AS PRETEENS on family holidays in Cyprus, my cousin and I used to stage photo shoots on the beach. These weren’t professional photo shoots, but we acted as though they were, pulling poses we borrowed from magazines and music videos. We stuck our hands on our hips, flared our arms out, jutted our legs back, held our chests forward, and stuck our heads up in the air, proud. Sometimes, we’d try more ambitious poses, balancing on slippery rocks or playfully running along the shore, dipping our feet in the Mediterranean with our sarongs flying in the breeze behind us, as the camera shutter blinked. This was around the time Destiny’s Child was still a girl group, Beyoncé and Jay-Z did “Bonnie and Clyde,” and Jay-Z still used a hyphen in his name. This was also around the time I last felt good in a bikini. Looking back at old photos of my cousin and I, everything about our shoots was ridiculous, from the exaggerated poses to the wide-eyed, pouty-lipped facial expressions we thought made us look cool, but neither of us cared how we looked then – even if our little bellies stuck out above our bikini bottoms, or our thighs rubbed together; we were having fun. And then we grew up.
I started looking at my body differently when I was 14. It seemed to have suddenly changed; I’d started my period and with it came larger breasts and wider hips. I began weighing myself regularly, and paid closer attention to the clothes I wore, and how I carried myself. I heard women who I admired and, I thought, looked gorgeous call themselves “fat,” and noticed how men paid more attention to thinner women. I saw that the women who appeared wearing few clothes on the covers of magazines and had the leading roles in films were all pretty and thin. I began getting undressed behind a towel in the PE changing rooms at school so the other girls wouldn’t see me naked, and pulled in my stomach as best I could during swimming classes. At 16, I played Adelaide in a youth theatre production of “Guys and Dolls.” In one scene, I had to strip down to a leotard, suspenders, and stockings under the glare of a spotlight. Each night, I worried about what the audience thought about my body, and compared my shapely figure to those of the other girls on stage. The adrenaline of performing helped take some of that fear away, but that scene still made me more nervous than any other.
Throughout my teens, and now into my 20s, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with body image, concerned with certain “problem areas” I hadn’t really looked at before. By “problem areas” – a silly term I picked up from a glossy magazine to describe body parts that ought to be whittled down until they’re no longer visible – I mean my upper arms, lower stomach, wide hips, and thighs. In an effort to get rid of these, over the last few years, I have: paid for expensive gym memberships; applied overpriced firming and anti-cellulite lotions; joined a slimming club; committed to a demanding diet that made me feel faint, and once almost pass out at work; and cut carbs from dinners. I’ve spent a lot of money and time – more than I’d care to admit – on my appearance.
Recently, my friend and I spent a day on the beach in Connecticut. We didn’t stage a fake photo shoot (that seemed like a better idea in the early 2000s), but we sunbathed, talked for hours, and sipped cold beer in the sea. Still, I wasn’t comfortable in my body, or in my bikini – a red, white, and blue print ensemble that I bought last summer when I was a few pounds heavier. Next to my friend’s lithe, tanned body, I felt frumpy and unattractive. Moving around on the beach, I was acutely aware of all the areas on my body I’ve come to think of as problems, worried about the slightest jiggle or wobble of flesh, and how the pouch of fat on my stomach and the patterns of cellulite on my inner thighs looked. I know it’s vain, and I was annoyed with myself for fretting about these things that don’t really matter, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them – despite the fact that it was just me, my friend and her husband, and one of their neighbours’ dogs on our stretch of the beach. But I swear that dog was judging me.
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Of course, I’m not alone in feeling insecure about my body. A 2004 study, commissioned by the beauty brand Dove, asked 3,200 women between the ages of 18 and 64 and across 10 countries to choose a word to describe their appearance. Just 2% of the respondents considered themselves “beautiful.” It’s worth mentioning that more women chose the words “attractive” (9%), “feminine” (8%), “good-looking” (7%), and “cute” (7%), but these still constituted a mere 33% of the results. The fact remains: most women aren’t confident in their appearance.
It doesn’t help, then, that there are advertisements like the recent one for Protein World’s Weight Loss Collection – which consists of Slender Blend (a “low calorie, high protein meal replacement shake”), Slender Blend Capsules, and Multi Vitamin Capsules – designed to make women feel ashamed of their bodies. You’ve probably seen the poster, of a very slim blonde woman (model Renee Somerfield) wearing a very tiny yellow bikini next to the words: “Are you beach body ready?” Notice that she is not smiling. Probably because all she’s been eating are protein tablets. (As I write this, I would like to point out that I’m eating a very delicious chocolate chip cookie.)
