Popping up in London’s underground stations are a series of advertisements from slimming company Protein World, featuring reality TV star Khloe Kardashian, posing in a gym leotard (a ‘revealing’ leotard according to the Evening Standard, whose journalists presumably think that a glimpse of thigh is hardcore porn) and based around the company’s 30-day weight loss challenge. This is the sort of thing that you might expect a slimming business to do – promote its wares by suggesting that they help you lose weight and that this is a desirable thing to do. As such, there are two sensible reactions to this sort of advertising. Either you ignore it because you are not interested / don’t feel the need to lose weight, or you take note if you are in the market for weight loss products that probably won’t work.
So of course, plenty of people are taking the unsensible third option: losing their shit and claiming that the ads are promoting an unhealthy body shape and pressuring young women into believing that their bodies are not good enough. Green Party Assembly member Caroline Russell ranted:
“People taking the Tube should not have to be bombarded with adverts that imply their bodies aren’t good enough.
“Young people receive this negative message from enough social media channels and it’s appalling that this is being reinforced on Tube platforms, against the Mayor’s own policy, when people are taking trips to school, to work, or going out to socialise.
“I am urging the Mayor to look again at these adverts that challenge young people to ‘keep up’ with reality stars known for idealised and unrealistic body shapes. He needs to enforce his own guidelines and live up to his manifesto promise to Londoners.
“Every body is a good body and TfL should be promoting inclusion and making their stations welcoming spaces. Allowing these adverts risks making people lose confidence in themselves.”
Now, there are a number of points to consider here. Let’s leave aside the genuinely unhealthy obsession with vacuous celebrity for the moment, and instead question if Khloe Kardashian is really representing an unrealistic body shape. Look at that photo – she is hardly anorexic, is she? Are we actually suggesting that her body represents an entirely unattainable ideal?
Secondly, the claim that ‘every body is a good body’ seems a touch excessive. Are we not regularly told by health experts that we have an obesity epidemic in the UK? Isn’t this why we have demands for a sugar tax? Surely we are supposed to be encouraging overweight people to lose weight.
Now, if the ad was ridiculing the obese – or even the slightly overweight – then the complaints might have a point. But as far as I can see, all it is doing is trying to peddle a product to those who are already looking to lose weight. At no point does the ad say that anyone’s body is not good enough. At no point is any body shape singled out as unacceptable.
This is in sharp contrast with the gym adverts that plaster Liverpool Street tube, showing ‘before’ (fat, distended, hairy bellies = ‘bad’) and ‘after’ (toned, hairless six packs = ‘good’) photos. But those ads are aimed at men. And men, apparently, are oblivious to advertising and media pressures to have a ‘perfect’ body, while women – by implication – are so easily led and delicate that such imagery will lead to immediate unhealthy dieting or a burning sense of shame at not being good enough.
This is astoundingly insulting. It portrays women as simple minded and victims – unable to think for themselves and instead moulded by idealised media images, as if these are the only portrayals of women that they see. It suggests that there are no positive, feminist messages anywhere on TV, in the press, online or in advertising – that these ‘unrealistic’ images of slim women are the be all and end all of their cultural experiences. How utterly condescending.
And how insulting to anyone who does want to lose weight. How insulting to suggest that is only because of media pressure and that they should be happy with the body that they are not happy with, because other people say so. There are many reasons that people (male or female) might want to lose weight – for their health, for their own sense of confidence, to fit into the clothes they love, or – yes – to be more appealing to others. To shame those people for making the ‘wrong’ choice – indeed, to suggest that their desire to lose weight is somehow invalid and a decision made by brainwashing rather than personal choice, a brainwashing that their critics have somehow been immune to – is every bit as disgraceful and condescending as judging people who don’t want to lose weight.
And to say that the producers of slimming aids should not be allowed to peddle their wares in public in case they upset non-slimmers is to set a dangerous precedent. Do we then ban meat product ads in case they upset vegans? Jack Daniels posters if they upset prohibitionists? At which point do we decide that hurt feelings are (or are not) important enough?
And ultimately, it backfires. When there was similar manufactured outrage over the same company’s ‘are you beach body ready?’ ad campaign a couple of years ago – the campaign that caused new London mayor Sadiq Khan to announce a ban on ‘body shaming’ ads on the Tube (though no one seemed to care much about everyone shaming the woman in the ads) – the resultant publicity apparently netted the company an additional £2 million in sales (suggesting that it was in fact very appealing to a lot of people) and was eventually approved by the notoriously moralistic Advertising Standards Authority.
So here’s an idea – let’s accept that we all make our own choices in life, and that women’s (and men’s) bodies – no matter what their shape and no matter what shape they might aspire to be – are nothing to be ashamed or frightened of. And nothing for us to make holier-than-thou judgements about.