The Wolf In The Cereal Bowl: How Special K And Other Companies Co-Opt Body Acceptance To Sell Body Shame

It wasn’t long ago that Special K was selling us on the idea that we could “drop a jean size in two weeks” by replacing meals with cereal, shakes and their other food-ish products. In fact, the cereal has long been marketed as a weight loss/weight maintenance plan. This is a brand that once recommended pinching yourself on a regular basis to determine if you should watch your weight.  “Can you pinch more than an inch?” Try the Special K breakfast! (Results not typical. May result in bruising.) But now they are singing a different tune. Sort of. Kellogg’s has figured out a new golden formula. Here’s a 5-step breakdown of how it works:

Step 1: Women believe we’re not thin enough, pretty enough, good enough because for decade after decade, advertisers have told us these things in order to sell products as the solution to the insecurities they stoke.

Step 2: We start to get tired of beating ourselves up day-in-day-out. We’re broken down. We feel like crap about ourselves. And a growing number of us start to seek out alternatives that don’t make us feel so, well, crappy. The internet and social media provide larger platforms for grassroots body acceptance and body positive communities that offer these alternatives. Liberating messages about how to reject the body hate are found, liked, shared, pinned and retweeted all over the damn place.

Step 3: Finally, the proposition that we don’t have to be ruled by the number on the scale gains traction. At last, we can begin to move towards the radical notion that our health and our self-worth are not determined by our weight. Revolution!

Step 4: Ruh-roh, Special K and friends. But also, Eureka! It looks like lots of women sure are fed up with the same old disempowering messages selling the same old disempowering products. What would happen if advertisers tried this newfangled “empowerment” thing, too? To sell the same old disempowering products. Hey, it might work! Now, where to find some feel-good messages that will really resonate with consumers?

Step 5: They take them from body acceptance activists. And voila, the Special K  “More than a Number” campaign is born.

Their  latest commercial in this campaign capitalizes on the “painful,” “heartbreaking,” and “depressing” experience of shopping for jeans. Drama-rama piano music plays. The words “Why do we let the size of our jeans determine our self-worth?” flash across the screen (uh, maybe because YOU SAID WE SHOULD?). It soon becomes clear that the women wallowing in the depths of despair over their shopping experience are in for a surprising treat. They will be trying on jeans at a body-loving denim Mecca called “Rethink Your Jeans,” where there are no sizes! Conspicuously absent from this commercial is that pesky old Special K tagline about dropping a jean size in two weeks. Suspiciously present is a saleswoman wielding a measuring tape filled with phrases like “radiant” and “confident.” It’s a measuring tape that looks exactly like the one Amanda Levitt created in 2011 to include in fat rights toolkits she sold to support her organization, Love Your Body Detroit. Huh.

Could this be a coincidence? Is it possible that the advertising execs over at Leo Burnett came up with this one all on their own? Not likely. Here’s why: Levitt says she got inspiration for her body positive measuring tape from author and longtime fat activist Marilyn Wann’s Yay! Scales (below right), a tool Wann has been using in her activism since the early aughts. Step on the scale and it gives you compliments like “you’re perfect” and “you’re hot!” Guess who featured the exact same concept in a 2011 campaign? Hi, Special K (below left). I’m humming this catchy little tune by Kelis. It goes something like this: “You might trick me once…”

I spoke with Wann, who told me that when she first got wind of the fact that Special K was using similar scales, she consulted a lawyer and was told that while she owned the trademark on the Yay! Scale, she didn’t have legal recourse to sue the company for lifting the idea. She issued a press release, but got no response from Kellogg. Now that Special K is using Levitt’s measuring tape too, it’s clear to Wann that this is a pattern.

“There are entire communities—fat communities; Health At Every Size communities, where a lot of therapists are using Yay! Scales in their practices; there’s the eating disorders community and the feminist body image community—and everyone has heard of these grassroots projects that we all create with a lot of love and effort,” she told me. The way she sees it, there ain’t no way that Kellogg is in the dark. “It’s like that old story of the Warm Fuzzies and the Cold Pricklies,” she says. “They are trying to convince us that they’re selling Warm Fuzzies. But they’re not. These are Cold Pricklies. And on top of that, they’re trolling acceptance communities for all of our really cool, creative ideas. They’re making millions and we’re not. I’ve named it co-optpression-for-proft.”

Levitt echoed this sentiment. Aside from tweeting at Special K and posting images of her original measuring tape on her Tumblr, she feels frustrated that there’s not much else she can do to stop the company from using her idea to sell a product that is completely antithetical to her beliefs.

“All of this work I did was at my own expense and my own time,” she wrote to me in an email. “As an activist I already live on the margins as a fat woman, further more so as someone who can barely afford to survive, so a giant corporation taking something from me that I did out of love and passion makes me angry. I’m not trying to sell products that create further fat stigma. I’m trying to make people have a better relationship with their body regardless of their size and not putting limits on that by thinking people need to be thin in order to be worthy of that.”

It only takes a quick glance at the Special K website with it’s “Lose Up to 6 Pounds in 2 Weeks (ASTERISK ASTERISK ASTERISK)” promise to see that Special K is not exactly on board with Levitt’s approach.

In fact, companies peddling diets have a history of repackaging the work of body acceptance to sell what is, at its essence, body shame. “One of the clearest examples would be the phrase ‘diets don’t work.’ This is something fat activists were saying pretty much from the beginning,”  blogger Brian Stuart told me. “An integral part of diet marketing has been to define diets as competitors’ products and your own product as something different. A ‘lifestyle change,’ a ‘whole new way of eating,’ or some such.” How do they get away with these faux health messages and plagiarism? “Fat activists are so marginalized that the Fat Shame Industry knows that it can steal from them without impunity,” Stuart tweeted in response to the news that Special K has now incorporated the body positive measuring tape into its marketing.

And Kellogg isn’t the only one trying to cash in on body positivity. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has faced widespread criticism for promoting a version of “confidence” that still validates the pursuit of conventional beauty while it sells us firming lotion. Vichy pokes fun at the absurdity of our obsession with cellulite removal in a commercial that is smart, funny, and hawking…cellulite cream. LowLow (low-calorie, many-unpronouncable-ingredients spread) cleverly skewers diet commercial clichés in its clever, well-received “Adland” spot. Yeah, ok. Pass the butter. These examples might not be blatantly lifting specific initiatives as Special K did, but they are opportunistic and loaded with hypocrisy.

“Actually these folks aren’t interested in you feeling better about yourself because if you did, you would probably stop buying their products,” says Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body Is Not An Apology. “We must also remember that the fight against fatphobia and the fight for body acceptance is not just a self-esteem issue. This really is a civil rights and social justice issue. It’s about the way we allow some people to live out the pursuit of happiness and how we don’t allow others based on their bodies.”

When we let ourselves to be charmed by the smoke and mirrors of these ads, we are buying into a corporate strategy that appropriates messages of body acceptance and media literacy for profits—profits that directly reinforce the systems of oppressions that these movements are working hard to overthrow. Special K asks, “What will you gain when you lose?” Here’s a thought: How about we lose this disingenuous bullshit marketing so that real health and acceptance movements can gain the visibility and support they deserve. K?

Claire Mysko is the author of  You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. Follow her on Twitter.