Why the protests against the “Beach Body Ready” campaign are a big deal
When news about the lashback to an advert for weight-loss products first broke, I was excited and glad to see the kind of action that people were taking to speak up.
I’m not sure I entirely condone vandalism of public property and I think there are ways of getting a message across without swearing all over it, but the responses were encouraging for what they show about people having the courage to stand up and say, “This is how how we wish for our bodies (and selves) to be manipulated, represented and discussed.”
But then came the responses to the responses – articles on major British newspapers are flooded with comments which attribute the protests to a bunch of “ugly fatties” (further fat shaming, thanks), which question if there would be the same uproar if the poster featured a man instead, which claim that the uproar is coming from jealousy and “indignation over a good looking woman”.
The advertisers have even called the protestors “terrorists.” A guy I know referred to these reactions as “first world feminists losing the plot” and being tainted with “feminazi disease.”
Many comments say this is not a big deal. And yes, perhaps in a way it’s not a big deal – there are terrible natural disasters, horrific violence and unjust wars being fought all around the world that deserve just as much attention.
But in a way, it’s also a very big deal because this kind of (visual, emotional, psychological) violence happens constantly and is experienced in the lives of just about everyone.
It’s a big deal because it’s causing great harm without anyone even realising the extent or the source of the damage. (Of course not, because it always comes in a deceptively pretty package, right?)
I want to address these comments and to point out why it IS a big deal, why the harm goes far beyond this one poster and why, beneath all the noise and frenzy, we should listen to what the protestors are trying to say
1. It’s not just about this one poster
People are assuming that it’s about just this one poster. One response to comments about how campaigns like this Beach Ready Body one leads to severe cases of eating disorders in girls, said this: “If I do something stupid and it kills me, then I have only myself to blame. I won’t go blame a poster of a woman.”
I wish to make this very clear – it’s NOT just about this one advert. All these reactions are NEVER just about one thing, whether it’s the thigh gap, Pink being trolled online or a Victoria’s Angels advert.
It’s about the thousands of (mostly highly photoshopped) images we see a week throughout media, television, advertising and online which perpetuate unrealistic body image ideals. It’s about the millions of insidious messages we’ve been brought up on which tell us – mostly young girls – that you are not good enough, attractive enough, desirable enough, worthy enough unless you look a certain way.
And it is a big deal because this is a message that doesn’t just stay on billboards and magazine pages. They become woven into cultural norms, adopted among families and peer groups, and absorbed into individual psyches.
These messages from campaigns like these lead to parents fat-shaming their children, it leads to a mother I know who puts her very healthy 7-year-old daughter on a diet because she cannot bear the idea of her daughter putting on weight, it leads to teenagers being ostracised and viciously bullied at schools.
When the entire world around you is telling you that “you will never be good enough as long as you look this way,” you will want to do what it takes to be good enough — even if it’s foolish, even if it’s harmful to yourself.
Humans are social animals too and it is natural and instinctive to want to feel accepted. So, because the pretty ladies in the magazines say so, because the beautiful women on television say so, because your parents, your relatives and your friends all say so, you believe that THIS is the way you need to look to be worth anything.
We address things like drugs, under-aged drinking, under-aged, unprotected sex as results of negative peer pressure. Why not this? This too is peer pressure, only far sneakier and far more more pervasive. Is it any surprise that millions of girls develop disordered eating habits? Just off the top of my head, I know seven women close to me who suffered an eating disorder at some time in their life. One of them died from it.
I don’t blame that one poster of a woman. I certainly would also not lay the blame back on the girl for “doing something stupid which killed her” (can we please stop throwing the blame back on victims already?). But I do blame the message that you need to look a certain way in order to be considered “worthy”. In this case, worthy of being on the beach. In other cases, it’s worthy of getting a relationship, worthy of being successful, worthy of going partying…. Or whatever.
2. The shame is felt whatever size you are
One of my friends is a dancer, actress and model – an absolutely stunning woman and, as a model, she is the ideal body you are seeing in magazines. But she’d also been fat-shamed into an eating disorder.
So no, it’s not just a bunch of “ugly” girls sitting around being bitter and jealous. It’s every girl who has ever felt dismay at any part of her body – and I’m pretty sure that’s a majority of girls, no matter how conventionally beautiful or not they are. It makes me desperately sad that perfectly healthy, successful, beautiful women – women who are close to me and who I love dearly – are also on the receiving end of these “beauty” messages and suffer for it too.
