Last Saturday, I popped down to the so-called Take Back the Beach protest in Hyde Park. I wasn’t planning on getting involved myself, but I did want to suss it out. Who were these beach-ball wielding demonstrators, and what kind of political point were their bikinis supposed to make?
The event had been organised in response to a now-notorious ad campaign by Protein World. If you took the tube during April, the posters were hard to miss – they were big, brash, yellow, and plastered all over the London Underground. In the centre was a bikini-clad model, bisected by the slogan ‘ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?’
Evidently Protein World wanted you to answer “no I’m not”, followed by “I really must start preparing for my trip to Margate by purchasing Protein World’s Weight Loss Collection meal replacement supplements.”
London’s commuter-vandals, however, had other ideas. As a media storm bubbled, they scrawled on the posters ‘your body is not a commodity’, ‘I’m sick of attempting to follow an unattainable standard of beauty’, ‘everyone is beach body ready’, and the simple but beautiful ‘fuck off’. A change.org petition was started and a mass demonstration arranged.
Although the posters themselves were quietly removed by TFL last week, this didn’t affect the organisers’ plans. They decided to go ahead anyway in a ‘celebration of all things beautiful’ – they would be ‘taking back the beach’ by flaunting their bodies in swimwear, while flipping the bird to Protein World.
On the day of the protest, I went for a run in Hyde Park, carefully timed to take me past Speaker’s Corner just as things were getting underway. About 1,000 people had confirmed their attendance on Facebook, so I’d been expecting to see quite a crowd.
In truth, I could only work out where they were because of the surrounding chassis of photographers. There were a few people there in swimwear for sure, but without the hordes of journalists, they’d just have been a gaggle of overly optimistic sunbathers. And since they were all being grilled by real reporters (as opposed to opportunistic bloggers) I decided to head on my way.
Still, I’d have liked to press the protestors on what they actually wanted to achieve. If you follow the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ line, then this kind of attention was hardly going to damage Protein World.
Nah, it seemed obvious that their target was not much the company, as our visual culture at large. The ad itself was nothing exceptional; it merely regurgitated a message we’ve all heard a million times before. If you’ve ever read a magazine, or watched TV, or crawled out from under your rock, the ‘get your body ready for summer’ nonsense just sounds like irritating white noise.
In fact, if the poster was notable for anything at all, it was for its extreme banality. You might as well have a mascara advert that reads “ARE YOUR EYELASHES REALLY PALE AND STUBBY”? or a Rolex advert that reads “DO YOU WANT TO PROVE TO ONLOOKERS THAT YOU’RE REALLY, REALLY RICH?” It’s rare to find an advert with such a lazy strapline, that spells out quite how dumb it is in such an intensely literal way.
Whatever the case, it certainly became a lightning rod for people’s frustrations. And perhaps because of that, the protest seemed curiously lacking in real goals. There was no objective, no clear agenda, beyond showing up and and wearing bikinis.
If there was a political statement to be found in here, it was surely the protestors’ bodies themselves. While on one hand, it makes sense to fight images with images, this strikes me as a very 2015 kind of strategy; an Instagram-era way to exert change.
Anyway, to counteract the free publicity I’ve been giving Protein World, I should point out that their whole schtick makes no sense. Having just checked out their website, I can confirm that their Weight Loss Collection for women (95% whey protein concentrate plus flavourings) is all but identical to their Muscle Collection for men (96% whey protein concentrate plus flavourings). Possibly I should test out the men’s version, to see if the extra 1% whey makes me hench.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands