One provocative advert; one almighty backlash. Why we refuse to be body shamed by Protein World's controversial campaign.
At Stylist, it’s strictly a diet-free zone. We set ourselves that rule when we launched nearly six years ago – we wanted to give women a break from the relentless pressure to fit that particular week’s body ideal and instead, concentrate on their minds, passions and dreams. Our goal is to make women feel empowered and confident. This is clearly not a philosophy shared by Protein World’s Are You Beach Body Ready? adverts – ads that rely on judgement and shame to sell their product. Here, journalist and commentator Sophie Heawood examines how an advert for protein shakes became a rallying cry for feminism in the UK.
“In author Malcolm Gladwell’s ground-breaking 2000 book The Tipping Point, he explains that tipping points are those moments when something understood by the minority finally spills over into the cultural mainstream. They are ‘a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.’
The past couple of weeks have felt like one of those tipping points for feminism – and it all comes from a rather unexpected place: a now banned advert (by the ASA due to concerns over its weight loss claims) on the London Underground.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you must have been on holiday (and oh my god, were you beach body ready? Were you?). To recap: a company called Protein World launched a new advertising campaign for its Weight Loss Collection (The Slender Blend meal replacement, Slender Blend Capsules and Multi Vitamin Capsules). In these hard-to-miss posters, a blonde model peers down towards the platform in her bright yellow bikini, on a bright yellow background.
Around her is a question, written in enormous, threatening block capitals: ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? Of course it isn’t the first advert to show a half-naked woman, or to try and sell the idea of dieting – but it’s the first to annoy as many women as this one did. It kicked off a wave of protests from women who have had enough of being told that their body isn’t good enough.
Let’s examine how Protein World’s advert works. The stance is confrontational: legs akimbo, ready to do battle. The expression on the face of the model is carefully designed, if you are well-versed in body language. Her eyes are almost closing, narrowed to focus on what she is looking at. She is scrutinising the body in front of her: yours. It’s as if a Mean Girl has grown up. Which might be quite fun, who knows – but it’s possibly not what you want in your head at 8.30 in the morning, when you’re trying to get a seat on the Central Line without a tourist’s luggage scraping past you and laddering your tights.
And that’s the thing: the model’s pose in this advertising campaign is no accident. It isn’t just about ‘the way she looks’, as has been claimed. The creatives behind the ad will have taken thousands of shots of her in different positions before choosing the one which gives off this particular vibe. The one that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable (certainly no fault of the model, we might add).
Which is why so many people reacted in the way they did. It started with people snapping the ads on social media and adding angry messages – then people started picking up Sharpies and adding such thoughts to the actual ads. A mini-wave of activism took off, with the ads being defaced with new slogans including ‘Every body is a beach-ready body’.
Feminist bloggers Fiona Longmuir and Tara Costello went to one Tube station, took off their clothes to reveal their bikinis underneath then photographed themselves in front of the ad. A petition began, gaining more than 67,000 signatures (at the time Stylist went to press), while a protest against the ads took place in Hyde Park on Saturday 2 May. The model featured in the ads, Renee Somerfield, spoke out and said that the feminist campaigners were body-shaming her, before adding that she agreed that, ‘ALL bodies are “beach body ready’”, which was nice (though contradicting the whole point of the advert).
A quick glance at the brand’s Facebook page reveals many men having a good laugh at the feminist furore, as well as a good number of women who think it’s just fat people moaning. ‘Keep it up. Screw these fat feminazis,’ and ‘You’ve made yourselves instant legends,’ were the first two comments I saw.
Of course, Protein World responded – and that’s when things got even messier.
When one woman, Juliette Burton, tweeted to say she had signed the petition against them because she had spent her whole life ‘believing I’m not good enough,’ they replied, ‘Why make your insecurities our problem?’ with a little winking emoji. ‘We are a nation of sympathisers for fatties,’ they wrote in reply to a further complaint.
From a marketing point of view, it’s certainly a new approach – most companies are wary of offending people on social media. When somebody else said that the firm should be ashamed of the way they were responded, they wrote back, ‘Here is a shoulder for you to cry on.’
