Turning tide of beach body tyranny
Published 04/07/2015 | 02:30
It's that time of year when we get ready to enjoy better weather at home or abroad by swimming and lounging on the beach. Inevitably, for many of us, it is a time for qualms about baring our bodies to the world at large, as distinct from routine exposures to loved ones.
Gym memberships are on the increase. And as someone who has joined many gyms over the years and not lasted very long, I can identify both with the resolve and with the attrition rates. The sad fact is that unless you are obsessively disciplined with time management, it is very difficult to keep up an exercise regime for sufficient duration to make a difference. While on the treadmill recently doing my cardio', a poster screamed: 'Life is too short to spend it hating your body.' Rather than encouraging me, it put me off. It offended me because I do not hate my body even when I have a few kilos to lose.
Health and fitness and weight loss have become a serious global industry and social preoccupation. Over the decades with better nutrition and less physical labour, we have grown in size. Obesity is now the big health challenge in the western world. Diets, slimming regimes and products have proliferated with varying degrees of success.
Thousands of women in particular sign up for weight-loss programmes and clubs to shed the pounds . . . only to gain them again when the discipline slips. Television programmes like 'Operation Transformation' have raised awareness of these weight-loss struggles. But in fairness to that programme it has successfully galvanised whole communities to collectively embrace healthy lifestyles. But while keeping fit and eating well is undoubtedly a good thing, we need to guard against the abuse of vulnerable people by those driven only by profit.
A furious row has been ignited in the UK and US about an ad campaign for Protein World's slimming products, entitled 'Are you beach body ready?' The billboards feature a very slim and bronzed bikini-clad young model. As soon as the ads appeared on bill boards, there were complaints that they breached responsible advertising standards. There were claims that the ads were 'body shaming', suggesting one had to have a body like this to be 'beach ready'. Protests were organised in Hyde Park and a petition signed by 70,000 people called for the ads to be removed on the grounds of taste and decency.
As it turned out, the Advertising Standards Watchdog cleared the ad but separately ensured no re-run of them because of concerns over the weight loss and health claims related to the product.
'Beat', the UK eating disorder group, expressed disappointment at the ruling. Protein World was bullish and unrepentant and declared the campaign a "brilliant success" based on the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Over in New York, when the campaign was launched, similar protests followed and many of the ads were defaced with clever one-liner stickers such as "This oppresses women" emblazoned on the models non-existent tummy area.
Beyond the marketing controversy, serious issues arise when promoting weight-loss products. Globally, over 60 deaths have been attributed to slimming pills and weight-loss products purchased online and which can have devastating consequences for those who take them.
The first Irish fatality was reported last month of a young man who died having taken a slimming product containing dinitrophenyl (DNR).
This was after an official alert had been issued in April by the Irish Health Products Regulatory Authority (IHPRA) over the use of such pills following the death of a young English woman, Eloise Aimee Parry, who had taken a toxic dose of the same product.
The IHPRA has repeated its warning about the dangers of buying medicines online, in particular slimming pills. "No amount of these products is safe to take, said Pat O'Mahony, Chairman of the IHPRA. Body image and obsession in the media about how women look and the sexualisation of girls at an increasingly younger age has long been a concern of the women's movement and feminism.
Ironically, young men are now being exposed to similar body image pressures. It was heartening to note that as part of the National Women's Council (NWC) "feminist futures" conference this year, there was a distinct focus on body image and young women.
The year-long campaign, 'Through the Looking Glass' involves a group of young women asking challenging questions about the relationships women and girls have with their bodies and how popular culture perpetuates unrealistic ideas of 'beauty'.
Studies are showing how negative body image affects self-confidence, mental and physical health and ultimately the capacity of young women for leadership.
Since January, workshops and other connections are being made with schools and girls' organisations to spread the message and discuss challenges. They are examining whether body image is a tyranny, holding back women and compromising their self- esteem and ambition.
Sarah Clarkin, of the NWC, argues "research shows that women and girls hold back from participating in everyday life due to body insecurities. The obsession with how women look undermines the spectrum of what women have to offer and impacts hugely on how we engage with the world."
Anyone who has witnessed the scenes of 14-year-old girls, scantily dressed, tottering on heels and made up like catwalk models en route to teen discos and beyond have at some point pondered on these gender-based norms and cultures.
There is a risk of course of being overly po-faced on this issue.
Most young women come through the tyranny of image relatively unscathed.
But if we are serious about equal opportunity and fostering leadership for girls, and of reducing eating disorders and other insecurities, these body image conversations need to be had.
'Through the Looking Glass', as a campaign, focused on 16 to 24 year olds and involves surveys and a major young women's congress in December.
It is useful in mobilising a public debate among young women on a critical, contemporary issue.