That pouting blonde in the yellow bikini has attracted a lot of attention. Nothing new there. But the row about Protein World’s poster, “Are you beach body ready?” has had a lot more coverage than she has in the poster. Apparently it’s offensive. I really can’t see why it’s more offensive than a Dove ad.

How can I say that? Dove and its campaign for everyday beauty has been hailed as some sort of feminist icon. It challenges the narrow, conventional view of female beauty. That’s a good start. The recent “doors” ad shows women having to decide whether to walk through the door headed “beautiful” or the one marked “average”. I think the message is that the world labels us, and we should be proud and confident in our own appearance. Sure. It turned out it was all a set-up, planned and executed with actors – even after their years of campaigning work, the Dove team didn’t expect women to march through the “beautiful” door. That’s not surprising. They’re not the only ones trying to shape our idea of beauty. In that context, I welcome Dove’s challenge to the mainstream view of beauty. But a range of products focused on improving a woman’s appearance can hardly be held up as a paragon of feminism. There’s an implicit presumption that everyone should see themselves as beautiful, that walking through the “average” door is proof of lower self-esteem, and that Dove is fighting this. That’s ok, but isn’t it healthier to be comfortable with your own appearance, ordinary as it is, than to have to believe you’re beautiful too?

Protein World sets a very high standard. Dove takes a more relaxed view of what is beautiful – smart of them to do this, as it admits more women to their hallowed halls. What these two brands share is the endorsement of the world view that women are judged on their appearance, and must work at it. They are both school of the Daily Mail rather than Spare Rib.

In the flurry of tactical responses to Protein World, did you notice that while the women were generally more cuddly than the original, they were all pretty good-looking? Still no room for plain girls or less than perfect teeth. Of course I see that Dove is also about self-confidence and self-esteem, but it still leads with the idea that physical beauty is the goal for women. All it’s really doing is allowing for slightly bigger clothes sizes, while Protein World is encouraging smaller ones. Obesity and the health problems it causes are a major cost in the NHS. Dare I say, isn’t there some value in encouraging people to have a healthy body weight? Turning a blind eye to obesity isn’t any more responsible than pushing everyone to be a size zero.

A survey of Marketing readers came out 85% not offended, 15% offended by “beach body ready”. Even the 15% are probably finding the brand’s position on female beauty problematic, rather than actually being personally offended. You might disagree with what the brand stands for, but a difference of opinion is not inherently offensive. In my view, it’s definitely less problematic than a page three spread, or, for that matter, a Daily Mail story about the dilemma facing middle-aged women trying to stay trim, which inevitably makes their faces thin too, headlined “Your face or your figure?” Neither of these is doing anything for the physical health or emotional wellbeing of women.

I don’t have a problem admiring the female form. That model in the yellow bikini is gorgeous. Let’s just agree she’s winning the bikini battle, and move on.

Comment | May 2015