A Subway Ad, Two Grapefruits, and a Wake-Up Call
It’s not often that I pay much attention to subway ads, but this one was different.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw this ad. I was on the subway, in my own zone and people watching as I normally do, when all of a sudden I’m met face to face with this woman and her fruit breasts. I felt visually assaulted. I grimaced as I processed what I was seeing: this woman frowning at me as she holds two small oranges in front of her chest, and then beaming ear-to-ear and as she holds two massive grapefruits. I instantly knew this was an advertisement for breast augmentation. I was appalled. Are they out of their mind??
The first thought that came to my mind was, how embarrassing for the city of New York . . .what would tourists think of our city and our values? But it wasn’t just that, it was the fact that I felt like the woman in the ad was mocking me, “mean girl” style. She knew my deepest, most private insecurities, and she was using those to taunt me. To shame me. I wanted to jump out of my seat and shout to the other passengers, “Do you see this? Is this for real?!” As I looked around at the other passengers, I couldn’t believe that no one else seemed offended.
Two Grapefruits, Made in New York
The first major issue I have with the the ad is that it trivializes breast augmentation surgery. The imagery of the fruit, the sad face contrasted with the happy face, and the ad’s colloquial language all make the surgery seem like “no big deal” — analogous to getting blonde highlights or braces. It implies, “Unhappy with your breast size today? Pick up a pair of shiny new implants and all your problems will be solved!” Even more embarrassing is the copy, “Breast Augmentation. Made in New York. $3,900.” Made in New York?! This isn’t a NY bagel or an Empire State building souvenir we’re talking about here — this is breast implant surgery. Also, it’s worth noting that $3,900 is remarkably cheap. Implants from a good plastic surgeon in NYC will run you about $6K. Yikes.
As Vogue columnist Karley Sciortino points out in her excellent article on the rise in popularity of breast implants,
“There is a distinct difference between dying one’s hair and undergoing an extremely invasive, expensive, and painful body-altering surgical procedure. Hair dye and makeup are a temporary expression of one’s personality — they’re decorative, in line with the timeless desire to adorn oneself with beautiful things.”
Well said, Karley. Somehow this ad forgot to mention that breast augmentation is an actual body-altering surgical procedure. Instead, it refers to the surgery as “body contouring,” a vastly understated euphemism for what the surgery actually entails.
The second major issue is that the ad perpetuates unrealistic body image expectations. It enforces the fallacy that having big breasts will make you a happy, confident woman. Even worse, it implies that if you have small breasts then you will be unhappy. In other words, it tells women that you can ONLY be the confident woman on the right if you have large breasts. False.
In fact, real life examples of women who have had breast implant surgery directly contradict this idea. For instance, in an interview with Cosmo magazine about her recent implant removal, pop star Adrienne Bailon said, “I went from one insecurity to the next — feeling like I was too small to feeling like when I walked in the room everyone knew my boobs were fake.” Melissa Gilbert, another celebrity who has opened up about her decision to remove her implants, said, “I don’t regret that I had the surgery … I regret that I felt I had to.” These examples underscore the idea that when women are motivated by shame to get plastic surgery, when they feel like they must or have to get it, the outcome is often not what they anticipated.
In order to truly feel confident with your appearance, you must change how you view yourself. This is an internal change, and any external change you make will not be effective unless this internal change happens first. It’s a psychological game. People will always find a way to undermine the external tools or advice you give them unless they really, truly want to change, for themselves, not for the external feedback. Consider this woman’s story about her struggles to love herself after losing weight. It’s the same story with plastic surgery; you can give yourself implants and a “better” exterior, but these external changes aren’t going to change how you view yourself, unless you make the internal commitment to love yourself first.
In addition to trivializing the surgery and preying on women’s insecurities, the ad’s biggest offense is that it blatantly oppresses women. According to Merriam-Webster, the act of oppression means “to keep someone in subservience” and “to cause someone to feel distressed, anxious, and uncomfortable.” This ad is guilty of both. First, it puts down women with small breasts by unjustly implying that they are unhappy with their appearance because they don’t fit the beauty standard portrayed by the woman with the grapefruit breasts. Second, it uses shame tactics to target women’s insecurities in order to motivate them to alter their appearance. This is bullying at its worst.
Imagine how people’s reactions might change if the subject matter of the ad were different. For example, what if this were an ad featuring a before-and-after of an Asian woman who just had double eyelid surgery, Asian Blepharoplasty? If instead of featuring a white woman with breast implants, it featured an Asian woman with natural eyes looking very depressed pre-surgery, and then miraculously looking happy and confident with new eyelids post-surgery? Can you imagine how people would react if that were posted in the subway? I guarantee you that people would be in an uproar and that the ad would be banned for being racist, insensitive, and oppressive. And rightfully so. But why is it that it’s so easy to recognize that as a form of oppression, but somehow not this? The only difference is that the subject here is is body image, not race, and the stereotype is rooted in sexism rather than racism.
