There has been uproar recently over advertisements posted on the London Underground by the food supplement company Protein World. The image featured an athletic blonde model and asked the question: Are you beach body ready?
The response to the image has been overwhelming, and the whole fiasco can be perfectly summed up in this Buzzfeed article.
The point now is to unpack the myth of the beach body. Much like Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth, the beach body also seems to me to be a myth. Why do we keep investing in these myths? Sandra Bartky and Susan Bordo are two scholars who work with femininity and body image (make-up, eating habits and so on), and for them, these ideals are a disciplining mechanism used to make women ‘docile’ (drawing from Foucault). According to them, such discourses function to maintain the patriarchy.
On the other hand, we have more contemporary discourses of post-feminism that emphasise empowerment, loving your body, sexual agency, and consumption. Part of post-feminism is about renouncing the second-wave feminism kind of stuff and focusing instead on makeup, dress, exercise and dieting as forms of empowerment and self-expression.
The point is not about what women and men should look like; I believe that each person should be free to choose how they want to feel about their bodies and how their bodies look. Conversely, however, we still seem to read lots of articles about eating healthily, exercising for summer, and getting into that swimsuit. Why? I decided to ask some of my friends why someone would invest in having a ‘beach body’, or not. The answer that struck me the most was my friend Richa’s, she does not personally care about having a beach body but instead talked about the way we use social media. In a world where everyone is always updating, always posting, sharing and liking, people feel the need not only to be visible, but also to receive validation of what they have uploaded on the internet through social media sites.
This got me thinking about Instagram statistics and research. Many scholarly works cite Instagram as the most used photo-sharing app so far with hundreds of millions of followers. In an interesting article titled “What we Instagram: A first Analysis of Instagram Photo Content and User Types,” the authors outlined eight different categories of photos uploaded, and five different kinds of users. The eight types of pictures are: ‘friends,’ ‘food,’ ‘gadgets,’ ‘captioned photo,’ ‘pet,’ ‘activities,’ ‘selfies’ and ‘fashion’. Selfies and friends were the two most popular and most uploaded kinds of pictures. This is also not surprising as ‘Selfie’ was coined 2014 word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary (!). Visuals, pictures, and selfies are certainly having a moment.
However, this is far from saying that people consume media without contesting it. The huge backlash against Protein World shows that a lot of women – and men – are confident about how they look and refuse to conform to the ‘ideal’ set by the media. Instagram could also be read as a more democratic form of media, where the images are not dictated by fashion, beauty, and dieting conglomerates but rather about people sharing their own experiences and shaping different trends through hashtags. One example of a different kind of media is the Swimsuit for All campaign with the catchphrase: Beach Body. Not Sorry. This is obviously reminiscent of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. There are many more examples of women and men resisting messages in the media through their daily lives and choices, not to mention what they post on Instagram.
However, it is still important to remember that Instagram offers filters –ways of tweaking the world, and other programmes such as Photoshop offer other ways in which Instagram users can modify their pictures. Some scholarship has found that users of social networking sites also tend to conform to similar ideals, such as normative masculinity. It would be extremely difficult to gage the conformity levels of users on Instragram (this discussion could be a full dissertation!). In my personal opinion, people have realised the unrealistic images that used to be in the media, and have come up with their own or have found other ways of responding to it.
So: does a beach body exist? It certainly exists on Google. Any search with the words ‘beach body’ will tell you that many magazines, books, blogs, news outlets have tips, tricks, exercises and diets for it. Yet judging from the backlash against the Protein World advertisement, people are also much more aware and vigilant about their own body image and everyday practices. The beach body exists – but maybe it is no longer what we used to think it was.