Midsection of female athlete standing in gym

The Adidas sports bra campaign ban reminds us that breasts continue to be sexualised when they don’t need to be – and I’m tired of it

Adidas’s sports bra campaign aimed to represent a vast variety of women while showcasing the range of sports bras available. But its subsequent banning by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) only highlights the continuous censorship and sexualisation of women’s bodies, writes senior digital writer Leah Sinclair.

Being a larger-chested woman, someone with asymmetrical boobs or someone with anything that varies beyond the equally sized and perky pairs we see in pretty much every ad campaign or movie, can be a real pain in the arse at times, especially when the brands you look to don’t seem to represent you.

So Adidas’s recent campaign, which the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently banned after complaints, really caught my eye. Its advert, promoting a range of sports bras, showed an image of 25 chests with a range of sizes, shapes and sagginess and went viral on social media.

It was something I have rarely seen in advertising campaigns and instantly caught my attention because it showed the beauty of all different types of breasts beyond the one dimensional and the overly sexualised view we’ve become accustomed to.

While the campaign was largely celebrated, it received its fair share of criticism and resulted in a ban by the ASA for using explicit nudity and appearing where children could see the ads.

The ad prompted 24 complaints to the UK advertising watchdog, stating that the ads were gratuitous and objectified women by “sexualising them and reducing them to body parts”.

In a statement, the ASA said: “We noted the breasts were the main focus in the ads, and there was less emphasis on the bras themselves, which were only referred to in the accompanying text.

“As the ads contained explicit nudity, we considered that they required careful targeting to avoid causing offence to those who viewed them.”

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The constant association of breasts with “explicit nudity” and “causing offence” speaks a lot about a society that still sexualises something that doesn’t need to be sexualised – and I’m truly tired of it.

An ad that provided representation for women of all shapes and sizes was extremely refreshing to see and its subsequent ban only further shows the way women continue to be censored, and it only adds fuel to the fire of our constant sexualisation.

It’s something that has been seen on social media for years, where images of women’s breasts on Instagram were constantly shadowbanned, even when positioned in the most non-sexual way.

In 2020, a woman with breast cancer was allegedly accused of “sexual activity” for posting a video of her receiving reconstructive 3D nipple tattoos after losing her breasts. 

Last year, a photo of Madonna was taken down by Instagram because “a small portion of [her] nipple was exposed”.

“It is still astounding to me that we live in a culture that allows every inch of a woman’s body to be shown except a nipple,” she wrote. “As if that is the only part of a woman’s anatomy that could be sexualised. The nipple that nourishes the baby! Can’t a man’s nipple be experienced as erotic??!!”

While Instagram changed its nudity policy in October 2020 after being accused of censoring (some photos of female nipples are banned “but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed”), the fact that women face limitations whenever the topic of breasts is discussed serves as a poignant reminder that by banning the “exposure” of breasts, we are limiting the ability to have important conversations surrounding them.

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While some agreed with the campaign, it’s clear that the image caused division. “Why did you cut their heads off? Without heads these look even more like objects,” commented one person on the initial post, while another said: “Does no one see this as wrong? Women’s breasts used for marketing? Yes, I run and have breasts and need a good sports bra, but isn’t there a better way?!”

The fact that the campaign incited discussion only adds to the reasons why the ASA shouldn’t have been banned it.

No matter what side of the fence you’re on, it created a discourse around sexualisation, objectification and representation of breasts – something that is of pertinence and should be discussed.

The choice to ban it almost feels like erasure. Wiping out something that you don’t fully understand or agree with rather than acknowledging it and discussing it is something that is continuously faced by marginalised groups and we should know better by now.

While the decision has been made, the impact around the ad and what it represents remains. I, for one, feel happy to have seen breasts of all types represented by one of the largest sports brands, especially one that has had such a massive impact.

And who knows, it might even make me feel slightly better about popping over to buy a sports bra knowing that there are brands that make all types of breasts feel equally represented and catered to.

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