There has been outrage in Britain over an ad campaign for a weight-loss supplement that features a nearly naked, hard-bodied blonde model and the slogan, "Are you beach body ready?" The model looks gorgeous, of course – nothing wrong with that. But many have taken offence to the implication that a very slim and fashionable body like hers is the only sort of body a self-respecting woman ought to take to the beach.
Female protesters have responded with humour, posting pictures of themselves across social media posing with the ad, often stripped down to their underwear looking distinctly un-fitness-model-like, with the slogans "How to get a beach body? Take your body to the beach," and "This is what a beach body looks like."
So far, the Advertising Standards Authority has received more than 300 complaints, and more than 40,000 people have signed an online petition asking that the ads be taken down. There was even a protest march in London's Hyde Park at which hundreds of young people (mostly women) shivered in their bikinis under banners blaring "Take back the beach!"
As the organizers explained on their Facebook page: "If having rippling abs is your thing, more power to you. I bet you rock them. But I'm so tired of it being an expectation – the idea that your body should be covered up and hidden away if it doesn't meet these bizarrely specific requirements."
And it is tiresome. My body's not perfect, never has been or will be. And, like most women, I vacillate between doing my best to take care of it and generally feeling like, "Ugh, crop tops are back again? Now that I'm nearly 40, can I stop pretending to care?"
The problem is, I do care. I do want to look beach-body-ready; and, by that, I mean slim and strong and healthy. But I also deeply resent how my brain has been trained into berating my body for the way it looks (which is, of course, in part my own responsibility and in part the result of genetic factors beyond my control). Like most women, I'd be wise to spend more time digging in the garden and less time agonizing over carbs and core strength.
But it's difficult to care less about something that so clearly obsesses the larger society we live in.
The debate over how feminism intersects with beauty and body image seems to continually rear its controversially coifed head. It's something we argued about in university (should Gloria Steinem really wear so much mascara? What can Naomi Wolf possibly know about The Beauty Myth when she is so clearly beautiful?), and we're still arguing about it today.
Hot Feminist: Modern Feminism With Style and Without Judgement, a new book by the British style writer Polly Vernon, opens with the line: "I ain't gonna lie. I think about the way I look. Like: a lot." It then proceeds to explain to readers why it's absolutely possible to be a good and proper feminist and be a little obsessed with the state of your upper arms.
This is true. I know women with fabulously sculpted upper arms who have helped to repeal Canada's abortion law. There are fine women sitting in Parliament right now and in corporate boardrooms who think about their hair. Like: a lot.
But here's what I'm wondering: What would happen if we all just cut back on thinking about it quite so much? I'm not saying that we should stop plucking our mustaches and sprawl around the house all day eating sour cream and onion chips. But what if we gave ourselves a bit of a break and obsessed about our looks, say, 50 per cent less? What if we thought about our bodies enough that we'd make sure to leave the house looking good, but not so much that we'd ever end up in a heap of dresses wailing "I look awful in everything!" before bailing on the party?
There are some people I know who adopt this very reasonable attitude toward their looks. You may have even met one or two of them. They are called "men." And many of them look absolutely gorgeous to me. It is worth noting that they generally manage to do so without feeling any pressure to wear makeup, high heels, hair extensions, nail polish or crop tops. And ladies, I think we can learn from this.
Female beauty ideals are fragmenting. We now have successful plus-size super models, transgender models and models with rare skin pigmentation conditions. Joan Didion, a hot babe at 80, is the ethereal face of Celine. We know that there are a zillion different ways for women to look beautiful.
Protests such as Take Back The Beach are refreshing because they highlight the madness of our thinking, but ultimately the girl in the bikini with the slim, hard body is not to blame. And, in the end, more women saw and compared themselves negatively to her because of the protest.
You might even argue that such protests do more for purveyors of weight-loss supplements than they do for women because of the sheer exposure. The company that posted the ads, Protein World, repeatedly tweeted back its thanks for the "huge support" with the hashtag #beachbody and, in the end, it did not take down the ads.
And really, in a free society, why should it? If making-other-people-feel-badly-by-comparison was a reason for censorship, we'd have to take down the Internet.
The trick for women wanting to feel better about themselves is to do what most smart, healthy men do. We need to spend less time hating our bodies and more time loving them. We don't need to stop caring about the way we look, but we do need to obsess about it less. Like: a lot less.
Do that and I guarantee you'll be ready for the beach.