The Clever Way Women Are Striking Back Against Body-Shaming Ads

Subway and bus ads for diet aids and plastic surgery are being modified with a different sort of message.

(Photo: SarahWangArt/Instagram)

Jun 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Hey, ladies: On your way to and from work, you might want to think about dropping a few pounds—or maybe getting a boob job or butt injections. Those are just some of the messages advertisements for plastic surgery or diet products send to women who ride public transportation through signs that commonly line the interiors of buses and subway cars. It seems some feminist activists in New York City have had enough. They’re slapping stickers that proclaim “This Oppresses Women” on body-shaming promotions on the Big Apple’s mass transit systems.

Over the past few months, the stickers, which are re-creations of a decal first used in 1969, have been distributed at gatherings of two NYC-based groups, Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement and National Women’s Liberation. People are then pasting the stickers to ads on trains and buses in Gotham and uploading snaps of the altered promotions to social media using the hashtag #ThisOppressesWomen.

A prime target for the stickers has been advertisements for products from the company Protein World. The advertisements feature a model clad in a skimpy neon-yellow bikini and pose the question, “Are you beach body ready?” In April in the United Kingdom, the ads sparked a protest in London’s Hyde Park and led to commuters’ defacing them across the city’s subway system.

After receiving more than 350 complaints, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority said in a statement that it was yanking the ads from London Underground trains and stations “due to our concerns about a range of health and weight loss claims made in the ad.”

Now, thanks to the “This Oppresses Women” stickers in NYC, Protein World and other advertisers are discovering that women on this side of the pond also aren’t down with being made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

(Photo: IanPaulweb/Instagram)

So, Why Should You Care? You don’t have to be Don Draper to know that much of advertising trades on peoples insecurities about their appearance—usually promising to make them thinner or younger or associating the product with young, thin models. But the pressure to have a perfect body takes its toll, particularly on impressionable girls. A full 47 percent of girls in grades five to 12 are motivated by magazine pictures to drop pounds, and 69 percent of them say those images shape their idea of a perfect body, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders. Although childhood obesity is a problem, 80 percent of girls are at a healthy weight, and only 5 percent of women naturally have the kind of perfect-seeming body type portrayed in advertising.

Redstockings member Adrielle Munger also connected the body-shaming advertisements on public transportation with the problem of catcalling.

(Photo: National Women's Liberation/Facebook)

“It’s hard to ignore [the advertisements] when you’re sitting on the subway and a guy is like, ‘Hey, baby, what’s up?’, and then you see these pseudo-naked women for the plastic surgery ads, and you’re like, ‘OK, this has to be connected,’ ” Munger told MTV News. “But then you realize the ads are contributing to how men treat you all the time, especially in New York, because it’s such a pervasive part of your life. You see these ads every single day in your face on the subway, on the street; it’s kind of ridiculous.”

Last fall a video from the anti–street harassment group Hollaback! showed a woman in New York City being catcalled 100 times in 10 hours. A recent survey from Cornell University and Hollaback! found that 85 percent of women first experienced being catcalled or physically groped when they were under 18—which can lead to low self-esteem in girls, who may believe they’re doing something to cause the harassment.

National Womens Liberation hopes to continue raising “consciousness about street and workplace harassment, sexist advertising and the connection between them,” its website states (it also includes the dates of future meetings where stickers will be distributed). So a whole lot more of these decals may be popping up on ads on Gotham’s buses and trains.