What I love most about figures is their ability to tell a story. Take Renee Somerfield’s figure, for instance, the focal point of Protein World’s new advertising campaign. Somerfield’s 5 feet and 11 inches of tanned, lithe flesh has, in the past fortnight, stood for everything that’s wrong with society.
“Fuck the patriarchy,” some say, “and the constant objectification of the female body.” “Down with body-shaming!” say others. And, perhaps most oddly of all, “end violence to women!” cries a voice at the back. Uniting the angry masses is a Twitter hashtag: “#everybodysready”, devoted to telling the bullies at Protein World who’s boss.
But the figure that I’m most interested in is a numerical one: despite what some might construe as the poor judgement, Protein World’s sales figures have tripled in the past week.
“This protest,” says Richard Staveley, the currently-gleeful CEO of Protein World, “has been absolutely phenomenal for us.”
The delusional Brits, eh. We’ll tweet something acerbic, and then go home to cry into our exercise balls while accessing the Protein World homepage. Because – and here’s another telling figure – three-quarters of British women admit to being unhappy with their bodies.
Most of us cannot ever expect to emulate Somerfield’s figure – and yet few women would mind waking up with it. Which suggests to me that – and as a journalist this is hard to admit – the numbers truly speak louder than words.
The people have spoken, or rather, whispered: British females do not feel beach body ready, or even confident enough to walk past a billboard of a professional model without acquiring a temporary case of Tourettes. But they are prepared to pay a retail price of £62 on meal replacements in order to get closer to their body ideal.
This is not to say that we should discredit the public’s more “public” reaction to the advertisement. The glaring yellow and black of a wasp, the Protein World billboards hold a deadly sting for the exhausted commuter, whose mind is most likely more focussed on what to microwave for dinner rather than how to hone the perfect beach bod.
What is equally jarring about Protein World’s campaign is that it is unfashionable. “Skinny”, as we all well know, is passé. This is the decade of wellbeing. The state of being thin is now more acceptable as a pleasing by-product of weekly yoga sessions rather than an end in itself.
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” proclaimed waif-like Kate Moss in 2009, hoisting up her Calvin Kleins over protruding hipbones. But now, suggest wellbeing warriors, nothing feels as good as healthy feels. “It’s absolutely not about deprivation and starvation,” explains coltish former-model Ella Woodward, “it’s about embracing a positive, healthy way of life!”
I suggested, earlier in this piece, the two figures that don’t add up: the hatred aimed at the model starring in Protein World’s latest campaign, and the same company’s booming sales figures.
But, actually, I think this apparent chasm tells us something deeper about the nation’s body image. In the same way that a strong reaction to criticism will often be revelatory of one’s own insecurities, the female British public’s reaction to Protein World’s advertising campaign has revealed a collective notion of physical inferiority.
It has revealed that, even though we may claim to be #strongnotskinny, All About That Bass and devoted to Women’s Health magazine, we still foster an obsession with thinness that goes beyond wellbeing. Why else would the tantalising, impossible body ideal be such a trigger? We won’t admit to this self-flagellation, but we sure will invest time, money, and passive aggression into it.
Personally, my own “fitness journey” has been a bumpy ride. A sedentary, bookish child on the brink of being overweight, my progress towards my current healthy lifestyle was accelerated by others’ cruel comments and unhealthy feelings of jealousy towards other females.
However, there is a great satisfaction in maintaining and improving on a body that you are proud of – and that goes far beyond trying to emulate a Victoria’s Secret model (impossible) or trying to maintain a feeding pattern that relies on Protein World’s pills and powders (doubly impossibly).
But – and I say this as a convert – eating well and exercising regularly is a key component to one’s happiness, whether that is for feeling comfortable in a bikini or simply just relieving stress.
Lena Dunham, another unlikely convert, recently preached the benefits of her new Tracy Anderson-led fitness regime: “To those struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression,” she wrote, “I know it’s mad annoying when people tell you to exercise, and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen. I’m glad I did. It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain.”
We can’t all be Renee Somerfield, and that’s okay. She’s a model, and most of us aren’t. The Protein World advertisement is effective precisely because so many of us struggle with reconciling the extreme “perfect body” used in posters and magazine covers with our own realistic body expectations.
Some of us are more like Lena; not naturally athletic, and unlikely to ever saunter down a catwalk. But having a body and mind that you are proud of? That’s worth aspiring to. You can take or leave the beach.