Supporters also say this campaign is all about the healthy body. That it’s aspirational and all about health. They brush off criticisms about Photoshop – which makes it all the more amusing when you zoom in on the photos online and realise that, for example, in another ad for the same campaign which just show’s a model’s bum, the perfect curve of her buttock looks quite different in the shadow. The skin is shiny and perfect in the light; but in the shadow, which presumably nobody thought to edit out, the curve is much more lumpy and bumpy and normal.
It would all be quite entertaining if there wasn’t something rather grim at the bottom of it. Which is a billion-pound weight-loss industry that can only carry on turning a profit if women agree never to like ourselves enough. As for the idea that these products are healthy – they are drinks made from powder and weightloss pills made from caffeine, guarana and green tea. It’s not on the same level as fresh mango and a kale salad, is it?
I spoke to chartered psychologist Suky Macpherson, who works with adolescents with body dysmorphia, and who had already been deeply dismayed by these ads. She told me there is a ‘really serious problem out there, and ads like these just make it worse. Young women in particular can hate their bodies, and sometimes faces, so much that they end up in despair and often self-harm as a way both of coping and of damaging the bodies they hate so much. They are also starving themselves in order to live up to a perfect image, which is thrust down their throats by the media and reinforced by their peers. Women do not need more pressure to conform to unrealistic expectations.’
Macpherson points out that the number one way used to sell things is through fear. ‘Fear can be approached on more subtle levels,’ she says. ‘Fear of not belonging and, of course, of not being good enough. I believe that advertisers stimulate this fear in people, particularly women, that without this or that product they will be outsiders and be mocked and spurned. It comes back to us being social animals with a strong desire to be part of the group.’
Gah! It’s enough to make you want a holiday – well, the sort of holidays we used to go on that were all about relaxation. And if not – because you just weren’t the type of person to feel comfy lounging about on a beach when you could be exploring somewhere new – then they were still about escaping the rat-race.
The one thing that summer holidays have never been about is competition and stress – that’s not why employers are legally obliged to give full-time staff 28 days off per year. If you turn your break into a beauty competition, a race to be ready, a denial of what you want – doesn’t it defeat the whole purpose of having one?
All this ‘beach body’ stuff could be enough to put some women off the beach altogether and start pretending that we much prefer city breaks, when really we just can’t bear anybody to see the way our legs look without the safety of 70 denier nylon covering them. Which is a crying shame when you think about it. Will we look back when we’re old, glad we missed all those sunny coves, freshwater swims and ice creams at sunset? All that laughing and falling about into the waves, all the lols of a lilo, or the feel of smooth pebbles under the toes banished, because we feel miserable even thinking about shopping for a two-piece?
I have a friend who teaches singing at a learning resort on a Greek island every summer. One of the beaches on the island is known locally as Bare Arse Beach, because it’s the one where you can let it all hang out and nobody minds. A decade or two ago, British women going on these holistic courses would happily go naked on this beach, according to my friend. Now, she notes with a heavy heart, she seems to be the only woman confident enough to do it, while the rest of us cling cautiously to our swimwear.
Of course it’s nice to get fit and go on holiday feeling as confident as you can. But it’s more important to remember that holidays aren’t a competition. So this summer, I propose that we all agree to follow these simple instructions to get beach body ready: 1) Locate your body 2) Take it to the beach 3) That’s it.
So how did it make you feel?
Alice Herzog 30, marketing manager
“When I saw the advert, I instantly compared my body to the model and felt negative about myself. This type of advertising is designed to undermine a person’s self-confidence.”
Andrea Caamaño 27, online editor
“I think people are overreacting. We see a semi-naked David Beckham all over the city for H&M, Gisele Bündchen in a bikini... what’s the difference? Every brand uses slim, beautiful models.”
Katy Rimmer 29, stay-at-home Mum
“The posters are being defaced all over London, thank goodness. It’s terrible, as if you’re not worthy of going to the beach if you don’t look like this photoshopped, fake ideal.”
KinSanna Lau 28, account executive
“All this controversy has created huge publicity for the brand, so from a business perspective it’s great. For years, marketing featuring ripped men has been used and no-one complains.”
Laura Williams 26, teaching assistant
“It’s more than just anger at a woman in a bikini plastered all over the underground. It’s the irresponsible and dangerous message the ad promotes that makes my blood boil.”