Monday, 4 May 2015

Taking back the beach - Hyde Park, 2 May 2015

On Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend and I got ready, jumped on our bikes, and pedalled furiously up to Marble Arch to join a protest at Speaker's Corner, Hyde Park. We arrived very promptly at 3pm; locked our rides; and looked around feeling a little confused. There were a couple of news crews hanging about, but no one was giving a speech; and things didn't feel hugely organised.

But then a group of people strolled along to the grass, sat down, and got out an inflatable beach ball. Then an inflatable banana. They were predominantly women, yes; but also men and children. More people joined, laying down blankets and towels to sit on. One man very purposefully stripped off, lay down, and got out a book. These weren't just tourists looking for a patch of sun - this was it!

Within minutes, a huge crowd had assembled, and began joining in. Off came the jumpers, and out came the bikinis! The atmosphere was like one of a family picnic, bustling and convivial; full of people you didn't know existed but were so glad to have around. Though a smaller number of people attended than any of us had expected, the atmosphere was truly lovely, full of positivity, warmth, and lots of humour.

Wandering around with camera in hand, I spoke to many different women about their reasons for being there. Their answers were varied, but all were sick and tired about the way that women's bodies are continuously used as commodities to further consumerism. And with the Protein World ad, how brazenly and shamelessly companies try to twist our psychologies, so that they can make the maximum profits. I have been really shocked at how unrepentant Protein World have been, and am repulsed by their attitude; so it's wonderful how positive the event was. Despite even events at provocation, people were calm, happy, and strident.

We were gathered together to celebrate keeping a positive body image, and not letting corporations tell you how you should look and think. There were women of all shapes and sizes there, the majority of whom young - in their 20s (like myself), and a few groups of teenage girls as well. I think that this is wonderful, as for too long I've found that my peers have been rather apathetic towards feminism. Many of the attendees followed the organisers' suggestions and came in bikinis; so rather predictably, when the press appeared on mass, they swarmed towards them like flies. I found this quite problematic. Many women were there to say, I will be the one tell you what a beach body looks like! The second resounding message was, Why assume that I am outside to be on display? On the one hand, it's great to have press, and it's great that these women felt comfortable in displaying their bodies in glorious reality and imperfection. On the other hand, I feel that this act sadly did pander a little to the male gaze, and my (depressing but predictable) observation was that the majority of the people who were interviewed (by press) were not wearing very much.

In addition, I felt the lack of ethnic minorities. There were a small handful of us there (around 10% of the attendees). Personally I think that as myself (a mixed race person wearing a vintage sun dress) and my boyfriend (a black man, and the only back man there) were atypical attendees, we would have given really good interviews; and it was a shame to have been overlooked. I hope that I don't come across as self-absorbed here; I really think that representation of ethnic minorities is something that needs to be worked on, in feminism as well as in our wider society.

But the backbone of the protest was made up of those who just sat on the grass and did their thing. And I had a really great time 'just' wandering around, talking to women, and listening to them speak. It was amazing to be in a public place where you could walk up to pretty much anybody there, ask questions, and talk about almost anything. The Protein World advert may have been heinous, but the wonderful thing about it is how it has opened up huge opportunities for discussion, which otherwise would have been closed. And - even more wonderful - is do to this for free, in public, with no personal agenda aside from keeping women feeling great about themselves. Protein World weren't the first to make adverts like that one; and of course they won't be the last. But people have stood up to say, No we don't like this! No we won't be treated this way! This has been done intelligently, and often with humour, and that has clearly struck a nerve. Saturday afternoon was a resounding success, and I hope that we young feminists in London continue to make waves in the future.

Thank you to everyone who let me photograph them!

More on the protest:

From co-organiser Fiona Longmuir
From co-organiser Tara Castello
From another participant, Will Hall
On The New Statesman


P.S. if you wondered about what we were wearing, especially after my historically-inspired post, here's us:

Ready for the beach, but just ended up going to the park.


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