FAC takes our anti-objectification message to H&M

After our discussion last month on feminism and advertising, a few of us decided to plan an action to talk back to all the body fascism that we see around us.  (This is partly why we originally decided to call the group Feminist ACTION Cambridge – so that we would remember that we want to do actions, not just talk about everything that’s feministly wrong with the world).

We decided to target H&M because of the recent scandal about their use of computer generated models for their ads… actual women’s bodies obviously aren’t perfect enough for them.  (and also because it was easy to get into their store window).  So, three of us (with a fourth filming and taking photos) met up for coffee and placard-making, before traipsing into town for a bit of Saturday morning feministing:

Picture shows three women standing in H&M window, holding placards which say 'Object!', 'Your body is amazing', and 'My body is NOT computer generated unlike H&M ads'.

You can also see a video of a couple of minutes of the action here. 

We got a lot of interest from passers-by, which you don’t really see from the video footage as most of them were too polite to get between the camera and the window – this being Cambridge, after all.  We got a few thumbs-ups from women passing by, a few people taking photos, and lots and lots of people doing double takes as they walked past the store.  We were in there for probably a bit under 15 minutes in total.  What I particularly like about this picture is the way that our bodies contrast with the models on the picture above our heads.  It’s a whole conversation going on just there.

But as well as talking about what a great action it was (and it’s a really great feeling doing this kind of action; we came away with a real buzz and a great sense of solidarity between the four of us), I wanted to write a bit about the politics behind it.  While we’d planned this action in the pub after the discussion group, my current policy being that we aren’t allowed to leave the pub until we have an action in the diary, there were also some serious considerations expressed among us as to whether we were adding to the objectification by putting our own bodies in an objectifying space – the store window – thus contributing to what we were trying to denounce; we were displaying our bodies in a space normally inhabited by mannequins, a space which by its nature objectifies female bodies.  So one interpretation of the action is that we are then objectifying ourselves. 

We talked through this before the action.  My first thought was that there is never the perfect action – in order to act politically it’s always going to be a compromise in some way.  But the question here was whether objectifying our own bodies by putting them in this space diminished our political message to the point of working against the point we want to make.  My own conclusion was that I didn’t see the objectifying element as being overwhelming because we were actually confusing the objectification by using anti-objectification slogans.  Yes, we used our bodies to do this, but we were using our bodies as a vehicle for protest rather than a vehicle for capitalism/patriarchy.

We were also disrupting the space for objectification and challenging the eternal gaze on the female body by LOOKING BACK with challenging slogans. This turned out to be one of the most exciting parts of the action – seeing people reacting to us, smiling and waving at them, and just chatting and laughing in the window.  Also, because it was pretty freezing cold we were all wearing bulky winter coats, and holding our placards in front of our bodies, so this diminished the objectification somewhat.  I also made sure I was standing in a really strong stance – feet apart, standing tall – the way you NEVER see mannequins or models standing, as they are always in a submissive posture in some way.
But the question that was raised by this action really made me think about the idea of women’s bodies as a battleground – or rather as being colonised by capitalism.  So the question becomes, are we using our bodies to disrupt this colonisation, or does this action accept the terms of debate wherein women’s bodies are the political site? And if the latter, how can we reframe the debate away from women’s bodies?  If you don’t mind me getting a bit Foucauldian on you, this action is a classic example of the feminist critique of Foucault – if power is everywhere, in all relationships and interactions, then where is the space for critique?  So, in terms of this action, if women’s bodies are always positioned by patriarchy as objects, then how can those of us who live in female bodies ever hope to create a critique of this while acting in our bodies?
But there’s a happy ending to this post-structuralist fairytale (Foucault being a post-structuralist).  After the action, we talked about this issue, and we all agreed that despite any reservations we might have had beforehand, we hadn’t felt objectified at all.  In fact we’d felt empowered by claiming space for our bodies and our message and talking back to the one-way diatribe of body fascism that we are usually forced to suffer.  In fact, we felt great.

As a post-script, I just want to mention briefly the idea of creating a safe space for actions, as this was also something we discussed afterwards.  For me, it was really important to allow everyone to find their own levels of comfort and avoid creating some hierarchy of being ‘more radical than thou’ and therefore superior.  We’ve all been in the place of being terrified of putting our bodies in the line of action, be this on a demo, or for standing up for our feminist values in conversation, or for an action such as this.   So what was particularly good about this action is that all of us felt that we had been able to raise concerns openly and honestly, and that this openness had given us the freedom to feel that we could make a decision for ourselves whether we felt comfortable in participating; this kind of direct action isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s great – we have a wonderful diversity of abilities in Feminist Action Cambridge which never ceases to astound me.

So finally, as your take-home learning, fellow feminists, I’d just like to point out how easy it is to plan an action like this.  It’s useful to have someone on board who has done legal observer training, as we did, but there’s really no risk of getting arrested if you leave in a timely fashion.  And although I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again… feminist direct action feels great.

5 Comments on “FAC takes our anti-objectification message to H&M”

  1. Well done for critiquing H&M’s use of unrealistic images of computer generated models.

    Might be worth mentioning that Feminists Against Censorship (who’ve been around since 1989) use the FAC acronym, so there might be some confusion if you use it too.


    • Veronica says:

      Thanks for the tip and the link Christobel… I hadn’t heard of Feminist Against Censorship so maybe we should make clear who we are when we use the acronym. Who would have thought that there would be so many feminist groups that we end up overlapping acronyms!!

  2. […] wear the revealing yet fashionable clothes, when you conform to an unattaiable body images (see: H&M protest at computed generate bodies post), and when you pluck and wax the hair off in all the right places, but THEN you need to roll it all […]

  3. […] talked about what feminist direct action is: using your body to disrupt space in some way (see our recent action in H&M).  Another example is the Million Women Rise march on Saturday 3rd March which some of […]

  4. […] is actually a private commercial space, like a shop. Like H&M, for example. Back in February some intrepid FAC activists visited H&M to protest against the shop’s use of ridiculously … (helpful suggestion to H&M photo-retouchers: no-one’s waist is narrower than their […]

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