2015 marked a watershed moment in body image perception. But are we reaping a fitter harvest in 2023 or has something sinister taken place?

Are YOU Beach Body Ready?

For a time in 2015, every social media login made you think you’d disturbed a nest of livid hornets. Daring yellow-and-black images swarmed and settled on the digital patio, previously populated with reminders to vote in the General Election. In this disorientating experience, the hornet stripes aligned to spell out Body. Beach. Ready — the few abstract words that reached one’s consciousness amid the uproar.

And what provoked such a furore?

An advert that seemed to think women should be banned from beaches unless they resembled glamour models from the pages of lads’ mags.

‘ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? demanded the black-and-yellow poster, its letters glaring at you like the ominous gates to a haunted castle or the subject line of a dreaded email. In the foreground, a sleek young blonde woman without an inch of superfluous fat, stood provocatively promoting a ‘meal replacement’ product for Protein World. The advert prompted widespread graffiti, a social media backlash, a petition with over 70,000 signatures and a demonstration in Hyde Park with the words: ‘F**k you Protein World’ scribbled over the bellies of semi-clad female protestors.

The Protein World advert attracted innumerable defacements that evoked Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen if you replace ‘Everybody’ with ‘Women’ and ‘Sunscreen’ with ‘Bikinis’. And so by public consensus, the haunted gate bars were resoldered to read: ‘Every Body is Beach Body Ready.

After all, the public space is not some ’90s Baywatch audition. Why should women conform to what is for many an unrealistic body type standard? The responses were numerous and shrill. Some attacked the policing of women’s bodies, calling it ‘bullying’ and making women into a ‘commodity.’ The wider #EverydaySexism was also underscored. ‘No one stands like this’ reveals one angry graffiti, referring to the model’s suggestive pose. Another comment demands that Protein World ‘Stop encouraging women to starve themselves.’ And my personal favourite: kindly ‘F**k OFF’.

Slowly, the haunted gates closed. The ghost was exorcised. The dreaded email turned out to be Junk. And the angry hornets dispersed.

A minor resurgence occurred when watchdog ruled that the advert fell short of being ‘offensive’ —  to the dismay of BEAT, the eating disorders charity. But the furore eventually calmed and collective anger mellowed into a unified vision for body inclusivity and understanding. This prompted Sadiq Khan to pledge to ban body-shaming adverts from the London Underground as part of his 2016 mayoral campaign on the basis that they can ‘demean’ people, especially women. All’s well that ends well, then.

A Culture of Denialism?

Protein World’s 2015 campaign was out of touch given the roots of body positivity. Dove’s 2004 Real Beauty campaign was a winner for showcasing the different faces of beauty. The model and writer Sophie Dahl enjoyed a successful career as a plus-size model in her twenties and thirties. In other words, strides had been made that cemented a healthier body image.

Since 2015, exercising, unless we’re talking yoga, martial arts or something with a history connected to mental wellbeing, has slowly turned into a form of taboo. It’s safe to say that doubts are being raised about the health benefits of many previously accepted facts about exercising. With body inclusivity, a culture of denialism about the health benefits of regular exercise has slowly risen.

Novelty signs read: ‘PUSHING 40 IS ENOUGH EXERCISE’ and ‘My favourite exercise at the gym would probably be judging.’ These have largely replaced references to the girls at the gym that peppered ‘90s adverts. The Mash Report comically framed exercise as ‘painful’ and futile, saying: ‘experts ha[ve] confirmed that however often you go to the gym, you are all still definitely going to die.’ Amy Schumer’s 2018 film I Feel Pretty shows an extremely awkward protagonist in no way benefiting from the gym. Ed Sheeran’s 2017 song ‘New Man’ describes (again, male gaze, but hey) a woman who becomes unfaithful and superficial as soon as she starts ‘hitting the gym’ — and eating more healthily, for that matter. Aisling Bea’s stand-up routine ‘What is Fat-Thin?’ culminates in her reluctantly doing Zumba; an exercise known to improve heart health and blood pressure. It echoes the witticism, ‘‘Pilates?’ I thought you said ‘Pie and Lattes.’

Of course, such comic takes are not meant as absolutes. They’re there to tickle our senses in the complex web of human experiences. But comedians, musicians and the like read the room. They produce what they believe will best resonate with their audience. So there must be a market for this anti-exercise mentality. Kudos to them for identifying it, but is it really a healthy message to promote?

It’s not just women’s exercise habits that have been satirised, either. While women have been shamed and belittled for choosing the superficial pursuit of beauty, the fate of men has been far more sinister. Toxic masculinity and being objectionably right-wing are just some of the verbal darts thrown at men who exercise. If that isn’t enough, the most problematic character of recent cinema, the Joker, is an idiosyncratic dancer and psychopath.

Why Has Exercise Been Demonised?

When it comes to physical activity, the World Health Organization recommends ‘150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity […] per week.’  These statistics are echoed by the NHS, which counts ‘brisk walking’ as a moderate activity. If stars and companies were subverting a dangerous and extreme exercise culture, their slights and protestations would be understandable. As it happens, not much is being asked of us in order to keep fit.

Despite the documented benefits of regular exercise, such as ‘lower risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers,’ as well as improved sleep, better musculoskeletal health and reduced dementia risk; a counterculture of anti-exercisers has flourished. Some people argue that undertaking exercise makes no difference to their weight or physical shape. However, there could be medical reasons for this such as hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or sleep apnea. Currently, 1 in 3 men and 1 in 2 women do not exercise enough. Perhaps, if more people undertook exercise such problems would receive greater attention.

There are 2.3 million people living with CHD (congenital heart disease) in the UK alone and over 20 per cent of adults are physically inactive. This begs the question: should we be perpetuating the message that ‘exercise sucks’?

One would have hoped that by improving body shape diversity, we’d have gained a better understanding of what a healthy body looks like for different body types. Instead, the reverse seems to have happened thanks to our complicated relationship with airbrushing.

After Girlguiding UK’s 2008 campaign against falsifying women’s bodies, severe airbrushing has largely been erased. Since then, a number of countries have signed the ‘Digitally Altered Body Images Bill.’ The proposed bill was highlighted in a viral video showing how models are mere stand-ins for their computerised selves. However, every iPhone now comes with the tools to digitally ‘enhance’ photos and many of us can’t get enough of them. Our preference for image-enhancing technology has resulted in the near extinction of the ‘bad photo.’ Indeed, why bother exercising when there’s Photoshop to augment your physique in seconds? This ability to manipulate one’s image removes the pressure to keep in shape and creates a dangerous precedent for closing one’s eyes to the facts. The illusion conveniently trumps reality. But no amount of airbrushing can remove heart disease risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and nerve damage. Many of these risks result from insufficient physical activity.

Ironically, those who dismiss exercise or trivialise its benefits can usually afford to pay for any adverse consequences of taking their own highly questionable advice.

Body positivity and inclusivity? Yes, please! Accepting that nobody should be a slave to the scales? Absolutely. Denying the medically-proven benefits of exercise because it’s easier than keeping fit? No, thank you. And with that, I’m off for a run.

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