Grabbable guts, topless models and growing up in lycra

Sometimes, the randomness of the Internet’s advertising provides a beautiful irony and lack of tact that is far less common when newspaper people are laying out their pages.

Yesterday, The Canberra Times online included a story on Rebecca Judd – who, as Chris’ wife, has been referred to as “Queen of the WAGs” ever since she showed up to the Brownlow Medal wearing that dress. The headline read ‘Channel Nine personality Rebecca Judd blames the media for causing body image disorders’, and was a summary of Judd’s piece on her own blog in which she criticised The Daily Mail and other media organisations for their portrayal of her which focuses primarily on her weight.

Judd starts by attempting to put the attention on her into perspective: “In a world where ISIS is on the march, Ebola spreads like wildfire and planes are being shot out of the sky, bikini shots of me and discussion on whether I’m too thin or not IS NOT WORLD NEWS.” She then nicely argues that “healthy comes in all shapes and sizes…let’s educate our children on what it takes to be healthy – that is good diet and exercise.” Mind you, her similarly laudable argument that we should “not educate them [our children] on how to bitch and judge other women’s body types” is, I suspect, a bit hard for some women to accept when it comes from a former model who has earned cash from encouraging people to gaze at – and affirm – her figure.

The interestingly placed advertisement next to this morning’s Canberra Times article was one of a new Canberran scare campaign called ‘Live Lighter’ which is sponsored by the ACT Government and the Health Foundation. The graphic images, which are currently everywhere from the local bus shelter to the newspaper, attempt to encourage men who have a “grabbable gut” to live healthier lives.

In her piece, Judd asks “Why is it ok to publicly judge a woman’s body and not a man’s?” Meanwhile, the ACT Government deems it necessary to scare overweight men about the health-risks posed by their bodies in a horrifically unattractive way that’s usually reserved for smokers.

I don’t really know why I’m writing about this irony, other than to express my sheer incomprehension of so much surrounding health and body image in the modern world.

Only a few weeks ago, Women’s Health magazine held their “I support Women in Sport Awards”, with the magazine’s website arguing that the awards “play an important role in celebrating the successes of women in sport,” and are “a key platform for bringing the achievements of the country’s female sporting greats into the public eye.” This year, the event was ridiculed as four body-painted topless models were seen on the red carpet, alongside the true sportswomen the night was supposed to celebrate.

In one sense, it’s not hard to give Women’s Health the benefit of the doubt and assume that they knew exactly what they were doing with this otherwise cheap stunt. The awards generated far more media coverage thanks to the presence of the models, with all of the articles arguing something along the lines of: “This is a disgrace, we should be appreciating sportswomen for how they perform, not how they look!” Which, of course, is the magazine’s point.

Regardless of whether or not there’s any basis to this theory, Women’s Health’s placement of the body-painted women intrigued as they were juxtaposed with female athletes on the red carpet.

For the red carpet itself should also be included in this discussion, shouldn’t it?

On one hand, it’s wondrous to see female athletes happy and proud to glam up for a night. This is particularly true of broad-shouldered swimmers, who often struggle with body confidence as they go through puberty. Late last year, The Queensland Government supported Swimming Queensland’s initiative to create a DVD and associated resources called ‘Growing up in Lycra’ in response to the “alarming percentage of female swimmers in their teens” who quit the sport “because they become self-conscious about wearing swimsuits in public“. The program is aimed at raising awareness of body image and self-esteem issues amongst teenage female swimmers, providing them and their parents with strategies to “ensure that involvement in swimming is a positive experience for our young athletes.” A number of recent Aussie swimming stars, including Leisel Jones, Melanie Schlanger and Alice Mills were open in their support of the program.

And yet, aren’t parades of women being photographed on the red carpet designed, at least in part, to encourage people to, as Judd would say, “bitch and judge other women’s body types” and fashion choices? Or perhaps that takes the argument too far, as no-one sees Judd as self-indulgent, thoughtless or disrespectful for having looked stunning on the red carpet in the way some did when she posted a photo of herself bikini-clad and pregnant online.

Clearly, all of this is just raising more questions than I can come close to answering.

Surely a skinny woman being proud of – or, at least, carefree about – her appearance doesn’t automatically translate into her putting herself on a pedestal and implying that all women should want to look like her?

Is Judd right when she blames online writers and editors who feel they need to give their “audience what they want”, by writing about the bodies of other women? If so, then how much blame should land at the feet of the publication and how much is the fault of the audience themselves?

And wouldn’t an equivalent “grabbable gut” ad targeting overweight women be seen as sexist, degrading and dangerous? What does that say about the role of gender and media in our society?

Sometimes, the placement of ads online is hilarious. This time, it felt a little less so.

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