In April, two brilliant women in London, Fiona Longmuir and Tara Costello, responded to the advert by tweeting a photo of themselves standing in their bikinis in front of the poster on the platform of a London Underground station. “You’re goddamn right we’re beach body ready. Exactly as we are.” See! These women have bodies, and here they are in bikinis, ready for the beach. Voila: beach bodies. The photo went viral, and following its success a “beach party” was held in Hyde Park, where Londoners came together to show off their beach bodies – which we all have, simply by virtue of having bodies – in British weather. Some plus-size fashion retailers got in on the cause, too, launching campaigns with a similar aesthetic to the Protein World ad, but encouraging a healthier attitude toward and acceptance of women’s bodies. Swimwear brand Swimsuitsforall reacted with a poster of plus-size model Ashley Graham in a black bikini against a yellow background, and put forth the question, “Are you ready for this beach body?” (It reminds me a bit of the line, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” in Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious”; the world was ready for big booties then, so why not fuller-figured women now?) Then Simply Be released its #SimplyBeKini campaign, starring plus model Jocelyn Corona posing in another black bikini on another yellow background next to the slogan: “Every body is beach ready.”
Around this time, yet another image surfaced online of three average-sized women wearing bikinis, marked with the Dove logo in the bottom right-hand corner. “Yes. We are beach body ready,” it reads. While Dove has said publicly that it wasn’t responsible for the image (and though it agrees with the message that all bodies are beach-ready), the image’s anonymous designer clearly wanted Dove’s name on it. Perhaps the beauty brand’s name is appropriated here as an act of admiration, or maybe it was intended to highlight the importance of responsible advertising in the beauty industry; where Protein World’s message is lose weight to be desirable, Dove’s advertisements celebrate the beauty and diversity of women’s bodies regardless of their shape and size. Whatever the designer’s motive, the image ties together ideas about body image, the beauty industry, and standards of advertising that are worth thinking about. Simply Be’s creative director Ed Watson talked about some of these issues in a statement. “We have a responsibility as retailers to be representative in our advertising and that means using an array of body ideals that are achievable,” Watson said. “While the Protein World model, Renee, is undeniably beautiful and I’m sure very healthy, it is irresponsible to project something that is largely unachievable as the ideal.”
As big-name brands wrangled with the Protein World ad, commuters on the London Underground took to posting stickers over the ad with empowering words like, “FUCK YOUR SEXIST SHIT;” over 70,000 people signed a change.org petition to remove the poster; and 378 people formally complained to the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency, calling out the advert for being “socially irresponsible” and promoting a culture of body-shaming. The ASA investigated the matter and, for a time, mandated that “the ad could not appear again in its current form.” Yet, as of a ruling dated July 1, the agency decided not to uphold the issue. From its ruling:
“Although we understood the claim ‘Are you beach body ready?’ invited readers to think about their figures, we did not consider the image of the model would shame women who had different body shapes into believing they needed to take a slimming supplement to feel confident wearing swimwear in public. For that reason, we concluded the ad was not irresponsible.”
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I had seen the Protein World poster online and read about the growing campaign against it in the UK, but given the backlash there, I didn’t expect to see it on billboards and in subway cars in New York City. When I did see it on the subway, I felt betrayed – by Renee Somerfield, the bikini-clad model who had been paid to make women feel bad about their bodies; by Protein World, whose products exist to make women smaller; and by the MTA for putting up the ad in the first place. And then, admittedly, I felt jealous. For the duration of the ride, I thought about my own problem areas, how I’ll never look like the Protein World model, and how I’d kill for abs like that. I’m aware that Protein World wants me to feel this way so that I’ll buy its products (I won’t), that this of kind of thinking is incredibly shallow – I know there’s more to life than a flat stomach and toned arms – and that this entire campaign is designed to make women doubt their bodies. And yet, here I am doubting mine.
The reaction to the Protein World advert hasn’t been as loud here as it was in the UK. Though some feminist groups like National Women’s Liberation and Redstockings have been putting stickers printed with “This Oppresses Women” on the poster, along with other body-shaming ads to make a public statement about how certain companies are grossly shaming women into buying their products to “correct” their bodies. Other New Yorkers have scrawled body-positive responses like “ALL BODIES ARE BEACH BODIES!” over the ad. Such doodles and stickers effectively rewrite the campaign’s message by using its eyeball-drawing power to go against the very idea it peddles: that women’s bodies need to look a certain way in order to be “ready” for the beach, and perhaps for the world.
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Unfortunately, Protein World’s isn’t the only asinine advertisement that exists to make women feel inadequate. Also on the subway, you might see a breast enhancement ad with a woman holding fruit to her chest to show her transformation from sad oranges to happy melons. There’s an ad for butt enlargement surgery with a tiny-waisted woman wearing tight jeans and nothing else, arching her back to flaunt a Kardashian-sized rear – the ad doesn’t bother showing the rest of her. And earlier this year, there was another breast surgery ad that zoomed in on a gigantic pair of breasts in a bikini top, strands of peroxide blonde hair framing the cleavage, while the rest of the woman was inexplicably cut out of the picture. The message in these last two advertisements is clear: the rest of her isn’t important.
