This piece contains material that could trigger people with experience of eating disorders or difficulties with body image. It contains language which some people may find offensive. If you think you might be triggered or are feeling vulnerable please do not read it now.
With many thanks to Emma for this very powerful and deeply personal piece.
Please note that this blog is not intended to reflect the views of Manchester Mind, but we are committed to providing an active forum for people with experience of mental health problems, and this inevitably includes reactive content.
You know, if it was just the poster I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
The Protein World advert that kicked up a fit of Tube station vandalism and protests about what constitutes a beach body (general consensus: any body with a head attached to it) by itself is, quite frankly, just a drop in the ocean of sexist, patronising aspirational bullshit that’s been wallpaper for as long as my memory reaches back, and probably yours too. We’ve all seen three dozen half naked goddesses before breakfast.
No, the poster wouldn’t have popped up on my radar. I might have done a wry little smirk of good-on-you to the girls protesting it and gone back to scrolling through my phone. I wouldn’t have wasted my time deconstructing it. Anyone with a GCSE in Media Studies could have pulled it apart in minutes, and most people with a GCSE in Media Studies could have designed a more interesting advert.
After all, it’s another picture of another woman in a bikini. It’s the lettuce in an advert sandwich on the Circle Line. Right? Right.
And when this almighty shitstorm exploded all over Twitter, the company CEO himself professed bemusement at the singling out of this ad, posting by way of a rebuttal a collage of women’s magazine covers all materially similar. Why would you even bother getting annoyed, right? Go knit a tree a wooly hat or something. God, FEMINISTS.
Nah. Where the alarm bells started ringing for me was a little further down the line.
Declaring an interest here: one of the women who objected to the original poster, and because she believes the best of other human beings felt she would be safe to do so on her own Twitter account, is a friend of mine. A good friend. One of the best, I’d venture. You’d like her. Like me, she writes through her intrepid adventures in the dark fields of Planet Insanity, with particular reference to the malicious galaxy of the eating disorder. Unlike me, she’s brave enough to do this for a living. She’s brave enough to put her money where her mouth is. And she’s brave enough to offer critical but constructive feedback to a company doing what diet product companies do, namely persuade people to spend money they worked hard to earn on something they don’t need by telling them they are fundamentally lacking as they are. I would have expected them to politely disagree. I would have expected them to defend their advert, to raise positive feedback about it and maybe even try and tell us how amazing their protein-shake-slim-magic-snake-oil-whatever is while we’re looking.
What I wouldn’t have expected, because apparently I am still in awe of humankind’s ability to find a lower place, was what happened.
It came to the attention of whoever was running the Protein World Twitter account that people were voicing some disquiet about what they saw as the advert’s contention that one’s body need be “beach ready”. The subsequent shitstorm is still raging on, has spawned at least two pro- and anti- hashtags and at my last check had even attracted the rapacious self-referencing feelers of professional menstrual cramp Katie Hopkins. Here’s the now-deleted highlights of Arjun Seth’s replies to Juliette, bearing in mind he later said he had “no idea she had an actual mental health condition” even though she explicitly said she did (see below for screen caps).
Now the problem here runs much deeper than one overblown man-child’s spiteful sneering at a woman who dared disagree with him, and it runs through both the attitude here to the reality of someone affected by severe eating disorders and the claims by Protein World’s supporters that if we don’t elevate trivia to a value judgement we’ll all become fat and unhealthy, and anyone who dares suggest they might be elevating trivia to a value judgement is merely fat and jealous, which is why, so the tweets go, they are threatened by a health product.
That, right there. We’re talking about health, right?
Protein World sells diet products. Not health products. Make no mistake about this. I had a very interesting conversation with a personal trainer friend of mine (and because that’s all that matters: yes, he is an Adonis by Protein World’s own standards) who pointed out that protein supplements would only be of any actual health benefit if you were doing the amount of resistance training concurrent with professional athletics. This would mean that far more people are buying these products than could get any use for them, or have any need for them. This is a company that exists to encourage people to spend money on things they don’t need by claiming a health benefit that a layperson would only be able to measure from visible weight loss, and they do this by suggesting that you are not acceptable the way you are.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. That’s what diet products do. They sell aspiration. They encourage you to use something for no real reason other than so they can go on selling it. But that wouldn’t shift units, so let’s make it a health industry! Snake oil in pretty medicine bottles. Laxative herbs sold in cutesy pink lettered “teatox” boxes right in the middle of Boots. Protein powder to make you “beach body ready”, as in, thin enough to dare be seen in a garment designed for displaying one’s wares (Although, you know, it’s funny: I know loads of fat girls who have never needed any help at all getting laid)
And this is where I have to look at what that company tweeted to a recovering anorexic and just say: how dare you. How. Dare. You.
How dare you dress up selling people the fear of their own imperfection as a health mission, to someone who damn near died trying to achieve what you tell us all is perfect? How dare you suggest that weight loss is a moral responsibility and then giggle at the “crazy” of people who know all too well you’ll never lose enough weight to feel forgiven?
Adverts don’t cause eating disorders. Let’s be clear about this. There are any number of factors that have to click into place for someone to develop an eating disorder. But fat shaming, body policing, and dressing up dieting as “healthy living” make it a damn sight easier to go on having one, and to justify it to the people around you. Eating disorders, all eating disorders (yes, some fat people have them too-just imagine!) breed in the silence where someone who is maybe a little bit scared that they aren’t good enough, pretty enough, nice enough, clever enough, funny enough, happy enough and replaces that with “thin enough”. When someone who has gone as far down that rabbit hole as it is possible to go and come back in one piece decides maybe she doesn’t want that rammed down her damn throat when she’s trying to get back to King’s Cross, how dare you suggest that very knowledge makes her an unreliable witness?
Arjun Seth doesn’t give a toss about the health of the nation, folks. Arjun Seth wants you to keep buying his food replacements and sucrose pills and ideas about what’s important. Because if you don’t worry about your weight he might have to get a proper job. If everyone realises that they don’t need to spend money on this load of nothing, a whole industry would eventually go bust.
Maybe some people want to buy this stuff. Good for them. There are worse ways to waste 20 quid, that’s for sure. And probably some of the people still being retweeted by the Protein World are enjoying calling people fat and ugly and fascist and jealous in the way you enjoyed telling “your mum” jokes in Maths, because they’ve never heard their own voice hissing those insults at them as they try to go about their lives. Fine. Fair enough. Whatever. But be honest. Call it what it is. Admit that you’re basically eleven years old and kicking someone’s schoolbag around the playground. Face up to the fact that you need people to feel bad about themselves so you can sell it back to them. Tell me I hate free speech, tell me if I don’t like it not to look, call me a lunatic, call me jealous of the girl in the picture, call me a drama queen, call me a whiny anorexic funsponge who needs a good shag and a hot dinner. Knock yourself out.
But don’t you dare try and tell me it’s for my own good. That particular lie is sicker than the culture the protesters were calling out in the first place.