"Some people just don't know what oppression is," uttered the rather disgruntled subway traveler as he shoved through the rush hour crowd. "Beach body advertisements aren't oppressive, they're sexist." The dude couldn't have been over 25. He scanned as more of a quiet member of the Marvel universe than a bro, and because I'm not immune to human bias, I guess I felt compelled to hear him out. As he tried to rip off a "This Oppresses Women" sticker someone had pasted upon Protein World's "Are you beach body ready?" advertisements in the N.Y.C. subway, I spoke up. "Don't you think anything that tries to homogenize an entire group of people is oppressive?" I tried to go on... phrases like "beauty standards" and "diet culture" coming out of my mouth in the rambling kind of manner that happens when my social anxiety is kicking in but I have a point to make. But then he got in my face.
The unnamed antagonist proceeded to offer up a show of mansplaining so intense I could've sworn I was in the presence of a Disney fuccboi. He said things like, "The real problem is that women choose to over-sexualize themselves, and then protest when men treat them like sexual objects." "The ads aren't about beauty standards, they're about selling a product." "Oppression is a big word to be throwing around carelessly!"
I don't know where his beef with bikini body protestors came from. Maybe he knows someone who works in maintaining subway advertisements, so the defacing of the bright yellow ads offended him. Maybe he's really invested in studies about "meal replacement" and "diet supplements" and milkshakes that promise to curb your appetite for 12 hours because I guess starving ourselves for half a day is totally OK now. But as tends to be the case when entitled and angry humans get in your face and raise their voices, certain that they're some kind of visionary — able to truly see the world's injustices — he was pretty wrong.
So this is what Google has to say about oppression:
Now, I know when we think of "oppression," our minds often take us to some of the most extreme examples of human cruelty through time. We think of everything leading up to the Civil Rights Movement or the Supreme Court's same sex marriage ruling, and all the voices and faces subjugated into silence and passive existence because it took us until 1968 and 2015, respectively, to start taking truly positive strides towards progress and equality. And we're still not even close to living in equality. But "prolonged or unjust treatment or control" and "mental pressure or distress" echo the emotions I'm sure most women — and men, for that matter — experience when it comes to trying to fit into that little box of an "acceptable" beach body.
I've been to enough body positive panels, meet-ups, lectures, and speeches to know that some members of the size acceptance community believe that body shaming — and fat shaming, specifically — is the last acceptable form of discrimination in western cultures. Personally, I think discrimination of groups of people is still prevalent across the board, be it for race or sexuality or anything that defies some people's constructs of "normality." But I get where this analysis comes from. Sure, Reddit recently banned the Fat People Hate forum, whose members were responsible for bullying and tormenting hundreds of plus size men and women. But, for the most part, fat shaming possesses very few consequences for trolls.
While oppression can manifest itself in many forms, with varying degrees of vile acts involved in orchestrating and maintaining said oppression, I have no doubt that the way women are taught to think about their bodies, treat their bodies, and change their bodies falls into the spectrum of oppressive acts. Here are seven additional reasons why I believe the "beach body" phenomenon needs to go:
1. To Reiterate, These Ads Attempt To Homogenize Women
The simple message "beach body ready" adverts try to convey is: You are not worthy to be on this beach — let alone in a bikini — unless you look like the human in this photo. And the human is more often than not a cis woman below a size 6, with fair skin, light eyes, and blonde-ish hair. So... basically... the ad is telling me I need to be white, skinny, straight, and preferably blonde if I wanna waltz my ass onto sandy terrain.
Whilst this very specific look is beautiful, it's just not the only kind of beautiful. When we start claiming otherwise, we're ultimately making our world a real-life dystopia. Everyone knows that dystopian fiction — from Brave New World to The Hunger Games — tackles the subject of homogenization, and points out that it's beliefs like "we should all look the same" that get us into trouble in the first place. Besides being hugely questionable for moral reasons, this mentality is also boring A.F. Maybe Cat from Red Dwarf would love to live in a world where everyone around him looked like Cat. But most of us prefer just a tad more variety than that.
2. They Justify Shaming
Oh, shame culture. It's a beast with many heads. From people who boast, "No one will change unless you force them to," to concern trolls who use their deep preoccupation with the "deadly" cellulite on your thighs as an excuse to act like a playground bully, shame culture is real and it's pretty intense.
The reality is that if we teach people that everyone should look a certain way, some of those people will take it upon themselves to seek out anyone who doesn't look said way. They will then use their "education" about "beach bodies" to do everything from post snarky comments on Instagram to send hate mail about how they hope you die at 30 from heart failure.
Real talk: Fat shaming doesn't work. It doesn't work because trying to hurt people until they do what you want is effed up, any way you look at it. And it also doesn't work because some humans, believe it or not, don't actually want to be slender. No amount of fat shaming or beach body remarks can change the fact that people are individuals. And we all want different things.
3. Speaking Of Which, They Belittle The Work Of Those Involved In Body Positivity
There's a whole world of body positivism, both on the Internet and IRL. And it's not just a feel-good forum for a few happy fatties. It's legitimately a world — and people are living, breathing, and working the philosophies of size acceptance. So much so that careers are being crafted around these mentalities. From plus size models to fat positive activists to body positive writers (raises hand!) to body posi doctors and nutritionists who are trying to re-educate people about what it means to actually be healthy, there are hundreds — if not thousands — of people fighting the good fight to end "bikini body" ideologies.
