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What would the banning of body-shaming advertising actually look like?

London mayor Sadiq Khan has plans to ban bikini-body ads from public transport. But perhaps we just need to change what those bikini bodies look like, says Harriet Minter

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By Harriet Minter on

As someone with zero talent for art, I’ve only once felt called to pick up a pen and engage in a bit of graffiti – when I first saw Protein World’s infamous “beach body ready” advert on the Tube last year. I can still remember how it made me feel: instant white-hot rage quickly followed by humiliation and shame. So, you’d think I’d be thrilled with the recent news that Sadiq Khan wants to ban body-shaming adverts from the Tube – but I’m not. Rather than asking TfL to set up a committee that just enforces existing advertising regulations, and makes sure that agencies know Khan is watching them, we need to campaign for a wider range of bodies – all shapes and sizes, ages and races. More diversity is what advertising needs, not more censure. 

One of the first things you’re taught as a girl who’s a perfect 10, but wears a 16, is that you should either be hiding your body or changing it – you definitely shouldn’t be happy with it as it is. I used to walk around convinced that everyone was watching and judging me, convinced that it only mattered what my body looked like, not what it could do. The thing that most shocked me as an adult was realising that my size-eight friends felt exactly the same way. It’s not a feeling I would wish on anyone and I salute Khan for trying to find a solution to it, but he’s going in the wrong direction. 

Much as we’d like to think that the simple answer to our society’s self-hating culture is to ban a few things, it’s far too late for this to make a difference. Children in the playground know that “fat” is an insult, retailers don’t promote their plus-size ranges because they can’t believe we’d ever see it as aspirational, and recent research from Dove showed that 90 per cent of women who feel unhappy with their body are likely to shy away from seeing their friends or loved ones. When, on a recent holiday, I got into an argument over sun loungers (don’t ask; I promise it’s not a regular thing), my opponent’s way of winning was to try and shame me into silence with, “Well, you’re clearly going to need two of them!” She went after my physical appearance because, particularly for women, that’s the thing we’re supposed to care about the most.

Rather than censoring our advertising, I want Khan to demand that it reflects the diversity of London’s population 

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As Dr Carolyn Mair, psychologist at the London College of Fashion explains, our reaction to advertising isn’t just us responding to seeing someone thinner or more toned than us – we’re also responding to what that advert says about our place in society: “Harmful fashion and media imagery are not only those which depict the thin-ideal. They are also those which objectify women (through sexualisation, for example) such that the viewer sees their own body simply as an object to be viewed by others, rather than a functioning element of their being. Recent research has found that the majority of images tend to show the model in a static position, rather than doing something. The images therefore say, ‘Look at my body’, rather than, ‘Look at what my body can do’.”

It’s no coincidence that the This Girl Can campaign was so successful – it’s been viewed more than 37 million times on YouTube. How blissful to not only acknowledge but to celebrate that, at the end of a spin class, you are a literal hot mess. Finally, a campaign that wasn’t about what your body looked like, but what it could achieve if you pushed it. Tanya Joseph, from Sport England, puts its success down to a frankness about women’s bodies: “It think a lot of it is about honesty. This Girl Can doesn’t use the idealised and stylised images of women that we’re all so used to seeing. Instead, we celebrate women of all shapes, sizes and abilities sweating and jiggling as they exercise and managing their fear of judgement.”  

The result was an extra 1.6 million women exercising – I was one of them. The effect it had on me was almost instantaneous. Much like I’d always wanted to look like one of the 5ft 10in size-six catwalk models I’d been surrounded by, I now wanted to look like the sweaty but triumphant girls I saw powering through their chosen sport. The more I embraced what my body could do, rather than what it couldn’t be, the more comfortable I grew with it. 

I had the same reaction when, in the aftermath of the Protein World advert, my Twitter and Instagram feeds filled with young women in their bikinis, proudly showing off their perfectly imperfect bodies. These images weren’t aspirational – they were inspirational. Here was a body confidence that didn’t require purchasing a specific cream or pants that crushed your ribs. All you had to do was decide you were happy with yourself and you were good to go. 

As model Naomi Shimada told me, “There’s never been a more pressing time to force advertising to diversify in all ways... Adverts don’t stop when we get off the Tube – they’re everywhere. Imagine if London could have some authority over this, could create a new perspective in terms of advertising. We’d be a power house.” 

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should run provocative body-shaming adverts just in the hope that they provoke an “aha” moment in every man and woman out there, but wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of banning a certain type of body, we started embracing every body? Rather than censoring our advertising, I want Khan to demand that it reflects the diversity of London’s population. Maybe if it did, then some other girl won’t have to wait until she’s 33 to realise that her body is magnificent and powerful, and should be celebrated. That’s the sort of campaign I’d vote for. 

​It's #BodyHonestly week on The Pool and all this week, we will be discussing our bodies, and how we feel about them


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