Stop assuming all women hate their bodies

I feel a little sorry for modern-day advertisers.  I can easily imagine them sitting in a cavernous boardroom across from the brand managers at a table made of teak or mahogany or some other rich person wood. Then the word comes up that they’ve been dreading – ‘viral’. It’s now not enough to make an ad that is clever or informative or funny or persuasive, it’s only worthwhile if it gets thousands of reposts tagged with ‘#truedat’.

When you watch a campaign like The Mimi Foundation’s recent heart warmer to surprise people with cancer or Pro Infirmis’s wonderful initiative to make mannequins in the likeness of people with disabilities, you can’t help but get a little teary over the joyousness on display in these videos. But it can go dreadfully wrong when big brands follow the lead of these smaller not-for-profit charities and try to create a similarly inspirational marketing push.

All of which leads us to Special K’s latest advertising stunt, brought to you by the letter K for ‘kinda konfusing’. It’s a rather transparent attempt to try to jump on the faux ‘empowerment’ bandwagon much like Dove has (Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches video from earlier this year currently sits on sixty million views on YouTube).


In the video titled ‘Shhhhut Down Fat Talk’ Special K reveal they’ve decided to fight the ‘fat talk’ (when women complain about looking or feeling fat) that a reported 93 per cent of women do by filling a boutique full of clothes labelled with derogatory comments women have made about their bodies on social media. And then they stick a bunch of women in there, who suddenly realise gee golly gosh, they’re all guilty of bullying themselves with fat talk. Lucky a cereal brand was there to suddenly make them self aware, right? Whatever happened to a cereal being marketed because it’s delicious – why does it suddenly have to be about saving women from themselves?

This campaign is a cynical, hypocritical mess. Let’s recap, to remind women they are beautiful, Special K filled a room full of mean comments?  There’s also the obvious problem that Special K consistently brands their product as a diet cereal. Now, they cleverly never use the word diet (the level of double speak in their marketing material is positively Orwellian), but their website says how their products can ‘help you manage your weight’ and there’s even a BMI calculator on there. And right there in the video, the narrator says fat talk is “a barrier to managing their weight” for women.

So Special K want to get rid of fat talk while telling women they need to manage their weight? Basically the message is don’t talk about feeling fat, but keep eating our breakfast flakes so you don’t actually get fat. Fat talk is obviously corrosive, but what contributes to it is a society that puts pressure on women to conform to a certain acceptable shape – just like Special K promotes.

The other issue that makes this ad campaign ring such a hollow note is that it comes from an explicitly stated viewpoint that all women (93 per cent fat talk according to their vid) dislike their bodies. Now I’m not sure if I’m surrounded by women with preternaturally buoyant self esteem, but most of my friends don’t fall into this Cathy ‘Ack! My thighs!’ stereotype of womanhood – they’re much too busy having actual interests. Special K’s advertisement just reinforces the idea that hating our bodies is supposedly the default psychological state of the majority of women – not exactly a healthy perspective to be endorsing.

Interestingly I read the 2011 paper from Rachel H. Salk and Renee Engeln-Maddox that the 93 per cent figure was lifted from, and it’s very misleadingly framed within the video. When the study defines engaging in fat talk that can mean someone says to you “I’m fat” and you answer “No, you’re not” and bam! – you’ve engaged in fat talk, despite the fact you might not think or care that you’re fat or if anyone else is.

In the study, it instead said 36 per cent of women rarely engage in fat talk when rating their own frequency of fat talk – but that’s not quite such a catchy statistic to quote. And the study found BMI is not related to how commonly women engage in fat talk, so I’m not sure why Special K chose to frame it as being a problem related to ‘managing your weight’, as opposed to just a psychologically exhausting and saddening state of mind.

Know what has been found to be correlated to body dissatisfaction? Dieting. So if the brand was really interested in curbing body dissatisfaction they should stop shilling eating and exercise plans along with their breakfast foods.

Special K’s message is that you should stop saying bad things about your body being fat, while simultaneously purchasing their cereal so you can “manage your weight”. The dissonance between the campaign and what is being sold is just staggering to behold. I’m sorry, Special K, but you don’t get to have your low-GI high-protein cereal and eat it too.