I suppose you could say all those people are, in turn, belittling the work of the fitness instructors and weight-loss focused nutritionists trying to convince women that their bodies will be just fine if limited to 500 calories a day and a strawberry-flavored meal replacement smoothie. But it's hard to have sympathy for an industry built upon making people feel like crap about themselves — an industry that thrives on creating a flawed product so that its customers, well, re-gain their lost weight and turn to... the diet industry... which failed them in the first place.
The cycle is vicious. But it's body positive and size acceptance activists who are changing the way things are done. Their goal? To make people start feeling better about themselves. The beach body advertisement's goal? The exact opposite.
4. Subway Man Wasn't Totally Wrong: They're Sexist
OK. So subway-dude wasn't 100 percent wrong. I guess.
I believe beach and bikini body advertisements, at their core, are about aesthetics — they're yet another tool used to keep convincing people to fit into a narrow box of beauty. They are, arguably, sexist.
Telling women they should all look a certain way... suggesting only one type of body has any humanly value to it... operating under the assumption that all women desire the same things... Yeah, those are all pretty absurd constructs, and fall into the umbrella of misogyny we've been trying to escape for basically forever.
While we know "sex sells" and advertising campaigns that utilize sexy situations work often enough to keep them going, there's a difference between selling sex (something that a woman can take ownership of herself, choosing to present her sexuality in a way she's comfortable with) and selling sexism (feeding the monster that says it's still OK to tell women what they should do, want, feel, and look like). But enough's enough, y'all. This isn't the stuff the Peggy Olsen's of the world have been fighting for.
5. They Encourage Woman On Woman Snark
Many, many men have been conditioned to think it's their rightful place to judge and control women. This isn't some kind of "rhetoric for a feminist agenda" — it's truth based on the predominantly patriarchal society that's been the norm for centuries. So, I'm used to dudes — like subway man — thinking they have a right to complain about my body/lifestyle. It's always more of a shock, however, when women pull a Mean Girls and can't even use "being in high school" as an excuse for what's probably just inherent cruelty and/or social brainwashing.
When I see bikini ads, I often wonder what the model in them must be thinking. Does she realize she's insulting and invalidating thousands of other women? Does she have no ounce of solidarity in her blood? Does she not acknowledge the fact that ads like these can have someone questioning their entire existence/right to be alive? Maybe she does. Or maybe she doesn't. Perhaps she's just really proud of the body she has. It's possible that she spends hours upon hours at the gym on a regular basis, and genuinely feels more comfortable and sexy and amazing in a slender, toned body. And that's great, for her.
We should be able to show pride in our bodies. But doing so should be a right upheld by all people. Not just the ones who fit an invisible standard. It is perfectly possible to celebrate ourselves without having to impose our aesthetic preferences onto others. As we know, shoving our personal beliefs down people's throats leads to a pretty oppressive system.
6. Swapping Any Other Characteristic Just Doesn't Work
What if we were told that any other physical characteristic makes us unworthy/unloveable/unattractive? What if an advertisement suggested you need to have blue eyes to be granted entry into a movie theater? Or fair skin to be worthy of a theme park? Oh, actually, ads like that have probably existed. And we've grown to associate them with, um, Nazism, racism, ageism, sexism, and all the other -isms of the world that are or have been used to exercise bigotry.
It's not far-fetched to believe that trying to control the way women look is oppressive. Notorious figureheads across human existence have tried to control the way people look before, and over time, we've been able to recognize just how oppressive that line of thought it. Yet we haven't been able to realize that we've just re-vamped the terms under which it's OK and not OK to try to control people's physical characteristics.
Fat — any quantity of it — is just that. Not unlike your complexion or the color of your eyes or your height or the amount of stretch marks you have, fat is part of what makes your body up. Ads that try to convince us that any aesthetic trait is wrong or flawed or ugly or broken or in dire need of a metamorphosis doesn't have your best interest at heart.
7. They Feed Eating Disorder Culture
Approximately 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. 91 percent of college-aged women have tried to control their weight through dieting. And over half of teenage girls skip meals, fast, take laxatives, or self-induce vomiting.
It'd be ridiculous to deem beach body ads the sole perpetuator of our revoltingly high ED stats. There are just so many contributing factors, from the films and television shows we watch to the fashion magazines we browse to the way we're taught about health and weight from elementary school and onwards. But anything that contributes to something as genuinely tragic and dangerous as the prevalence of eating disorders and self image rooted in loathing is irrevocably an oppressive force.
We're literally starving ourselves, hurting ourselves, killing ourselves every day to fit into someone else's beauty ideal. Bodies aren't meant to all look the same. Bodies aren't meant to be stripped of their uniqueness or heritage or rolls or history, all for the sake of conforming. And they're certainly not meant to be starved and abused, all to fit someone else's standard of aesthetic allure.
For these reasons and many more, "bikini body" and "beach body" advertisements (and the culture associated with them) need to go. One simple way to ensure they do is to stop buying the products they represent — the products that are serving very little real purpose, but to fuel the kind of oppression many of us know we should be fighting against. And another way? Well, just get your body on the beach. It can be easier said than done, but owning your body, allowing yourself to love it, and then experiencing the wonders that is loving it... that's as good a recipe as any for getting beach body ready.
Now, excuse me while I take my fat belly for a stroll around the boardwalk.
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Images: Marie Southard Ospina