I recently had one of those nasty shocks; it came about from deciding to try on a swimsuit in a big London department store instead of ordering one online as usual. I can blame the lighting in the changing room as a contributory factor, but I looked ghastly. Sports swimwear is always a size smaller than you normally take but I was shocked at how fat I’d somehow grown over the winter, helped on by reckless post-birthday eating of chocs and cake.
I was quite glad afterwards though as it made me determined to diet and so stark was my encounter with reality that I gained the determination to lose enough weight to look OK on the beach in July.
I can’t be taller than I am or have higher cheek-bones than I’ve got, but I can take care of my weight. But it helps to be tortured by myself or other people into doing it. Comparisons are odious but sometimes galvanising. With this in mind I was dismayed to read that London women are to be deprived of the annual atomic reminder that bikini time is approaching by images of skimpily clad maidens on beaches or by swimming pools.
Below an advert for pork pies, the Evening Standard reported that Sadiq Khan, our new pint-sized Muslim Mayor, has decreed that Transport for London may no longer run ads such as Protein World’s, ‘Are you beach body ready?’ poster.
‘As the father of two teenage girls,’ he explained, ‘I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising, which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. It is high time it came to an end.’
He is wrong about the way the human mind works of course; other people’s pulchritude can be depressing but the competitiveness most of us have as human beings is often a force for good, at least for self-improvement. He is in with a certain zeitgeist of course. The weight-loss ad, which featured a bikini-clad model, sparked a protest in Hyde Park last year, as well as a petition on Change.org with more than 70,000 signatures.
Women who worry about how other women are seen, the comodification of sex, do not like to see fabulous female bodies on posters. They do not seem to object so much to other grosser adverts, for instance for IVF, pressurising people into having children, and probably making childless couples feel grief-stricken. It’s still the image of a slender female form disporting itself which makes feminists hopping mad.
This brew of jealousy, insecurity and notions of sexual equality, some of which denies gender altogether, is now mixing strangely well with Islamic piety. I was rather pro-Khan when he came into office and started talking about protecting the green belt. Now I wonder if that wasn’t some kind of reference to his slinging a green girdle of Islam around London. When he decided to ban adverts showing women he must be aware of the particular sensitivity of that issue.
Over the last few years there have been attempts by Khan’s fellow Muslims in various parts of London, such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, to establish and maintain Muslim-only areas. This is more than the mere ‘sleep walking into segregation,’ observed by Trevor Phillips last year. Young Muslim men have been filmed patrolling and stopping people from carrying alcohol, harassing those wearing ‘immodest’ clothing, and verbally threatening men they suspect are gay. During these operations all sexy advertising posters were stripped from bus shelters.
In 2013, Muslim vigilantes protested against advertisements for push-up bras by High Street retailer H&M. In the three-minute video posted online they said: ‘The Muslims have taken it upon themselves to command the good and forbid the evil and cover up these naked people.’ They showed a number of advertisements for the product which had been sprayed over and filmed themselves pouring petrol over one advertisement and setting it on fire.
In a video posted on U-Tube two years ago, filmed in Whitechapel, east London, Muslims were seen aggressively pursuing a lone man.
‘Hello mate, don’t you know this is a Muslim area. Why are you dressed like that for,’ they asked. The man responded: ‘Why are you bothering me?’
‘You are walking in a Muslim area dressed like a fag, mate,’ came the uncompromising reply. ‘You need to get out of here.’
The man said he was off.
‘Get out of here quicker then,’ they tell him. ‘You’re dirty mate. Admit you’re dirty. You’re gay, mate. Get out of here, you bloody fag.’
Perhaps the new mayor simply doesn’t realise how sensitive the issue of censorship is, particularly a Muslim man censoring the rest of us. He may be genuinely worried about self-loathing among young women but one poster showing someone in a bikini isn’t going to sort that issue out. His action does not help anyone find the reason why there is so much self-harm, body dysmorphia, bullying and distress among young women, after forty years of hard feminism. But most of us agree that the problem won’t be solved by forcing us all to cover up.
The choice of who gets to advertise what is getting increasingly interesting in our multicultural world cities, the biggest one led by a Muslim. In 2012 the then Mayor, Boris Johnson, stepped in very smartly to prevent a Christian advertising campaign from promoting the idea that gay people can be converted to heterosexuality.
The advert was due to say: ‘Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!’
No chance. Just days before the posters were due to appear on buses in the capital, Johnson ordered his transport chiefs to pull the adverts booked by two conservative Anglican groups which believed in ‘reparative therapy’ for gay Christians, hoping to get them to ‘develop their heterosexual potential.’
We are now in the season of Ramadan. Those of you who go to church will no doubt have been enjoined to rejoice in this. You may even have received a ‘Happy Ramadan,’ on your way out of the church porch. It’s also being marked this year by Islamic adverts on hundreds of buses in areas with large Muslim communities, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and Bradford.
They are graced with the slogan: ‘Subhan Allah’ or ‘Glory be to God’ (Not to be confused with ‘Allahu Akbar!’ which you may hear if the bus is blown up) as part of a campaign for Syria by the charity, Islamic Relief. Things didn’t go so well for adverts featuring the Archbishop of Canterbury with a variety of parishioners reciting the Lord’s Prayer which was banned from Odeon, Cineworld and Vue cinemas in the run up to last Christmas.
The summer wind in the UK this year is blowing Sharia, not CofE. Cover up rather than get out that beach body. I for one will be sunbathing in as smaller costume as I can get away with after the diet has done its stuff.
But then I remember Britain before the days of advertising when people sat on beaches almost fully clothed, some of the men in hats, suits and ties, because that’s what British people did, and our most important conflict was with the weather. In those dear, dead days most of us trooped to church on Sunday, girls tried to look pretty, boys didn’t, people smoked on buses and we’d never heard of Islam or any of its precepts.