Whenever I see anything that implicitly or explicitly suggests that I need to get my body into the right shape for it to be “beach ready” I want to scream! The policing of bodies, suggesting that some bodies are so unsightly that we should keep them covered in public places, like on the beach, throws me into a fit of sadness.
That’s why I had a “yes!” reaction to the news that London, England’s new Mayor Sadiq Khan has banned body-shaming ads from London’s transit system. This image (minus the “BANNED” stamp) comes from the ad in the news item I saw:
Many of the women whose comments I saw on the post reacted similarly — finally, a guy who “gets it” or at least has advisors who get it. By “getting it,” they meant he gets that these ads, though they may seem innocuous, have a harmful impact on women’s self-images.
All the positive responses came from women: 109 “likes” and “loves” on the story when we shared it on our Fit Is a Feminist Issue Facebook page (108 from women); 13 shares — all from women or women’s groups. 11 “likes” and “loves” on my own FB timeline share (10 from women). The initial few comments on my own timeline, again from women, were all along the “he gets it” lines.
Men don’t have the same “hallelujah” reaction. I’m going to generalize and say the reason for that is that the issue just isn’t close enough to home for most of them. So (and nothing against the guys because I’m also a philosopher and so I move in those circles where people step back and try to look past the gut reaction at the “issues”) it didn’t take long for not one but two male friend to say something along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing here), “banned? really? what if he had different views and wanted to ban different things? do we really think that’s okay?”
In other words: free speech! Dangerous precedent!
Oh that. In my excitement about a guy in power who “gets it,” and is willing to use his power in ways that makes it clear that he “gets it,” I forgot all about free speech. And yet, despite that I take a fairly hard line against censorship and monitoring speech, it’s not clear to me that citing free speech necessarily trumps the ban. I mean, does anyone who can pay for an ad have a right to place whatever ad they like?
According to this post, the Advertising Standards Agency, a watchdog group, ruled that the ad wasn’t offensive or irresponsible. But all sorts of things that are actually offensive and irresponsible pass muster. Have you opened a magazine lately? Looked at a billboard? Gone to a movie?
Others say that rather than “getting it,” Mayor Khan just thinks women should wear more clothing than the bikini model in said ad was wearing. I don’t know what the source of that hypothesis is or what to make of it.
But the question of whether we actually want mayors making decisions about which ads are appropriate and which aren’t gives me pause. It forces me to think about whether there may be other, less precedent-setting means of putting a stop to the apparent social-acceptability of body-shaming through media in public spaces.
For sure this whole bikini-ready bullshit has to stop. But is a decision from the office of the mayor the way to go? What are the alternatives to an out and out ban?
One alternative, which actually did gain quite a bit of traction and is probably the reason the ad came under such public scrutiny, is graffiti. People can scrawl counter-messages on the ads. Like this:
And this, calling out everyday sexism:
Despite that some people have been calling it vandalism because it defaces an ad that the company paid for, this kind of rogue counter-messaging makes a point and invites people to think.
Of course, it can also invite backlash and vitriol. Like this:
Despite the prospect of backlash, adding a counter-narrative to combat and challenge the dominant message might actually have more power than an outright ban. Why? Because it gives people something to think about. That can force people to engage more than they would if a government decree removed the catalyst for debate from the public domain. Maybe, just maybe, dominate attitudes will shift when enough people start talking about it. That’s philosopher John Stuart Mill’s idea in On Liberty, when he argues that in open debate the truth will prevail. (We philosophers are such idealists–but we cling to that idea of the truth prevailing).
Besides marking up existing ads, I’ve seen quite a few examples of different messaging that engage directly with the original ad in a clever and compelling way. This approach effectively challenges a prevalent attitude — that some bodies aren’t worthy — with a more body positive message — that every body is beach ready.
Finally, we can put pressure on companies who promote those ideas to change their ways. How? As consumers we vote with our wallets — don’t buy the product(s). Let the company know why. Don’t support anything that perpetuates the message that only some bodies are beach ready.
Of course, there is such a thing as harmful speech. Mayor Khan claimed that he called for the ban because the “are you ready for the beach?” image and message does, in fact, harm women. That’s a progressive line of thought for an elected politician holding office to promote.
Feminists have claimed for ages that representations of women in the media contribute to and promote sexist oppression. Not only that, they perpetuate extremely harmful and hateful attitudes about bodies perceived as overweight by the narrow normative standard so many people appear to embrace.
More than that, and this ad is a case in point, besides being slim, the vast majority of women depicted as “the normative ideal” are young, non-disabled, and white. So you can throw ageism, ableism, and racism into the mix along with sexism.
Is that enough to ban the ads? I doubt it. Unless we want to start prohibiting a huge proportion of depictions of women in popular media–in advertising, magazines, movies–the argument that the images promote poor body image, racism, sexism, and ableism, as valid as it may be, simply has consequences too sweeping for me to embrace. And yes, it’s a sad comment on our popular media and culture that the consequences would be so sweeping.
I applaud Khan for speaking out publicly against the messaging in the offending ad–and I think that’s why so many of the women I know had an initial positive reaction to this news item. But the heavy-handed approach is, frankly, kind of scary in its further implications for the use of government powers to limit speech.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating free speech as an absolute and unlimited right. And I don’t think anyone who can pay for an ad necessarily gets to post it. But I do feel fairly confident in the view that this is not the sort of thing we want city mayors or even government committees making executive decisions about. It’s great when we agree with their decision and it’s based on a socially progressive attitude. But what happens when we don’t and it’s not?
Meanwhile, altogether now:
How do we get beach body ready?
1. Have a body.
2. Go to the beach!