Last month Sadiq Khan, a British-born Muslim and member of parliament, was elected Mayor of London. This week he announced a ban on “body-shaming” advertisements in the city’s public transport system, starting next month.
No, it’s not what you think – “creeping sharia law”, as some have suggested. In fact Mr Khan’s objection to certain ads seems to have nothing to do with Muslim – or any other — modesty norms, although it reasonably could have. He has merely kept a mayoral election pledge to ban ads that encourage “unhealthy or unrealistic” body images. And he did so to the cheers of thousands who agree with him.
The backstory is this. In April last year Londoners using the city’s public transport network were confronted with hoardings advertising weight loss pills, a product of fitness brand Protein World. Staring seductively out of the billboards was a very slim young woman in a yellow bikini; ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? the ad demanded.
A furore broke out on social media and 378 complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority – a tame watchdog which eventually ruled that the ad was neither offensive or irresponsible, enraging complainants even more.
Meanwhile Protein World’s ad appeared on #eachbodysready defaced with counter messages (two women in bikinis posed in front of one in the Underground advising: “How to get a beach body: take your body to the beach”) and a change.org petition has racked up more than 71,000 names.
Protestors were outraged at the message that a woman has to look like a 20-year-old model to be fit to be seen at the beach – or perhaps anywhere. A more serious concern was the effect on the body image of young girls, who are known to suffer poor self esteem or even fall into anorexia in their anxiety to conform to commercial images of womanhood.
All very right and proper. But isn’t there something missing from this and similar campaigns? Are body shape, size and general condition the only issues we should have with the sport of “body shaming”? Would women’s dignity be adequately served by something like the Dove ads of over a decade ago showing “realistic” female bodies in their underwear?
No. Because these images exploit something more fundamental to women’s dignity than their shape; they objectify and debase women as such. A woman on display in a barely-there bikini (even to make a point about body shaming) is cheapened. The human body is made for self-giving love, and for most women this meaning finds its fullest expression in motherhood; but the Protein World ads and everything like them turn the female body into an object to be stared at and perved over and envied; into a mere sales pitch.
That’s what is most infuriating about the commercial world’s attitude to women, but the money men won’t change unless women themselves name the real problem. On the whole, in this instance, it appears they have not. But a few have.
One is the student who started the online petition, Charlotte Baring. In a comment on the change.org blog following Mayor Khan’s announcement this week she said:
“My petition was not just about this advert, but the wider issue of the treatment of women (and sometimes men) in the media. Sexualised images shouldn’t be a normality, especially in such public places.
All of the work and support for my petition has been amazing, and I hope that people think twice when they see this type of image in the media, and that people will associate it with the bigger issue in society.”
And another young woman added:
Creepin sharia? Not at all. I am a young, very slim, white (Christian) girl but it is obvious that these images are purely sexist and demeaning to women.
Women’s bodies are not a commodity.
Thank you Sadiq Khan, for stopping the exploitation of women
Khan’s statement, by contrast, avoids the sexualisation issue. He said in his announcement:
“As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. It is high time it came to an end.
“Nobody should feel pressurised, while they travel on the Tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies and I want to send a clear message to the advertising industry about this.”
Okay as far as it goes, and perhaps Khan can be forgiven for not giving Islamophobists any more of a reason to murmur about sharia law. But the thousands of non-Muslims who protested about the beach body ad do not have that excuse. Let’s hear it loud and clear: “Sexualised images should not be a normality.”
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet