About that Protein World advert…(an open letter to James O’Brien)

cross-posted from The Joy in my feetimage

An open letter to James O’Brien,

In the last week almost 60,000 individuals signed a petition to have Protein World’s now infamous yellow bikini advert, used to sell food-replacement shakes, taken down from London public transport outlets. In light of this much reported petition and the upcoming Taking Back the Beach protest planned for Saturday afternoon, you used your Wednesday afternoon LBC radio show to ask listeners what all the fuss is about with this advert. In light of a widespread consumerist culture in which unattainable body images sneer down at us at every angle in almost every public space, what is it about this particular advert which has caused so much offence? The problem, one of your listeners volunteered, is simply that hard-core feminists are getting their knickers in a twist. This is because, another suggested, we live in such a politically correct society these days, that fat people just can’t stand being told that they need to lose some weight. Jealousy is SO unattractive.

Listening to your show at my office when I should have been working, I couldn’t very well call up to provide an answer to your very reasonable question and so, in an attempt to clarify where your callers completely missed the point, I am addressing this open letter to you.

The problem with the advert is not with the photograph of the model in a bikini, oozing unrealistic sex-appeal and making us all feel bad with the way we look on the way to work, when we’ve barely had enough time to brush our hair and wipe the toothpaste from our mouths let alone hit the gym. We’ve seen these images before. We’ve seen this model before. We all know that adverts make people feel pretty lousy; one of your listeners, in fact, wrote in about the mental health implications that pressures to appear ‘macho’ have on men. He was right to raise this. Presumably this listener is also aware that eating disorders are one of the leading causes of ill health for teenage girls. Perhaps he read the research that the number one wish for girls aged 11 – 17 is to be thinner.

No, the problem is not the image, and it’s not even the particularly intense visuals of the image – in blazing yellow, this giant woman glaring down at us like some sort of fantasy Godzilla reeking havoc and judgement wherever she goes. No, the problem with this advert is the tagline that accompanies this image and what this says about the role of women in public space. By asking “Are you beach body ready?” the question this advert puts to women is this: do you have a body deemed by mainstream western notions of female beauty to be sexually attractive enough so as to be aesthetically pleasing to men when on the beach? If not, buy our product or else do not come to the beach.

Do you think that this is a leap to go from the advert’s tagline to the message to women to kindly leave their not-beach-ready bodies at home on the sofa where they belong? Because this is certainly the message that a very large number of women take home and this was certainly the conclusion drawn in a large global study conducted by Girl Guiding and Dove, which revealed that two-thirds of women and girls have avoided actually going out and doing certain activities because they feel bad about their bodies (including, incidentally, 29% who do not go to the beach or pool for this very reason). The CEO of Protein World himself certainly knows that women often feel uncomfortable occupying public space without first altering their appearance; this is what sells his product.

Sure, ok, men don’t just roll out of bed in the morning and out on to the street and, sure, ok, they are made to feel ugly too. But considering the fact that the women who are shown in the media are almost entirely models posing for the benefit of the viewer, whereas the men we see are primarily politicians, business leaders, and sports professionals actually doing stuff, what this says about women specifically is that their primary role in public space is to serve as a sex object.

The reason, then, that feminists are *quote* getting their knickers in a twist *end quote* about this advert in particular is because this is the advert which makes explicit the link between female attractiveness and a woman’s right to occupy public space. It is a) this relationship between women’s subjective sexual attractiveness and public space that is problematic, and this is b) particularly problematic because it feeds into a continuum of violence against women and girls. In government-commissioned research it was made explicit that if boys grow up being repeatedly told by advertisements like this that women’s primary role in public is to provide for their sexual gratification, they are more likely to engage in aggressive and violent behaviour towards women and girls.

Sexual harassment and assault in public is a grave issue in our society. Of the 1 in 5 women who will experience a sexual offence in her lifetime, a significant portion of these offences will take place in public. The British Transport Police estimate that 15% of Londoners have experienced unwanted, intimidating, and threatening sexual behaviour on the city’s transport network, and I’m willing to bet that this problem is even worse than these stats suggest. I do not know a single female friend who has not at some point in her life been subject to sexual harassment or assault ranging, in the  collective experiences of my friendship group, from cat-calling, jeering, and verbal abuse right through to inappropriate touching (and I am using this term euphemistically), being masturbated over, and being pissed on.

I am sure that you, as much as I, want this kind of behaviour to stop, and we can make a start by taking that bloody poster down.

The Joy in my Feet: Inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, my blog The Joy in My Feet is about celebrating the work of women activists and artists around the world campaigning to end gender oppression. I am an intern with Equality Now working on a campaign to end FGM in the UK, so most of the posts you’ll find are covering current issues of sexual or gender based violence against women, interspersed with poetry and art.

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