A lot of people are going to disagree with Sadiq Khan’s decision to ban body shaming adverts, but I think it’s pretty great. There’s a world of difference between a bikini advert which is effectively saying “look at our bikinis they’re nice you should buy one” and an advert like this which says “you have to look like this to achieve the right to wear a bikini”
I also think the TfL director’s point that “advertising on our network is unlike TV, online, and print media. Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them and we have a duty to ensure the copy we carry reflects that unique environment.” is a really good one. You can’t choose to avoid an advert like this as a way of showing your disapproval of it; it’s shoved in your face all the time. When these adverts were on, there was one opposite me on the platform of Tooting Broadway every day and to be honest, it did make me feel a bit shit.
We’ve moved on from the simplistic view that thin models cause women to have eating disorders (whoever could have imagined that eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with multiple causes!). But a relentless barrage of adverts, TV programmes, newspapers, people on social media, friends, colleagues, bosses, politicians, famous people and everyone else telling you “you’re not good enough” is real, and has a real psychological impact.
It’s hard to stay feeling confident about yourself, and your choices, when you’re constantly told they’re not good enough. I used to work in a job where everyone was on a diet. My boss was a size six and lived on cottage cheese and tuna from the can because she wanted to be thinner. Everyone was on the Dukan diet. People stared when I had pasta for lunch. I used to eat my lunch in secret so that I could avoid their stares. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t want to be thin as much as they did.
One of the most insidious trends in modern life is the idea that there is a perfect way to be, which you should be achieving, and if you’re not it somehow undervalues your other achievements. You see it with everything, and the pressure is on men and women: successful entrepreneurs have to be good looking, everyone needs a gorgeous partner, beautiful children, a lovely pug, and a perfect home to be photographed in so they can tag themselves on Instagram #blessed. And for women, underneath it all “you must be thin, above all else, in addition to everything else, and no matter what else”.
I don’t need to go in to how stupid this is as an idea – anyone with half a brain can see that being thin is not in itself something of an achievement. It doesn’t make you healthier, or stronger, or better prepared to tackle life’s challenges. It doesn’t improve your relationships with friends and family, and it doesn’t make you better at your job. And yet the pressure’s on, every day, to live up to this ideal. Adverts like this are the thin end of the wedge, but it’s not the thin end of a censorship wedge. It’s a wedge that threatens to split you open, so that you crack under pressure to be perfect. It’s to knock down your self-esteem because they know that it’s easier to sell things to people who are insecure. It’s to create a need for validation where none previously existed.
A fact I love to tell people is that women never used to face pressure to shave their legs – no one thought women’s legs were hairy enough to need shaving. But during the war, the Gilette shaving company worried that not enough men were buying razors. So they came up with the idea of marketing razors to women to shave their legs. And now every western woman feels self-conscious if their unshaven ankle might peek out of their trouser leg.
Banning a couple of adverts won’t change the world, but I like the message it sends. That advertisers will have to try a little harder for their money, that we don’t want to shame people from the walls of their daily commute, that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to just go to the beach, lie in the sun (with suncream on of course), and just chill the fuck out and be who you are.