Let’s be honest: women’s bodies are subject to a hell of a lot of scrutiny. From what we’re wearing (Short skirt? Make up? Type of underwear?) to our physical appearance itself (Colour, shape, size, body hair – you name it).
If you’re a woman, you know this already.
If you’re a now-infamous brand of protein and weight loss supplements, you clearly don’t.
You’ll probably have seen the Protein World posters, and the backlash against them, in the news. A few weeks ago bright yellow adverts appeared on the London Underground – a slim, toned model staring sultrily at the camera, and in huge lettering the question: “Are you beach body ready?” The image was pretty stark, and the implication caused outrage. Why, in order to be ‘ready’ for the beach, must women dedicate themselves to making sure that their bodies match that of the model?
In reality, anyone with a body is ‘beach-body ready,’ of course. It seems almost patronising to go into detail about it, because we all know that being slim and toned is no more essential to a beach trip than having your own flippers. If you have a body, and you go to the beach, then what your body looks like on the beach is no one else’s business.
But in the wake of the fight back against the adverts, Protein World posted numerous tweets and interviews in which they asked why people were up in arms about this one simple question. Surely, they claim, there’s nothing wrong with inspiring people to achieve the body of their dreams?
There are a few massive assumptions floating around under this, the most common one being the assumption that all women want to (and should aspire to) achieve one particular type of body. That’s simply not true. And the fact that questions like ‘are you beach body ready?’ are usually accompanied by a very specific body type (young, slim, able-bodied, usually white), belies a lot of prejudice about what should make a woman sexy.
On top of that though – and the reasons the ads were branded sexist – is that this kind of scrutiny is far more frequently applied to women than men. As I mentioned at the beginning, most women will be aware of being under constant observation as they go about their lives. Strangers who wolf-whistle at them in the street, women who are told that their nipples are somehow more offensive than men’s if they want to go topless, magazines that tell you what you’re supposed to look like and running endless diet tips. Even the implication that women can’t be sexual or beautiful after a certain age (which is obviously rubbish).
The methods are different but the overall message is the same: what you look like is not just valuable, it’s one of the most important things about you. I don’t think this is always down to malice. If a guy makes a positive comment on my body, and I don’t respond with immediate gratitude and joy, he’s usually hurt. Just as I’ve been led to believe that the best thing a woman can be is ‘beautiful’, so lots of men have been taught that her most treasured compliment will be to hear that she’s attractive.
When Petra and I spoke about this she pointed out that:
“As women we are always judged on our looks. It does not seem to matter what qualities or achievements we have to be proud of. Even if a woman is a brilliant businesswoman or politician her looks will be scrutinised and judged. If she fits the definition of “attractive” there will be sniggering remarks that she slept her way to the top. If she does not have the perfect body or is middle aged, she will be ridiculed. Just look at the coverage Hillary Clinton is getting right now. And even when we pretend not to care about the perfect looks for women and promote “plus sized” bodies, we still focus on the female body rather than her mind, skill set and ambition!”
I watched a brilliant programme last week about plus sized fashion, in which a lot of amazing, body-confident plus-sized fashion bloggers took to Channel 4 to spread the word that large women want awesome clothes too, and there’s a huge market for fashion that goes above and beyond the current limited size range. Their message was a valuable one, but in a lot of the comments about the programme (both positive and negative) there were plenty of people reinforcing the idea of beauty as the ultimate feminine goal.
“I wouldn’t sleep with a size 20 woman.”
“I think that size 20 woman is totally hot – I’d sleep with her.”
These comments are two sides of the same coin – they’re still judgments based purely on scrutiny of someone’s body, often totally unsolicited. These judgments imply that the value of a woman comes not just from the way she looks, but whether or not we approve of it. Perhaps that particular woman couldn’t care less whether you’d want to sleep with her. In reality, it’s not up to me to pass judgment on the way anyone else looks. I can offer an opinion if they ask for it – tell them they look awesome in such and such an outfit, or even tell them that I fancy them. What’s bad in this case isn’t the opinion itself, but the expectations behind it. There’s a big difference between appreciating beauty and making beauty the most important thing in the world.
If you hated the ads, you’ll probably be delighted to hear that they’re coming down. Not because of the protests, but because the company itself only paid for three weeks’ worth of advertising – ironically a far shorter time than they’d recommend the average person takes their crappy diet pills for. But we should remember what Protein World forgot – that women’s individual life worth isn’t contained in our snapshot glimpses of their bodies. We should remember this because I can guarantee that it won’t be long before you see another ad like this soon. One that tells us to be thinner, prettier, wear more makeup, so society thinks we’re valuable. Protein World might be the most obnoxious company to do this, but they’re certainly not alone.
If you want to take a stand against the Protein World ad, there is a demo in London this Saturday #takingbackthebeach.