How Do You Define and then Ban Body-Shaming Adverts?
Sadiq Khan announced that he's asked TfL to set up some kind of regulatory board to make sure there are no more ads like that "Beach Body Ready" one on the Tube. But how would that actually work?
It's been just over a year since that Protein World "Beach Body Ready" ad was shown all over the Tube, and the fallout that followed, and the subsequent response from Protein World – tweets that read like they were sent by a 16-year-old 4Chan flamer – which just made everyone on Twitter hate them infinitely more.
The whole thing was kind of a PR seppuku, but, you know, it did earn the supplement company plenty of column inches, and – it turns out – the attention of now-Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who yesterday asked Transport for London (TfL) to set up its own advertising steering group so a similar campaign doesn't grace the Underground's walls again.
Explaining the reasoning behind the new measures, Khan said: "As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising, which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. It is high time it came to an end. Nobody should feel pressurised, while they travel on the Tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies, and I want to send a clear message to the advertising industry about this."
Considering 1.34 billion journeys are made on the London Underground every year, with 2.4 billion also made on buses and a further 110 million on the DLR, TfL's advertising estate is one of the world's most lucrative. As TfL commercial development director Graeme Craig explained, this is what makes adverts such as the Beach Body Ready campaign so potentially damaging: "Advertising on our network is unlike TV, online and print media," he said. "Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them."
But what – Protein World aside – actually constitutes a body-shaming advert? To find out, I spoke to feminist bloggers Fiona Longmuir and Tara Costello, who were so incensed by "Beach Body Ready" that they went to a Tube station in their bikinis to protest it.
VICE: Sadiq Khan has announced an end to ads that make people feel ashamed about their bodies or pressure them into looking a certain way. What do you think about that?
Fiona: I think it's great – it's a big step in a good direction. We got a lot of criticism during the protest that it was a really small issue we were focusing on, but I feel like body issues are such a massive thing that you can only really get rid of one bite at a time, so this is a really good start.
Tara: Same. My Twitter was blowing up all afternoon with notifications, and the news made my day. A lot of people said we didn't make a difference, and this just proves that we did.
Thing is, TfL is now going to have to come up with a definition for body shaming to enforce the new ban. In your opinion, what constitutes body shaming? What should be banned?
Fiona: That's probably going to be a conversation that goes on for a long time. The Beach Body Ready ad was really clear-cut. It wasn't a woman having a great time on the beach; it was saying, "Look like this woman and you'll be OK." So it was quite obviously offensive, but there are a lot of others that are a lot less clear-cut.
How do you deal with that?
I think the government should take advice from people who suffer from body shaming – people like plus-size bloggers – who are at the centre of it. If they did that, they could work out a definition.
Tara: I think it's going to be very hard to pinpoint what does and doesn't constitute as body shaming, because some of it can be really subtle. For example, menstrual blood is always blue in adverts, and shaving products are always seen on already-shaven legs. These things may seem little, but it matters. Don't believe me? Look at those upset over Bodyform's latest advertisement, which features actual blood.
I.E. the reality.
As we continue to refuse to acknowledge or include [these things], we're essentially saying they are things that need to be hidden or got rid of. A good start would be changing the narratives of advertisements. Why can't they be more empowering? I understand people need to make a sale at the end of the day, but why should shame be the driving force here?
What sort of effect do you think these ads have on women in the long-term?
Fiona: I think they're really dangerous. Like I said, a lot of people acted as if it was a trivial issue, but anorexia is the most deadly mental illness humans have. It increases your chance of death more than schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and adverts like this feed into this big monster culture that makes women feel like their bodies aren't good enough, and that they need to modify them to fit in. So it wasn't so much saying that [Beach Body Ready model] Renee Somerfield's body was wrong – because obviously it isn't – it was more trying to put out other images of what a body in a bikini looks like.
And that's just one example, I suppose.
Tara: The advert was just a pin in the ocean of body shaming media out there. I completely understand if this advert doesn't bother some, but you need to listen to those it does bother. Representation is extremely important. This advert, as well as many others, suggests that the only way you can be beautiful is if you're a white, cis-hetero, able-bodied male or female. So yes, it may "just be an advert", but this shit adds up. When you grow up seeing all of this and you're constantly misrepresented, underrepresented or not represented at all, you grow up hating yourself. And if you grow up hating yourself, it can take a very long time to get out of that mind-set.
When you do break free, things like this are everywhere to remind you that you're not supposed to be happy with yourself. And when it's in the magazines you read, on the screens you watch and even when you go to ride the Tube, it's incredibly suffocating and hard to ignore. You can't be surprised that so many of us struggle with body image when you're telling us we can't possibly love our bodies if we don't look a certain way. Renee Somerfield is beautiful, but I am too and so are you. The bottom line is: there is more than one way to be beautiful and it's about time the media reflected that.
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