Almost two and a half years ago, feminists called on Transport for London to remove adverts of a scantily-clad Australian from the tube. Protests against the infamous ‘beach body ready’ adverts claimed that showcasing a woman in a bikini to peddle weight-loss pills was offensive to women. Apparently the sight of a skinny woman was upsetting to all of us non-skinny women. And, after pressure from London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2016, TfL promised to ban all adverts which didn’t adhere to the notion of ‘body positivity’.
Not all women were happy about the ban. Back then, I, and other commentators, warned that giving TfL the power to decide which images of a woman were ‘damaging’ and which were acceptable was pretty dangerous. Not only is this infantilising, we argued, but once you open the door to censorship it’s hard to shut it again.
I hate to say I told you so, but, I was right. Heist, a company which sells up-market tights, has recently revealed that TfL forced it to cover-up a woman’s naked back with a bandeau top in one of its adverts on the tube. A representative from Exterion Media, the company which works on behalf of TfL and adheres to its policy, told Heist: ‘Whilst I know this is only showing a bare back, it still depicts a ‘topless’ model. If we could add a boob tube around the back I think this would be passed.’
TfL has a policy which prohibits the depiction of ‘men, women or children in a sexual manner or [the] display [of] nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context’. But far from being overtly sexual, the image used in Heist’s advert is really rather beautiful. Featuring a dancer in mid-flight, it’s a pretty good way to sell expensive tights. And anyway, if I were a prudish TfL censor, I’d be more curious about the fact that the model has clearly forgotten her knickers, rather than worry about her bare back.
This must be a conundrum for feminists who were enraged by the impossibly toned Aussie back in 2015. Heist’s dancer’s physique is surely just as unattainable as a flat stomach (probably even harder to achieve than binging on weight-loss pills). If the offensive thing about the Protein World advert was that it showed a woman who didn’t look ‘real’ (without the rolls and bumps most of us sport), what’s different about the impossibly toned body in Heist’s advert?
Usually feminists would have jumped on the ban (advertising is a favoured subject for Twitter politicos these days), but there has been noticeable silence in regards to Heist’s ban. One feminist publication asked: ‘London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that adverts that could cause body confidence issues would no longer be allowed on the network. So why has one that showcases women’s athleticism been censored?’
Why? Because this is what happens when you give censorship the green light. Contrary to what many young feminists might think, TfL isn’t particularly concerned with body positivity. In fact, this crass stipulation that a naked back be covered up shows just how behind the times its policy on nudity is. By causing such a fuss over a stupid diet-pill advert in 2015, and getting the ever attention-seeking London Mayor behind the cause to censor adverts on the tube, feminists have encouraged such reactionary behaviour.
TfL have long had a policy on nudity, but there have also been a fair few risqué adverts in my time – which, before this obsession with advertising kicked off, didn’t seem to be a problem. The fact that this particular advert has been censored says more about the current oversensitive climate around the depiction of women’s bodies than it does about prudes on the tube.
There’s nothing controversial about women’s backs. But what should get women’s backs up is the fact that TfL feels obliged to censor in order to pander to our supposed delicate sensibilities. Censorship is the enemy of women’s freedom. And unless we want to see more ridiculous controversy over a flash of flesh, we all need to start telling censors to back off.
Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked and author of What Women Want: Fun, freedom and an end to feminism