It's not unusual to see sexist adverts on the Tube that sexualise and objectify women, play up to gender stereotypes and portray them in a two-dimensional way. So much so that Transport for London has been criticised countless times for its lax approach towards adverts on its network – but now it seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction.
A tights company has blasted TfL's advertising rules after it was ordered to cover up a woman's back on its campaign image. In the original image from Heist Studios, a topless dancer is shown from behind, leaping in the air in a pair of tights – a decidedly non-sexual pose. Men are often shown topless on the Underground, but apparently female flesh is too dangerous for public consumption.
Heist Studios, the brand behind the image, revealed it was told by Exterion Media, which holds the advertising contract for the Tube, that it "cannot run topless models on the Underground", despite no part of the model's chest being on show, so the company would have to superimpose a boob tube.
In an email to Edzard van der Wyck, the brand's creative director, released to the Evening Standard, an Exterion Media employee said: “Whilst I know this is only showing a bare back, it still depicts a ‘topless’ model. If we could add a boob tube around the back I think this would be passed.”
The advertising guidelines ban adverts that show men, women or children "in a sexual manner or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context." While underdressed people in most underwear adverts may be considered appropriate, "gratuitous use of an overtly sexual nature will be unacceptable.”
Heist Studios complied with the request but have since dubbed the regulations "bonkers". “We were told to cover up the offending area — her back. It’s bonkers," said Ellie Howard, its head of community. "We were very excited about sharing our image of a strong, female dancer wearing our tights, especially since women’s underwear ads are usually so heavily sexualised, but it seems that the back of a female dancer is unacceptable.”
Howard said the company was angry that their campaign image had been sexualised, when their intention had been the opposite: "to challenge the way that women are sexualised in underwear adverts."
She told the Standard: “There are many male dancers on tube ads who are topless and there are women in seductive poses and clothes, where there’s no agency, yet a muscly dancer’s back has to be covered.
"How on earth can we provide an alternative view of how women should be depicted in underwear if we can’t show it? We think there is something fundamentally wrong with how TfL is screening adverts.”
Heist Studios weren't the only ones baffled by Exterion Media's request, with some on Twitter deeming it "madness" that a back was considered offensive.
TfL said it hadn't seen the advert first-hand but that Exterion Media enforces the rules on its behalf, the Standard reported. Following the worldwide backlash over Protein World's "beach body ready" adverts in 2015, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that adverts that could cause body confidence issues would no longer be allowed on the network. So why has one that showcases women's athleticism been censored?