Fitness Advertisements Are Just Selling us Hegemonic Femininity on a Platter
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
By: Shreya Karnik
Wiley, Catherine. “Are You Beach Body Ready.” The Guardian, New York, 2015,
Advertisements have the power to shape entire perceptions of what beauty and health can look like for women. Worse, advertisements that are shown to young, malleable minds cause lifelong damage and promote eating disorders. By possessing the ability to swiftly reduce women to ‘caricatures of flawed femininity,’ ads easily appeal to the attention of the male gaze and the longing of those that are female. These often socially violent advertisements focus on commodifying women's bodies and presenting them with a warped beauty standard.
Similarly, when we look at fitness brands, the problem only gets aggravated. Their use of ‘fit’ women, a code word for thin, often leaves many feeling inadequate and out of place. The brand Protein World has been guilty of all of the above and more. With their provocative advertisements, that feature mainly only white women, Protein World has been able to assert that to be happy and healthy, one must also measure up to the standard of whiteness. Through the promotion of what ‘healthy’ looks like, Protein World is able to help cultivate a culture that reinforces negative body image and thus leaves women vying for a societally engineered concept of femininity.
Protein World's first advertising controversy came from an ad that they ran in 2015 (see image above). The image displayed a thin white woman in a bikini with text that read, "Are You Beach Body Ready?" The image is, of course, out of touch and entirely uncreative, but if you look closer, Protein World is not promoting a natural healthy lifestyle but rather their weight loss and "meal replacement" products. For context, these ads were put up all over New York and train stations in the UK. Meaning that hundreds of thousands of impressionable women, who already struggled with the immense pressure society puts on them to look a certain way, were reminded everywhere they went of what they might have interpreted as their 'lack'. This ad asserts that women must be sexy, thin and beautiful to enjoy themselves or be found desirable. It also enforces our perception of whom we deem to be the default woman.
There is an immense amount of discourse around the fact that, eventually advertising switches from talking about the product alone to allowing the product to function as an element of “discourse through and about objects”. So, what’s technically being sold in this image are meal replacement products, yet, that is not the larger message in the ad, both figuratively and literally. The actual product in this ad is the supermodel's body, reductionized as an object for public consumption. Through her objectification, Protein World effectively hijacks many women's brains with their false advertising and simultaneously sells them a vision to aspire to. The vision that if you take their products, you will be that supermodel: thin, pretty and white. Even though that is not true, the women who have always wanted to assimilate into white western femininity then become the targets of this ad’s violence. Unbeknownst to many women, the pictures in these ads are heavily doctored, leaving us to mistakenly award “attention to the flawless beauty that women are supposed to attain, even though they will never be able to live up to the digitally altered images of professional models.” No matter how many Protein World products some women may take, they might never fully be able to embody this ad’s message of selective femininity, therefore never be able to be seen as beautiful.
Protein World, New Year, New You!, 2016
The image above is a screenshot taken from a video Protein World shot in 2016, titled, “New Year New You.” Much like the first image, these both also feature skinny white women; however, there is a difference this time, they included one visible person of color. While this may be seen as something positive, the ad still manages to center on the white women that occupy the screen.
It is said in advertising, that the media is “wrapping up your emotions and selling them back to you.” In these pictures it is evident that the image of these women being happy due to their new thin bodies, courtesy of Protein World of course, is what we want to be reflected and sold back to us, fulfilling our desire to fit in, to be the standard. Because of advertisements like the first image, we seek the ‘comfort’ in this video: a montage of thin women acting carefree and happy on a beach. Instead of selling us a product, this video and the shots taken from it aim to sell us a lifestyle, one filled with supposed happiness. Essentially defining for us that skinny is happy and anything other than that will induce great amounts of misery. For Protein World to properly prey on their victims, they create a dynamic where “female consumers are made to feel insecure and off balance for most of their waking moments,” and thus, more willing to buy products that they see will give them the body and lifestyle they are told they need.
Protein World, New Year, New You!, 2016
The images not only breed insecurities and are, “portraying [women] as an object of the (heterosexual) male gaze” but they also construct what femininity looks like. By using models that fit within what society's standard of what can be deemed female is, Protein World further conveys the construct of gender binaries and what gender is defined as. In these two images, the women embody what society considers to be feminine; the models arch their backs and pose in a way that seeks to sexualize them, portraying “women as available and ravenous”. Only further situating them in the ever deleterious male gaze, that seeks to exploit them and their bodies for pleasure and profit.
Whether it is through their slew of beach body ads spread around the UK, or their carefree montages of defining beauty is, it is undeniable that Protein World has actively been able to shape not only the way that women perceive themselves but also how society enforces diet culture. It is as O’Neil so bluntly states, “advertisements feed the world’s desire to be young and beautiful,” and that is exactly what Protein World has been able to take advantage of. The brand and the images they choose to show the public have caused catastrophic consequences for women, making us evaluate our own perceptions of femininity and body image at large.
Written by Co-Editor in Chief Shreya Karnik