Why The "Beach Body" Ads Didn't Surprise Me

This is the ad campaign that’s been causing a stir on the London Underground lately. 

It’s prompted angry responses from female journalists, campaigners and ordinary women all over the UK. There was a bikini-clad protest in London’s Hyde Park, and some choice graffiti on the posters. Across the pond, plus size model Ashley Graham hit back with her own version of the ad. The advertising watchdog is now going to investigate the campaign, and decide whether to call time on it. 

Of course, Protein World CEO Arjun Seth wasn’t taking it lying down. Anyone who criticised them on Twitter was accused of “fit shaming” and jealousy – because obviously, we all know we want to look like that really. The ever-charming Katie Hopkins weighed in, calling objectors “angry chubsters”.  Model Renee Somerfield, who appeared in the ads, felt that she was the one being body shamed, but I think she missed the point – nobody was angry at her, we were angry at the men behind it. We’ve left the ‘90s Loaded culture behind – women are no longer happy to have men dictate to them what they should look like, and women of every size on the clothes rail came out fighting.

I wasn’t surprised by the ad or the reaction to it. I’m a woman who enjoys exercise, sport and physical activity, and it’s long been a bugbear of mine that if you go to the gym as a woman, it’s automatically assumed that you’re trying to lose weight. It happened to me only a couple of weeks ago in fact. I took a class at my gym, and was chatting to the instructor afterwards. He was helpful at first, suggesting some exercises I could do to help a shoulder injury I’m struggling with. But then, he began making comments about my weight. He even said to the friend I was there with “A lot of people would look at her and think, her problems are because she is overweight.” 

 “Weight loss isn’t my goal right now” I said to him, through clenched teeth. “I’m actually just happy that I can do things again after a long illness, so I want to focus on my fitness and strength.” 

If he heard, he sure didn’t listen. He kept telling me about all the things I could do to lose weight. This was a real, live version of the Protein World ad – basically being told by a fitness industry professional that the way I look is not acceptable. He might have got my custom as a personal trainer if he’d talked to me about biomechanics, or things I could do to improve my strength and endurance after a long absence from training. But of course, because I’m female, all I want is to be skinny – what would I know about actual fitness? 

As it happens, a fair bit. Two years ago, I was training for the London 100 cycle race. I’ve been a mountain biker for the last 7 years or so, and I’ve taken part in a three-day adventure race in the Pyrenees. I know what it takes to train for a sport – mountain biking in particular is very physically demanding. I’m not stupid either – I’ve been cycling long enough to know that I’ll be faster on the bike a few pounds lighter. However, experience also tells me that focusing on the weight loss and not the training doesn’t produce results. It’s no good being skinny and looking “beach body ready” if you’ve no muscle power to get up the hills on your bike. And FYI, Protein World’s pea protein smoothies won’t get you up any hills either – the only running you’re likely to be doing is to the bathroom, but hey, at least if you’re stuck in there, you’re not eating any cake. So you get that beach body whilst sitting around doing nothing! Bonus, ladies!

And while we’re on the subject of the latest weight loss snake oil, model Renee Somerfield has admitted that she owes her figure at least in part to “good genes” so even if you guzzled the stuff night and day, you still probably won’t be “beach body ready” in their eyes. If you are, like me, 5’5, brunette and prone to being apple shaped, you’re not going to morph overnight into a leggy blonde Amazon by the power of the pea.

There are exceptions to the rule of course, and I have been lucky enough to work with one or two trainers who actually cared about the things I wanted to do with my body, rather than the way it looked. But in general, I don’t think the fitness industry has yet embraced the idea of women who want to be fit for the sake of being fit, rather than as a tool for improving their appearance. If anything, this is what the “Beach Body Ready” campaign has highlighted, and I think the industry has a long way still to go. 

 

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