What is a bikini body? It’s a phrase peddled out year after year, perpetuated by diet marketing teams and women’s mags alike. Yet, in actuality, it’s an abstract concept – one that’s about as sensical as the term “shoe foot” (and I’m yet to see a billboard posing the question: “Is your head hat ready?”). Still, those two little words cause untold anxiety to women every summer because, while the concept is abstract, the image attached is concrete: thin, white, able-bodied femininity.
“In recent years more than a few big industry names have picked up body positivity like it’s a dribbling toddler they don’t know what to do with.”
Over the last ten years, the fashion world has – willingly or not – undergone a whole host of changes. Social media has ignited large pockets of body positivity that have now spilled into the mainstream. Where once the world was subjected to Victoria Secret’s annual parading of lingerie-adorned ultra-thin Amazons, the VC show has since been cancelled and the ‘real catwalk’ reigns in its place. Still, fashion brands ultimately have one goal: to sell their product. In recent years more than a few big industry names have picked up body positivity like it’s a dribbling toddler they don’t know what to do with.
Adidas are the latest to join the ranks with the launch of their “My Body My Swim” ad campaign, fronted by Maya Jama. The campaign asks questions like – “who decides what a normal body looks like?” – while promoting swimwear that’s designed to “fit every body”. Within hours of its launch, social media was alight with backlash. The irony had, apparently, not dawned on the campaign’s creators that their advert preached rejection of normalised standards, while setting very limited parameters in its own representation.
It seems the industry has switched from “sample size” to “any size” so fast it’s given itself whiplash. A bit like the outburst of branded feminist ads in the 2010s, companies have capitalised on the body positive angle as if it were just another trend to increase sales prospects. In the majority of cases, it’s clear that little time has been taken to truly hear the struggles and perspectives of those with the diverse bodies these brands claim to represent.
I like Maya Jama and dont blame her for taking the Adidas job because work is work and we are all trying to get our bags.
But this new collaboration under the pretence/guise of ‘body positivity’ is the very reason why body positivity is trash and benefits acceptable bodies.
— Stephy (@StephanieYeboah) June 26, 2020
I spoke to the co-hosts of Women in Power – plus-size model Bethany Churcher, and presenter, mother and podcaster, Heba – to get their take on the campaign. Heba told me that while she was happy to see an attempt at “being mindful of different bodies” Adidas could have taken more steps “to reflect the current population in the UK”. It’s a sentiment echoed by Churcher, too: “As beautiful as all of these women are, they are all either slim or of average build. None of these women would face the daily struggle of a fat person, or a person with a visible disability.”
This is one of the ongoing issues associated with branded body positivity, the models used all too frequently fit the mould of acceptability, and so hold little sway in changing society’s standards. Charlie Hooson-Sykes, the plus-size blogger behind Gin Filled Bluestocking, points out that, “body positivity has it’s roots in queer bodies, fat bodies and disabled bodies”. She says that while the movement was originally created for and by people with visibly marginalised bodies, “it’s since become diluted with bodies that are already considered normal”.
And that’s the rub. Adidas have taken a concept based in inclusivity and used it to represent bodies that, for all intents and purposes, would not face out-and-out size discrimination in the real world. Vicky Jarman told me how alienating this can be: “I’m a plus-size woman, […] and I can’t say I identify with a single person in their campaign.” Of course, an added layer of irony exists in the case of Adidas, as sports brands have been infamously bad at offering plus sizes. Jarman adds: “I haven’t seen any product development that supports their message. Back in 2016, I ran the London marathon and finding suitable sports wear at size 18 was ridiculously hard, I’m larger than that now, and it’s near impossible.”
With few successes, and many disappointments, it’s easy to wonder what role – if any – brands have to play in body positivity. In an ideal world, societal standards would surely be trailblazed by people, not corporations, and yet in reality this rarely seems to be the case. It’s no secret that the media plays a huge role in shifting perspectives, so, like it or not, it seems the choices that brands make will continue to have a real-world impact.
“There’s an argument for brands in bo-po – they have money and power […] though of course we have to remember that, at the end of the day, they are brands, looking to make money,” explains Hooson-Sykes. Brands also, surely, have a duty to represent their customers. If Adidas are going to carry larger swimwear sizes, they’d do well to reflect that in their ads. “Brands have a part to play in supporting their audience, including demonstrating a wider cross of consumers in their visual imagery,” says Jarman.
Whatever way you flip it, there is a clear and undeniable hunger for diversity in branded imagery and products. As Heba points out, this goes beyond the mere surface level; it requires “making room for [all] types of consumers”. Heba highlights plus-size people, disabled people, hijab wearers, and BAME groups as key areas in need of representation for any brands that wish to take their body positivity seriously.
That in mind, are there any brands getting things right? ASOS, Savage X Fenty, and Nike are three names gaining increasing traction for their foray into larger sizes, as well as the featuring of un-airbrushed images across their websites. Of course, there is also another unlikely name to have drawn acclaim of late: Calvin Klein.
Historically, Calvin Klein’s ads have been nothing but fuel on the fire of unrealistic body ideals. However, the brand has since taken a u-turn in its imagery and direction. “Recently Calvin Klein used a plus-size, black trans woman on their ad campaign – now that is body positivity and, more importantly, inclusivity,” says Churcher. The ad certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed in the plus-size community, Hooson-Sykes, says: “I’ve loved seeing Calvin Klein move into larger sizes and share images of a queer black body on a giant billboard in the USA. Of course, how much of this is a publicity stunt, only time will tell.”
Doubtless, the success of such campaigns will be integral in inspiring more. After all, brands are only interested in two things: awareness and the money that follows. Adidas’ lukewarm effort reflects an issue in the bo-po movement at large. “Straight-size influencers are the reason that many are moving away from body positivity […] and into fat acceptance,” says Hooson-Sykes. While consumer reception undoubtedly has a role to play in brand progress, there are also important conversations to be had on the ground. At its heart, this movement is, (and should always be), about one thing: representation for marginalised bodies, and radical acceptance above all else.
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