We caught up with Carys Afoko, the feminist activist behind the campaign.
There are many aspects of the UK tabloid media that feel like relics from a bygone age, but perhaps one of the most archaic is The Sun’s Bust in Britain competition. The annual contest, which invites women to submit photos of themselves wearing “sexy lingerie, a bikini or a low-cut top” and explain why they love their breasts, aims to find the “best boobs” in the UK. The winner receives a prize of £5,000 cash, as well as the chance to appear in a photoshoot for the newspaper in Ibiza.
But this year, campaigners have been working to bring the competition into the 21st century. Grassroots feminist organisation Level Up has been encouraging men people to submit their own chest shots to The Sun – and the results range from the hilarious to the surprisingly touching.
Josh, a 30-year-old gardener from London, boasts that his chest “does a great job of keeping my heart and lungs from sliding out”, while 32-year-old Farook (pictured top) says he thinks people should feel good about their chests “regardless of gender, race, class or any other dividing label”.
The oldest male entrant is 85-year-old Mr R Lloyd from Macclesfield, who says: “My wife thinks my chest is my most redeeming feature even after 60 years plus of being together.” If you’ve never felt a bit teary while looking at a picture of an elderly man’s naked torso, get ready for that to change.
Level Up’s executive director Carys Afoko tells me that she was inspired to invite men to submit their own pictures after spotting the contest in the paper. “We read all the papers at work every day and I recently saw the competition in The Sun,” she explains. “They put it on page 3, even though they’re supposed to have got rid of page 3, and I just had that feeling of – ugh, why is this still here?”
Afoko suspected that lots of people felt similarly about the competition, but decided that using humour would be a more effective strategy than going on the attack. She and her colleagues at Level Up recruited male supporters and friends and asked them to enter their ‘sexy’ selfies to the competition.
“Luckily, they got very into it,” she laughs.
Since the campaign launched, many women and non-binary people have also entered their pictures to the tabloid competition, showing them wearing feminist T-shirts, supporting the body positivity movement or striking defiantly non-sexy poses.
Others have shared photos of literal busts in art galleries.
Afoko is thrilled that all kinds of people are taking up the challenge, but says the decision to ask men to kick things off was a conscious one. In part, this is because the campaign is taking place on social media, and women and non-binary individuals tend to be more vulnerable to online abuse.
However, it was also to emphasise that it’s not just women who feel frustrated by the Bust in Britain competition.
“I think there’s a silent majority of people who don’t like this kind of thing,” she says. “And a really important part of feminist campaigning and talking about sexism is getting men to put their heads above the parapet sometimes.”
Afoko continues: “It’s a bit scary to go up against The Sun, and it felt important that before we asked our [female and non-binary] supporters to share selfies, we got men to take a bit of the risk.”
Recently, Janet Street-Porter and Kelly Brook clashed on Loose Women about whether the Bust in Britain contest had a place in modern media. Street-Porter argued that the competition encouraged women to think their “assets are the sum total of their brain” – but Brook, one of the contest’s judges, insisted she’d been “empowered” by her career as a Page 3 girl and a model for lads’ mags.
“What’s wrong with celebrating women’s bodies and women feeling sexy?” she asked. “Why wouldn’t I want to encourage women to do that?”
This kind of argument often rears its head during conversations about feminism and objectification, and can quickly become tangled up in discussions of class privilege. If feminists are so concerned about women’s right to self-determination, some people contend, surely they should support women who choose to present themselves in a sexualised way – especially if they stand to benefit financially from it?
Afoko is keen to stress that she has no desire to shame women who enter the Bust in Britain sincerely, or to suggest that they shouldn’t have done so.
“The Sun often tries to pit women against each other with this stuff,” she says. “They make out that if you’re a woman that doesn’t like the contest then somehow you don’t like the woman that enter, or you don’t want them to win a prize. But that’s really not my issue and it’s not how I feel. If you want to win £5,000 and a trip to Ibiza, sure! I’d love that myself.”
Rather than attacking the women who’ve entered the competition, she wants to encourage people to think critically about the editorial decisions made around the contest, and the limited range of beauty ideals celebrated by tabloid papers. To promote the competition in the run-up to the closing date, The Sun splashes pictures of people who have already entered across its pages. On St George’s Day, for example, it featured a four-page spread of “English beauties”.
“If you look at the pictures of the women they select, they don’t really change,” Afoko says. “You’ve pretty much got to be skinny, and almost everyone is white, with long straight hair and giant boobs. And that isn’t about the women who enter – that’s about the people at The Sun deciding what ‘beautiful’ means.
“There’s nothing wrong with looking like that,” she emphasises. “All the women look gorgeous. But a lot of people don’t look like that, and The Sun is basically telling them: you’re not beautiful, so don’t bother entering.” She sees the newspaper as promoting “a sort of Fifties idea of what is beautiful, and I think most people don’t believe that anymore.”
In an ideal world, Afoko says, Level Up’s campaign would result in The Sun “updating or getting rid of” the Bust of Britain contest. However, she’s realistic about the prospect of that actually happening. “I live in hope that they could crown a man or a non-binary person the nation’s cleavage queen! You never know – but I highly doubt they’re going to engage with us directly.”
Her real goal, she says, was to take over the #BustInBritain hashtag on social media and to start a conversation about the kinds of appearances we consider ‘sexy’ or attractive.
“We wanted to show that actually, most people in the UK now think there’s more than one way to be beautiful,” she says. “Most of us believe all kinds of chests are beautiful, and we know that women are more than their breasts.
“So for everyone who experiences that heart-sinking feeling when they see something like this contest – we’re here to remind you that most of us think it’s nonsense. And, of course, to give you a bit of a chuckle.”
Images: Level Up