I was curious to see if the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority that runs NYC’s subways) had encountered issues with other controversial ads in the past. I wanted to know what type of standards the MTA had in place that made it acceptable to post such an ad. I learned that the MTA actually has tried to ban controversial ads in the past, but has been burned for doing so. Just last year, the MTA banned an ad on the grounds that it contained demeaning language toward Muslims and promoted anti-Muslim sentiment. However, a judge overturned this ban, citing it as unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment. Rather than revise its standards and adopt a narrower definition of oppression, the MTA decided to avoid the controversy altogether and subsequently banned all forms of political advertising. As you might expect, this sweeping ban turned out to be just as controversial as revising its standards and allowing the original ad would have been. An MTA board member justified the MTA’s decision with the statement:
“It doesn’t take much to move the passions of hatred … Our riders and the public need not have their serenity and security violated.”
Riders need not have their serenity violated… hmmm that’s odd. Because every time I’m on the subway and I see this woman and her “made in New York” grapefruits, I feel violated and uncomfortable — the exact opposite of peace and serenity. If the MTA truly cares about ensuring that its passengers can ride in peace, then it needs to seriously rethink the criteria it uses to evaluate all of its ads, not just some of them. It is unjust and unethical to only censor political ads, but not censor other ad types that are guilty of the same oppressive offenses.
A Wake-Up Call
Recently, I saw photos online of this same ad, but with a very positive twist:
These stickers are the result of a simple, yet highly effective, activist campaign by two feminist groups: National Women’s Liberation and Redstockings. Apparently the stickers originated in 1969 and these groups brought them back to life. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Women’s Liberation activist Erin Mahoney says,
“Women are sick of being bombarded with advertisements that depict women only as sexual objects ... That embolden men to disrespect us. That tell us we are not worthy unless we conform to unrealistic, sexist, racist, and unhealthy beauty standards. Women are fighting back and using [the ‘This Oppresses Women’] vintage sticker to do it. It’s exciting.”
I was so glad to see this. This gives me hope. While this ad is offensive and I wish it were never created, it is important to recognize that its polarizing nature can be used as a force for good. It has the power to be the wake-up call that society so desperately needs. It should prompt us to ask ourselves, “Have we really come this far? Is this really the message that we want to send our daughters?”
More importantly, we should remember that it’s not just about condemning this one ad for being too extreme. While this ad is atypical and over-the-top, it doesn’t mean that the other, more subtle negative body image messages that we encounter on a daily basis aren’t equally as harmful. In fact, I would argue that those everyday messages are actually more harmful because they are so subtle that we often don’t realize their negative influence on our thoughts and perspectives.
Women are told from the time we are little girls that thin women with large breasts (i.e. Barbie) are the ideal symbol of femininity. We are constantly bombarded by celebrities with enhanced bodies, and by messages pressuring us to seek beauty perfection. These messages have become so common that we have become desensitized to them and don’t think twice about how they negatively impact our self-esteem, or how they influence the signals we send to young women. Thus, in addition to speaking out against extreme messages like this one, it is equally as important to fight the battle against the unrealistic reality that we are unconsciously creating every day.
How do we do this? The first step is acknowledgement. We need to acknowledge that all women face body image insecurities, regardless of size. There has been a lot of support for the “women with curves” and “healthy is the new skinny” movements, but virtually nothing has been done to support small-breasted women with body image insecurities.
Second, we need to reshape society’s perspective on beauty standards. We need to bring petite women with natural breasts to the forefront of the media so that people can see the beauty of small-busted women for themselves. Fashion serves as a great example of how it is possible to reorient our perspectives. Trends come and go, and what was popular 10 years ago now seems unattractive and strange. Those high waisted jeans that we love today were seen as mom jeans 5 years ago. Now they’re seen as sexy. The same shift can occur for body image. If all we’ve seen for the past few decades is women with with breasts and cleavage, it’s hard to imagine a world where smaller busts are also beautiful. But as celebrities like Keira Knightley, Olivia Wilde, and others are coming forward and proudly embracing their small bust sizes, this trend is already starting to change.
For every negative image and message that puts down small breasts, we need to create a positive one to diffuse it. Unfortunately these positive messages are still in short supply. It is up to us to recognize this void and to not only strike down the negative messages, but actively replace them with positive messages that promote realistic beauty norms. Standing up to ads like this is the first step, but let’s not let it be the last.
Call to Action
If these ideas resonated with you, please let me know in the comments below. And subscribe to my blog, Your Breast Self. Thanks for reading!