I myself have been fat-shamed and bullied, no matter what size I am. Now that I’m a size 12-14, I’m being fat-shamed; many pounds ago, when I was a size 8, I was also fat-shamed. Although I boast squeaky clean health records, although I work out 4 – 5 times a week and eat properly, I was and continue to be fat-shamed.
The comments don’t bother me so much now, but I remember how much they did bother me when I was 14 so that I felt guilty eating or even drinking water. I remember what it feels like to have an eating disorder. I remember what it was like to see my 40-year-old aunt look 70 because her anorexia had whittled her away to bones. I remember the despair I felt talking to my beautiful size 8 dancer friend, whom I’d known since I was six, as she told me how much she struggled with her body.
3. The shame is felt by men too
Many commenters asked if the poster would have gotten the same backlash if it had featured a photo of a man instead, the point being of course, that the reaction is just that of a bunch of irrational, angry (fat, ugly) women.
No, the reaction wouldn’t have been the same if it was a man. But then again, the treatment of images of men has also not been the same as it has been of women, for decades. Men’s bodies haven’t been subjected to the same objectification and judgment as women’s bodies have.
Tabloids don’t tear male celebrities apart for their looks in the same vicious frequency it does to women; advertisements don’t diminish and sexualise a man’s body to sell everything from cars to fridges in the same way they do to women; men’s magazines don’t pitch stories to their readers to fix, fill, reduce, transform, change, slim down, tone up, improve, anti-age their looks with quite the same voracity as women’s mags.
BUT, having said that, men are also on the receiving end of these body shaming messages. The statistics for eating disorders in men are on the rise. Some of the most body disordered people I know are men – young men who spend inordinate numbers of hours ‘punishing’ themselves at the gym, lifting weights that are far heavier than is necessary for a healthy, fit human body, obsessing over every calorie they consume, taking just as many selfies as women to journal every miniscule change in their bodies.
Again, they’re perfectly healthy, good-looking, strong, good guys but live with a certainty that they would be better if only they could look this way.
I’m not saying it’s okay. It’s not okay for anyone to feel bad about their bodies or to develop any kind of eating or exercise disorder to try to “fix” imagined (but non-existent) flaws. I’m saying that messages like these are pervasive and that that is having an affect on far more people – of all sexes, races, abilities, sexualities – than we think.
4. Protesting against these messages doesn’t mean we are jealous of or hate thin, fit, beautiful women
Body acceptance and body positivity isn’t about hating on beautiful women. It isn’t about hating on any kind of body. (That would kind of defeat the “acceptance” part of body acceptance now, wouldn’t it?!). Contrary to what people are quick to think, it does NOT aim to thin-shame, fit-shame or any kind of shame!
It’s not just on this one campaign – just about every initiative I’ve seen which challenges conventional beauty standards is met with thousands of nasty comments about the activists being fat, ugly, jealous, hateful women who can’t stand to see a fit, healthy, beautiful body.
Um, no. And the first thing I would say in response to that is: where is there anything in these campaigns that shames a fit, healthy, beautiful woman? Show me where and how any of what the protestors are saying insults or attacks another woman’s body?
People don’t seem to get that we’re not protesting the actual bodies featured on these images.
We’re protesting the message that this is the only type of desirable, worthy, “good” body that should be had. We’re protesting the very thing that the trolls are doing: which is shaming bodies.
And which bodies are they shaming? Outwardly, it’s the fat, overweight, ugly, unfit, flawed bodies. But actually, what it really means is all the bodies that don’t resemble the airbrushed, made-up, styled bodies in these images. And what that means is everyone’s bodies, because nobody looks the way they do in those posters, not even the models themselves (I’ve worked in women’s mags enough to know)).
Don’t get the messages all mixed up. We have no issue with the actual bodies on these images. But it is upsetting to know that the unrealistic beauty standards propagated through advertising and media can inadvertently have serious, damaging effects on the self-identity and image of a very large proportion of society, including the very people whose bodies are on these images.
So yes. This is a big deal.
It is a big deal for the woman who is struggling with an eating disorder and trying to force herself into the body shape she keeps seeing on billboards.
It is a big deal for the ordinary girl out there who will spend the rest of her life being told and believing she is not good enough because she doesn’t have the right look.
It is a big deal for the beautiful girl on the poster, whom everyone sees and wishes to be, because she lives with the knowledge that one day she may not look like this anymore and that her “worth” will diminish.
It is a big deal for the boys and men who grow up believing that a woman should be valued according to what she looks like; who will bring that into their relationships and families and look-shame their daughters. And so the cycle repeats.
This will be a big deal for as long as people continue to dismiss these concerns and say it is not a big deal.