Nike has placed a new mannequin inside its London store that has sparked outrage and debate on social media and the internet.
Why? Because it is plus-size.
The controversy kicked off when a journalist from The Telegraph wrote a piece titled “Obese mannequins are selling women a dangerous lie”.
The article stated: “The new Nike mannequin is not size 12, which is healthy, or even 16 – a hefty weight, yes, but not one to kill a woman.”
“She is immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat.”
Women on social media were quick to voice their opinions and tear down the perception that being plus-size was unhealthy.
But many also condoned what the journalist said about a woman of that size not being able to exercise.
“She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear. She cannot run,” the article said.
What does healthy look like?
The issue sparked fierce debate online, with people’s ideas of what it was to look healthy shaping their responses to the mannequin.
And the debate has provided insight into how our media and advertising consumption has warped our views on body image.
Jasmine Fardouly, a researcher from Macquarie University who examines the links between social media use and mental health, as well as weight stigma, said health was too often linked to a person’s physical appearance.
“People can be unhealthy at any body size and exercising is good for everyone,” she said.
“Statistically, larger body sizes are normal within our society, so having a plus-size mannequin is perhaps more representative of the general population than the very thin mannequins often used in stores.”
Overly thin mannequins and models are nothing new.
In fact, The Telegraph journalist pointed out “advertising has always bullied women, but this is something more insidious”.
Dr Fardouly said beauty ideals promoted within our society, and through social media, were often very narrow and unattainable for many.
“The female beauty ideal is often thin with some muscle tone and the male ideal is muscular with little body fat,” she said.
“People are born in bodies of different shapes and sizes, and having such narrow ideals can lead people to be dissatisfied with their own appearance.”
Emily Gill, an accredited practising dietitian and co-ordinator at the Queensland University of Technology’s Nutrition and Dietetics Clinic, agreed.
“We currently see a narrow range of bodies in most social media and we know that photo-based activities like scrolling through social media has been correlated to negative body image,” she said.
“When we don’t feel great about ourselves we are less likely to engage in healthy behaviours.”
Are we normalising larger sizes or healthy sizes?
Fiona Falkiner, who was a contestant on Australia’s Biggest Loser, wrote a piece in response to The Telegraph article, saying she supported Nike’s use of the mannequin.
She also said the backlash against plus-size bodies frustrated her.
“The point is, we all come in different shapes and sizes and Nike has recognised this,” she wrote.
“All Nike has done is encourage the many millions of people who are out there wanting to get active, be active, feel included, and I hope it paves the way for other brands to follow, because it’s time to accept that we come in all shapes and sizes and all deserve to be seen and catered for.”
Ms Gill said normalising body shapes was likely to have a positive impact on people’s mental health and encourage those wanting to get in shape.
“It’s hard to know if a body is healthy by looking at it, so seeing a variety of different body types engaged in healthy activities like the Nike mannequin is a great way of normalising that all bodies can be active bodies,” she said.
“Many people in larger bodies feel discouraged from being active because of their size and this is not healthy.”
Dr Fardouly said promoting healthy lifestyles on social media did more good than harm and there was now a push to broaden beauty ideals.
“I think it is helpful to include more diverse bodies in the media and to promote body acceptance. Eating healthily and exercising is good for everyone regardless of the size of their body,” she said.
Dr Fardouly said body dissatisfaction was highly prevalent in society and “associated with a host of negative outcomes, such as poor mental health, unhealthy eating and exercise habits, and poorer academic performance”.
So, trying to live up to these ideal bodies on Instagram will not necessarily motivate you to work out. It could even make us do the opposite, Dr Fardouly said.
“Being dissatisfied with your body does not necessarily lead to weight loss; it often leads to poorer diet and less exercise,” she said.
Ms Gill agreed.
“Body dissatisfaction can lead people to go on restrictive diets which often do not result in long-term weight loss but instead can trigger yo-yo dieting patterns,” she said.
“Restrictive diets can lead to a loss of muscle mass, which reduces metabolic rate and food or energy requirements, and so it is easy to regain weight when people go back to eating normally.
“Eating healthily and exercising is good for everyone, regardless of the size of their body.”
The stigma around weight
Dr Fardouly said negative attitudes towards weight were widespread, with many people believing a person’s appearance was “completely under their control”.
“In reality, it is much more complex than that,” she said.
“Whether people are confident in their own skin is a separate thing to being healthy.”
Ms Gill agreed focusing on healthy behaviours should come first and weight second.
“If we find a way to move that we enjoy doing regularly and eat nourishing foods in response to our appetites, we will all be more likely to settle into a healthy weight, which will be different for each of us,” she said.