The inspiring young feminists who took back the beach from Protein World

The women proving that to have a "beach body", you just need to take your body to the beach.

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The day-to-day business of being a feminist involves a lot of sighing. Take the past couple of weeks, for instance, when London commuters have been subject to advertisements from Protein World asking women if they’re “beach body ready”. 

The posters have received widespread criticism everywhere from Have I Got News For You to Hadley Freeman's column in the Guardian. More than 70,000 people have signed a petition on change.org calling for their removal, saying the advertisements seek to make people “feel guilty”.

But some of the most glorious moments in feminism happen when a woman sees an attempt to shame her and goes: “Oh, you don’t like it when I do this thing I'm doing? Then I’m going to do it more. And I’m going to invite loads of other people to do it, too.”

So to Hyde Park, where Tara Costello, Fiona Longmuir and Juliette Burton have organised an event to “take back the beach”. After Tara posted a photo of herself giving the finger to the Protein World poster on the tube, Fiona contacted her over twitter. “We thought it’d be fun to say, of course you can look like this, she’s beautiful - but you don’t have to look like that to be beautiful,” Fiona tells me.

The pair photographed themselves standing by the poster in their bikinis and posted the pic to twitter, where it quickly got hundreds of retweets. “But then,” Longmuir adds, “we realised we’re only two body types. We decided to get as many different looking people as we could.”

Photo by Fiona Longmuir.

They proposed that others who were similarly disgusted with the Protein World message gather in their swimwear at Speaker’s Corner in London's Hyde Park, hoping to prove that you don't have to change your body before you can be comfortable in public. Both were surprised at the level of the support they received as the idea quickly went viral.

Unsurprisingly, there's also been some backlash. “Oh my gosh, yes,” says Longmuir when I ask her her about it. “There’ve been so many comments on my body it’s ridiculous, but it’s just kind of . . .” — at this point, she trails off; over my left shoulder, a group of women are approaching with a huge inflatable banana.

Tara Costello takes over. “When we were taking the photo I knew I’d get the worst [criticism], because the kind of society we’re in thinks if you’re not a size 10 you’re automatically fat, unfortunately. The surprising thing was that people e-mailed me really long, hateful things. That was the thing that took me aback. Wow, you actually took the effort to hunt down my e-mail and do this.

Juliette Burton, who has suffered from anorexia and believes that advertising like this can exacerbate mental health problems, has called the last week a "steep learning curve". The brand replied to her on Twitter when she criticised the advert and others quickly piled in, calling her the "definition of insanity" and an "ugly dyke".

Protein World reply to Juliette Burton.

 

Protein World's CEO even called the women “terrorists” - but the turnout here, where there must be a hundred women, suggests plenty are glad someone spoke out.

The people I meet cite all sorts of reasons for being there, but all of them are tired of sexist advertising. Some of the first to arrive are from Fourth Wave, a new feminist activist group in London. “We just think everyone should be able to go to the beach,” one of them tells me, laughing a little. “Not to be a supermodel, fine, but surely the beach should be alright.”

Protestors in Hyde Park. Photo: Fiona Longmuir

It’s clear that for many the adverts affected them personally. Lottie, who has come along with her mum Alison, explains that she’s had an eating disorder for ten years and is “pretty bored” with this sort of marketing. “I’m bored with having to put up with it, with not having any support. So we’ll support ourselves.”

Saffron Skye also suffered from an eating disorder when she was younger. “Seeing this advert everywhere telling girls it’s better to be skinny: I couldn’t stand for it.”

Plenty of men have come along too. For John from Bristol, it was his two young daughters that prompted it. “The whole body image thing you see in the media today isn’t really fair on them, or women in general.”

One group of teenage girls also note the demands placed on young women. “Because we’re all thirteen and fourteen, there’s a lot of pressure on our bodies at the moment,” one of them tells me. “We belong to a feminist group at school, and when we talked about body image it really struck us how upset everyone is with their bodies. We want everyone to accept that they’re beautiful, and this event is a step forward.”

Her friend agrees. “Yeah. Everyone could find one thing they hate about their bodies. It would be better if people loved themselves for who they are.”

Their solution? “Everyone should feel comfortable. You shouldn’t have anything you feel insecure about. Just live.”

If this is the next generation of feminists, I think as I get back on the Tube home, I give this sort of advertising ten years - tops.

 

The petition continues on change.org. Juliette Burton's live show 'Look at Me' is about body image and mental health. You can watch the trailer here on YouTube.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.