It’s definitely a reason to be cheerful. In Devon last week, people were on the beach in actual bikinis (I was in my boyfriend’s shorts as I’d packed a little pessimistically). Flip flops were flapping well into the night, despite plummeting evening temperatures (I couldn’t feel my feet) and everywhere the glow of red faces that hadn’t seen the sun for about seven months warmed the streets. Spring has indeed sprung, with an early hint of summer.
Arriving back to London, I was brought back to earth with a bump. Underneath the exuberant smell of early barbecue smoke, something more sinister has raised its head. On my way back from a book reading (yes it’s a massive plug, click here for details) I was greeted by the sight of an enormous woman in a bright yellow bikini, not a blemish or blobby bit anywhere, and the highly accusatory tagline, “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” Fantastic. No doubt the gyms are already full of sweaty women, images of themselves in a pretty dress or said bikini looming large in front of them (the name escapes me but I do remember another ad campaign based entirely on this premise, as if reducing your risk of heart disease or, you know, preventing early death were simply about a quest to look good). It would be so lovely if the arrival of a few days of sunshine could be greeted with a walk in the park, a glass of wine outside a cafe perhaps, rather than a mad dash for the juicer or a new gym membership.
It seems horrifying that such a blatantly sexist advert is still allowed in this day and age. And yes, it is sexist. Having recently devoured How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (If you haven’t, you should) a lot of complex issues are reduced to some wonderfully simple questions. One being, ‘are the boys doing it?’ And in this case, no, of course they aren’t. While I am aware that there are plenty of unrealistic representations of men’s bodies, the tone is rather different. I don’t see them being practically screamed at from a billboard by a giant headless woman for being a lazy cow and daring to let your figure morph into some sort of hideous slop that self-respecting people don’t want paraded in front of them while they’re trying to defend their ice cream from a marauding seagull. I don’t appreciate being told I can’t wear what I like on the beach unless I’ve substituted real and natural food for some protein powder that turns you into a fart machine. Believe me, I know.
It is ridiculous that we are still subjected to such a narrow ideal when it comes to beauty. I am aware that they have a job to do and a product to sell, but it is so all-pervasive I find myself swayed by it even when I am aware of what it is doing. I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Personally, I stare at her flat stomach and thighs, an area of personal concern, while others will look at the round boobs or the narrow top of the arms. And it gets everywhere. I restrained myself from protesting to someone on the train that I’d actually been for a run, when I overheard comments about obesity while I was eating a Mars bar on the tube (have you noticed? Women hardly ever eat chocolate in public). The impact of this stuff is too important to be understated. A frightening study recently found that being underweight could drastically increase your chances of dementia. This does not surprise me. Bouncing on and off fad diets, starving yourself, juicing, eating nothing but carrots and kale, none of these options is going to give you the right amount of nutrients in order to secure proper brain and body function. It reminds me of that bit in Bridget Jones’ Diary, where she had genuinely forgotten that calories were necessary, rather than people just being greedy and breaking their diets.
Not to mention the psychological strain it puts us all under. I was incredibly moved by a TED talk which discussed the impact body image can have. It questioned all the things that women could achieve if they weren’t worrying about how they look. I know I’d get a damn sight more useful things done if I neglected my hair removal routine, or didn’t spend twenty minutes deliberating over what to wear, or whether or not to eat a creme egg. I could have sorted out world hunger by now. Or at least learned a language. Maybe figured out how to make scones that rise. It wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t perpetuating this crap ourselves. Just this week Pink had to defend herself to abusive comments about her weight (some of them couldn’t spell which cushions it a bit) and Kelly Clarkson has also been criticised for daring to stop constantly worrying about how her body looks. All of which continues to support the notion that a woman, first and foremost, is defined by her external looks. Enough is enough.
So what is to be done? In sync with the fabulous Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet in The Guardian, I think it’s about time we stood up to these companies and made it very clear that we are sick of being bullied by their lazy excuse for advertising. Next time you see something that is encouraging you to feel ashamed of how you look, do something. Tweet about it (including the brand), mention it to a friend, put it on Facebook, take a picture on Instagram, anything that allows the message to be disseminated as widely as possible. And then the question can be turned on its head, asking them if they are ready to stop disgraceful and sexist body-shaming to make a few quid.
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