A gym has come under due fire in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, for hosting a billboard where an image of a literal barrel was shown alongside text reading: ‘this is no shape for a woman’. It even claims that Osmo Gym, the “hottest gym” in Sri Lanka, will help get you into “the shape you deserve” – as if living in a body that doesn’t meet the criteria of Asian and Polynesian beauty standards is the antithesis of worth.
Almost immediately after it went up, the backlash was made prominent on social media – where a mix of both women and men shared the image above with messages on its “blatant sexism” and “body shaming” in the fore. Even a hashtag campaign emerged - #BoycottOsmo – and others tagged the organisation’s Facebook page in posts calling on them to reconsider their offensive promotion and apologise for the upset caused.
During this time, the gym did not respond to the public outcry, and instead allowed a digital image of the campaign to remain pinned to the top of their feed.
An activist from the region, Marisa de Silva, spoke to the BBC, saying “the ad was nothing very different from the typical objectification and sexist usage of women by the ad industry, which has been selling anything from cars to perfume by sexualising women and their bodies.” This ad in particular, however, “also attempted to body shame by dictating to women the ideal shape they should resemble – almost as though it is the sole basis of their worth.”
In reaction to the unjustness, Marisa and a group of fellow activists got together to take action. Their main avenue of change was to approach the minister of the Kotte constituency where the billboard was hosted, Harsha de Silva. The minister responded to their rightful concerns with a tweet, since translated into English, saying he had “asked the Colombo MC Commissioner to remove this unapproved offensive hoarding. I would not tolerate this in Kotte.”
Soon after the tweet went live, the billboard was taken down on the basis that it lacked the correct permissions to be on display. Instead, the Colombo Municipal Council allowed the women who had voiced their complaints to use the space to promote a message against sexism for two days.
Marisa sourced opinions on social media before settling on the phrase “no more space for sexism” in Sri Lanka’s three most spoken language – Sinhala, Tamil and English – with a local graphics company donating to the cause. A day later, the newer, feminist sign went up as a much-needed replacement.
However, as is so often the case, a number of men took to social media to claim that the move would set a “dangerous precedent” against free speech and the banner disappeared from the space the day after – two striking, but perfectly common, examples of the oppression that women in Sri Lanka, and across the East, still face.
Finally addressing the issue, Osmo have now officially responded by saying that the campaign imagery would now be “withdrawn”, and that it had not been intended to “degrade, offend, insult or undermine any one person or women in general.” Somewhat watering down the apology though was their claim that the ad had been created in response to a recent report by WHO – one which they labelled as “disturbing”.
The report shows that there are higher rates of “diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity” in Sri Lankan women than men, something Osmo claim to have been trying to tackle. The question of how “disturbing” it is that their approach to this was centred around a woman’s physical appearance remains hopelessly unanswered.
We, and Marisa de Silva, can only hope that lessons will be learnt from here. She says the instance has “set off a chain reaction”, which she hopes “might make the ad industry at least think twice before subscribing to sexist [and fatphobic] advertising in the future.”