring a model’s “beach body.” Surely there’s a more constructive way of voicing their indignation, a protest that doesn’t involve petitioning for censorship?

This is not to discount the importance of educating young women about healthy body image and the dangerous, often long-term repercussions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Parents and schools should encourage healthy eating among young girls and leading by example. Research has shown that teens are influenced by what they see in the media, but isn’t it more effective to discuss what they see rather than shield their eyes?

Too often, modern feminists are embracing censorship, championing trigger warnings and undermining their efforts for equality.

Protein World did themselves a disservice, too, when CEO Arjun Seth called protesters and vandals “irrational extremists” in an interview with London’s Evening Standard this week.

It’s not an entirely unfair assessment. But Seth was irrational, extreme, and unprofessional when asked about a bomb threat at Protein World’s headquarters, saying the company had “absolutely no qualms in identifying these fools for exactly what they are,” and hoping that “the NSA find these terrorists and take them to Guantanamo Bay.”

It’s refreshing when a company refuses to cow to aggrieved and noisy protesters, but Seth squandered that opportunity when he sank to the level of the “irrational extremists” he was criticizing.

Richard Stavely, the company’s head of marketing, has since taken over and been candid in interviews with the press.

Speaking to The Daily Beast, Stavely defended Protein World’s “beach body ready” campaign, insisting it sends “the right message to go in line with the products that we are pushing, which is our weight loss collection.”

He noted that 84 percent of their customers are female, and that sales have ironically skyrocketed in the last few weeks. “The anti-campaign has provided an incredible platform to shout about our message and our brand,” Stavely said.

What about accusations that the campaign is sexist and exploitative of women’s bodies?

“I don’t think there’s any grounds for calling us sexists. Our model has a strong, sporty physique that is intended to impart an empowering, aspirational message.”

Renee Somerfield, the 23-year-old Australian model whose body has been smeared with scorn and profanity, offered a vague but reasoned analysis of the campaign uproar.

“I think nearly every ad campaign you have ever seen is open to interpretation,” she told The Huffington Post UK.

“But saying the ad is body shaming by body shaming the image is very contradictory.”

Indeed, feminists are obsessed by the patriarchy’s policing of body image, but they do the same when trying to prove a point.

Somerfield’s toned but voluptuous body may seem ideal to some, but it shouldn’t be a source of shame to those who didn’t win the genetic lottery. If it is, we should stop blaming society and reassess our personal relationships with body image.