Beach Bodies and Women’s Movement

By Emma Husband, Staff Writer 

A poster for a weight loss protein formula has stirred up a storm over the past couple of weeks.

The poster, featuring a slim female model and the words 'are you beach body ready?' against a glaring yellow background, will no longer appear in its current form due to concerns about its message.

Assumedly, the aim of the advertisement campaign was that women would look at it, think ‘no I’m not ready because I don’t look like that’ and then buy the product in a bid to lose weight.

Inciting fear is a common tactic used by advertising firms to build on people's existing fears, and create new ones, in order to persuade them to buy a product that will 'protect' them from perceived harms or the unknown. Hence the massive increase in sales of SUV- type vehicles in the aftermath of 9/11. While there is evidence to suggest that these vehicles are actually less stable and more likely to tip over, the perceived sturdiness provides a comfortable, controlled, and closed off environment.

In the case of a lot of advertising to women, the fear created is largely that they are not attractive to men. Being the object of male desire is the manufactured end and women who do not fit in the narrow parameters of what this constitutes are encouraged to feel fearful and ashamed.

Women being made to feel bad about themselves in order to sell products is a time honoured tradition in consumerist culture. While the beauty industry is diverse and cannot all be tarred with the same brush, it benefits greatly from women's insecurities to the extent that women pay more for the same products than men.  

The ProteinWorld poster seems no more damaging than the millions of other images consumed on a daily basis over the internet, in magazines, and on TV. So why the furore about this particular image?

The protesting has marked a shift in the normal objections to women and advertising; normally the worries revolve around the objectification of the woman/women in the adverts, but we are now seeing recognition of the potentially objectifying effects on the women consuming it.

Women perceiving themselves as both subjects and objects, where one experiences oneself as an agent but simultaneously experiences the almost constant acknowledgment of being an object, was spelled out most eloquently by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex.

Since then, some work has been done which expands into how this affects women's comportment and movement in the world. Many women comport themselves to make themselves smaller due the knowledge of themselves as objects in a world dominated by the male gaze and internalised gender expectations about how women should behave and how much space they should take up. Other women, because of their class, race or both, fall outside of the realm of this small and quiet feminine 'ideal' and are oppressed through gendered expectations about their bodies in different ways.

This poster immediately positions women as objects, this time it places them on a hypothetical  beach, and deems them 'ready' for this decorative role only when they fit the conditions of pleasing observation.

So while the reception around this particular campaign has been polarised as a question of fit vs fat shaming, this does not tell the whole story.

The campaign does something beyond saying you should lose weight and buy this protein product; it tells women where they are and aren't allowed to move and what form this movement should take, explicitly tying this to their weight/appearance. It might as well have a photo of a beach with a sign saying 'no unsupervised swimming or fat women.'

Further than this, the limitation on women’s movement is dependent on to what extent they do or do not meet the approval of male desire. 

Many people don't consider this when they condone the poster and characterise their endorsement in terms of health ("there’s an obesity epidemic don’t you know.") Despite the fact that health isn’t equivalent to weight and health certainly isn’t about feeling depressed, ashamed, and constantly self aware of your body every day of your life, by this argument we wouldn't allow  people that smoke or have ever done anything at all damaging to their health to go to the beach.

Apparently having a female body that men do not find attractive (or that doesn't fit in with the media's conception of male desire) is the ultimate 'health' faux pas.

The constant scrutiny and policing that women face in terms of their bodies can be debilitating and the knowledge of being an object for observation and approval is something that a lot of women carry with them and are inhibited by every day of their lives.

The momentum at the moment is something that should be built on so that that the boundaries of the bodies that 'fit' in society are broadened and the full diversity of women's bodies can live and move in the world.