Ad campaigns like these sometimes amuse me because they’re so ridiculous, but most of the time, I find them seriously disturbing and degrading – especially the images of women’s isolated body parts. These ads are the most problematic, because they not only make it look as though a woman’s breasts or butt or whatever isn’t attached to her (and this, weirdly, is meant to maximize a body part’s appeal); they also physically take women’s bodies away from them. By isolating one body part, these bodies are no longer the property of the women pictured, but rather become ours to look at and judge as we please. While I don’t think that people absorb images like sponges, but rather filter them and choose what to pay attention to, I do think there’s power in repetition: seeing the same kinds of images over and over again can make the culture they promote seem acceptable. In their multitude, ads targeting women’s bodies in a negative way pose an unhealthy way of thinking about physical appearance – instead of embracing a variety of body types, these advertisements portray women’s figures as commodities made up of different parts that can be customized and tweaked to create a sexually desirable, impossible whole. Tina Fey perfectly exemplifies this dilemma in her manifesto of badassery, Bossypants, where she writes:
“Now every girl is expected to have:
Caucasian blue eyes
full Spanish lips
a classic button nose
hairless Asian skin with a California tan
a Jamaican dance hall ass
long Swedish legs
small Japanese feet
the abs of a lesbian gym owner
the hips of a nine-year-old boy
the arms of Michelle Obama
and doll tits.”
Debora L. Spar expounds upon this idea in her book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. “Again and again, women are being told – promised, really – that their bodies are mutable, that they can be bent and molded into different, better, shapes,” she writes. “Like accessories, bodies are things we tinker with, things we buy according to fashion and discard when they no longer please us.” Advertisements for plastic surgery procedures and dietary supplements often make similar promises to women; they tell them they can be beautiful if they make a change, a sacrifice. Amy Schumer parodied this reality perfectly in her “Swanks” skit, a commercial for a kind of butt enhancement surgery that squashes women’s breasts down and around into their bottoms, “causing minor internal bleeding and major external hotness.” Schumer’s bloody butt-boosting method demonstrates how shifting beauty standards dictate the ways in which many women nip and tuck their bodies, even when the cost of such surgery is potentially fatal. Women will literally kill for a hot body.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that plastic surgery or going on a diet is wrong, or that any person who chooses to change their body should feel guilty or ashamed for doing so. However, body-altering measures – whether it’s going under the knife or on the latest juice cleanse – are increasingly beginning to feel less like personal choices and more like requirements to feel accepted and attractive. “If we could only lose five pounds, women tend to think, or have larger eyes / rounder breasts / silkier hair, life itself would change,” Spar writes. “Better body, we repeat and pray, better me.” It’s this kind of thinking the Protein World advert elicits and perpetuates, that makes some women not want to wear a bikini in public, and sells protein tablets. While I’m guilty of sometimes buying into this kind of thinking, I’m also aware that it’s complete bullshit. And I think most people are smart enough to realize that ads like Protein World’s promote an unrealistic body type and lifestyle. But I do think the fashion and beauty industries need to take more responsibility for the messages they’re sending to women about their bodies, and that they should be more honest in the ways they depict them.
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Everyone seems to have an opinion about women’s bodies, and they’re often not afraid to share them. The first time someone commented on my weight I was 10 years old. I was in Cyprus again, this time at the home of a distant relative, where a distant relative told me cheerfully that I was getting “a big belly.” I was outraged and embarrassed, totally shocked that she had said this to me at all, let alone in front of so many people. On the drive back, and later in front of a mirror, I examined my stomach and wondered if maybe she was right. My mother assured me that I wasn’t getting a big belly and explained that unfortunately this is what Greek relatives do, and I shouldn’t take it personally. As angry as I was, this seemed like a reasonable explanation at the time, plus I was young and had more pressing things to worry about, like which member of the Backstreet Boys would I marry, and so I got over it. But a similar situation now, in my 20s, wouldn’t be so easy to overcome.
Recently, a drunk man stumbled into the laundromat where I was waiting for some clothes to dry. He was clutching greasy takeout food, and began talking to another guy there about the baseball on the TV screen, and then, after noticing me sitting nearby, about my “thick thighs” and “big tits.” He came up to me and started talking to me, took my hand without my permission and wouldn’t let me have it back as he tried to sweet-talk me. “Why are you being like that? I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said, when I continued doing my best to ignore him. He asked if I was married, and I lied and said yes so he wouldn’t bother me. I hate that he seemed to think, if I wasn’t married, that I should be interested in him, that my body’s there for him to talk about in public, loudly, and for him to look at and touch as he pleases. I hate that I couldn’t just sit there and do my laundry, that not one of the other three people – all men – in the laundromat did anything, and that I had to call my boyfriend and ask him to meet me and sit with me so I didn’t feel afraid.
* * *
Am I beach body ready? By Protein World’s standards, definitely not. Of course, by real life standards, I am beach body ready whenever I take my body to the beach. I still question my figure whenever I look at myself naked in the mirror, or step on the scales, or wear a bikini in public. But I’m slowly beginning to feel more comfortable in my skin. I try to remember how I felt when I was younger, when I didn’t think of my body as a collection of problem areas and instead thought about all the things I could do with it – like run around on the beach with my cousin, and climb rocks to make silly poses on them, and dance to Destiny’s Child songs. Our photos were never perfect, but in them we were always happy.