The “War of the Waistlines” Rages On : A Thin Shaming / Fat Hating Showdown
In our article last month we exposed the current online “war” between the “anti-fat, pro-fitness” movement and the “pro-fat, anti-skinny,” Heath At Every Size movement – which for the most part has been fought behind the scenes across various online social media platforms. This past week, however, on the other side of the pond, one battle has crossed out of the web, into the public spotlight, and onto (more specifically, beneath) the streets of London. What sparked this clash is outrage over a paid advertising campaign posted throughout various London-area tube stations and subway cars. The ads were put up by, Protein World, a UK-based online health supplement retailer. From the “about us” section of their website, “We’re leading the protein revolution with a new and innovative range of pure, GMO free supplements to help you become healthier, leaner, fitter and stronger.” After several high-profile body image advocates and feminist activists took offense to their advertisement, they launched an all-out attack not only on the ad, but on the company itself.
At first glance, the offending ad seems harmless enough – it features the tanned and toned, bikini-clad Australian model, Renee Somerfield, with the words “Are you Beach Body Ready?”, along with some pictures of the weight-loss supplements they offer. Most of us could pass this ad ten times a day and never think twice about it.
However, after a few people felt the ad was inherently offensive, they began an online petition to have it removed from public sight. The petition spread, and the cause was eventually taken up by several high-profile individuals. British TV personality, HAES advocate, & avid feminist Juliette Barton, took to twitter to speak out about the advertisement, & to promote the change.org petition, which has since garnered over 65,000 signatures as of Thursday evening. Protein World’s twitter response to her soon went viral, and the debate has spiraled out of control from there.
These activist’s main beef is with the ad’s reference to a “beach body”, and its suggestion that the model featured is the ideal example. Advocates argue against this portrayal of a beach body which they believe is largely unattainable, & harmful to young women. They also believe that the ad’s referencing of their meal replacement product offerings (think supplemental shakes & bars), is encouraging women to starve themselves.
Of course, their crusade against the advertisement has not gone without recourse. After the typical Twitter & Facebook channels lit up with posts from outraged body acceptance activists, the anti-fat activists began expressing their own outrage at the body acceptance camp’s outrage. On that side of the spectrum, besides the usual culprit’s bemoaning the skinny-shaming in forums such as Reddit’s now infamous /r/fatpeoplehate subreddit, some more publicly recognized personalities such as British TV host Katie Hopkins, & fellow Apprentice contestant Luisa Zissman, have spoken out in support of Protein World. Katie is also well known for her controversial TLC documentary “Fat and Back”, when she gained 42lbs in 3 months, and then lost it again to prove that losing weight is not as impossible as some people claim. The celebrity involvement caught the attention of major UK media outlets, which inevitably dumped a gallon of gas on the fire.
Since then, the debate has reached critical mass enough for the standard social media slacktivists to break out of their internet safe haven, and into the real world (likely by many seeking out juicy material to post back on Twitter & Facebook, but a noteworthy milestone nonetheless).
Some members of the HAES camp took to mild-vandalism, posting pictures with demonstrative writing scribbled over the ads such as “Stop encouraging women to starve themselves!”. Several girls in bikinis began posting pictures of themselves posing next to the ads while wearing bikinis to help get the message across. A mass “Take Back The Beach” pro body acceptance demonstration has been planned to take place in London’s famed Hyde Park this Saturday.
Meanwhile, Great Britain’s Advertisement Standards Agency (ASA) alleges to have received hundreds of complaints by individuals claiming that the ad is offensive and shames overweight people. After investigation, a spokesman for the agency stated that they’ve determined the company will not be permitted to resubmit the advertisement in its current form due to “concerns about a range of health and weight loss claims made in the ad”. The spokesperson also added, “Although the ad won’t appear in the meantime, we’ve launched an investigation to establish if it breaks harm and offence rules or is socially irresponsible.”
To an outsider, at first glance the entire foundation of this debate may seem rather ridiculous – Protein World did not invent the term “beach body”, which has historically been associated with a toned & tanned physique; and as a supplement store, their main products are geared towards health & weight loss. It would seem fairly odd of them to sell weight loss products while featuring an overweight cover model, or without trying to promote losing weight at all. But that logic has done little to curb the venomous outpouring of rage against the purported message they’re sending to young girls.
Two days ago, TFL, the company responsible for managing the advertisements said that the ads will in fact be coming down in 3 days. While this would appear to be a great victory for the body-image camp, and protesters have hailed it as such, the company said that the ads were actually nearing the end of their 3 week campaign, and were scheduled to be taken down anyway. Whether or not Protein World will be permitted to resubmit the ads in the future is now in the hands of the ASA.
Throughout the backlash, Protein World has not been shy about voicing their opinion on the matter, and have arguably fanned the flames via their Twitter account. Allegedly the Twitter has been taken over by the company’s CEO, Arjun Seth.
The entire thing has echoes of the widespread campaigns against cigarette advertisements in the 1990s, which successfully lead to their nearly global ban. But, it begs the question, does a fitness-focused health store deserve to be demonized in the same way cigarette companies were? Is selling protein powder comparable enough to selling an addictive product, which kills millions of people annually, to warrant a full-out ban?
Holly Hagan, the 22 year old aspiring singer & star of MTV’s British reality show “Geordie Shore”, attributes her own dramatic fitness transformation to the company’s products. Even after dropping more than 40 lbs, Holly is by no means a stick figure, and is a perfect example of a woman who truly knows how to make her curves look sexy. In an interview, she told theDailyMail, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a slim, toned model on the campaign because she is healthy,” she continued, “I think it’s more damaging that people label overweight and obese women as ‘real women’ or as ‘role models’ when in actual fact they are unhealthy. You shouldn’t promote clinical obesity in the same way you wouldn’t promote anorexia.”
From a 3rd party perspective, the model in the actual advertisement does not appear to be underweight, nor overweight. In fact, she seems quite healthy and happy – which few would disagree is an admirable goal for any girl in their 20s. Meal replacement shakes often have more calories and protein than a small meal (hence the name) – so is promotion of them promoting starvation? Is ostracizing a depiction in an advertisement because the woman looks “too in-shape”, the way to promote true body positivity?
Renee Somerfield herself told the Huffington Post that she feels the backlash against the advertisement in which she’s featured, is nothing more than another form of body-shaming against fit people. She told them, “I think nearly every ad campaign you have ever seen is open to interpretation. But saying the ad is body shaming by body shaming the image is very contradictory. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Ironically, regardless of where you stand on the matter, and regardless of the outcome, the real winner of this mess will inevitably be Protein World itself. By campaigning against an ad which a relatively small number people would have even seen, and an even smaller portion would have noticed – protesters have brought widespread, international awareness to a brand that would have otherwise remained largely unheard of outside of the UK. As the body image activists calling for boycotts of the company probably aren’t its core demographic anyway, it would be hard to call this this advertising campaign anything other than a home run. Even Protein World’s marketing boss, Richard Staveley, has said that the ad has struck a core with the company’s target audience, has proved a hit, and is here to stay. He was quoted in an interview as saying, “We now run Britain’s largest protein facility, selling our products in over 50 countries to more than 300,000 customers. Most of them are women. How could we possibly be sexist?”
Elsewhere in the world, an earthquake killed thousands in Nepal, scores of poor migrants are drowning en masse off the coast of Europe at the hands of human traffickers, and across the Middle East and Africa young women are being kidnapped in droves before being sold into sex slavery. Yet, The War of the Waistlines rages on.