The Safe Zone Underground


London, June 2016. The newly elected mayor, Sadiq Kahn, banned any image that “may cause problems of self-esteem in women, particularly concerning their body”, from the subway and the whole public transportation system of the city. Images that may cause people, especially the young, to feel under pressure, to create non-realistic expectations about their bodies and to feel ashamed for not reaching those targets (with anorexia as the primary consequence) won’t be anymore among the 12000 ads that every year are displayed on the London subway walls.

Mr. Kahn, Muslim of Pakistan origins, has, for the first time, waived the flag of the anti-sexist cause. The mayor was probably persuaded to make this decision in two ways. One is the powerful lobbying against sexist and objectifying advertisements that occurred in the precedent year. Petitions and loud protests followed the display of a provoking ad (“Are you beach body ready?” together with the image of a non-realistically “perfect” body) on the subway walls. Protests however had had no effect but to raise the issue and initiate the debate.


But the mayor proved to be particularly sensitive to the issue as father of two teenage girls. He felt personally touched by the issue at stake. The public administration, in his opinion, should not contribute to the spread of such a message, which is already bombing teenagers on TV and magazines. The thin difference between those forms of advertisements and public transportation environment is that the latter cannot be simply switched off or closed when deemed offending and upsetting. A girl, or a woman, should not feel under pressure about her body when taking public transportation. Or, she should at least have the freedom to deliberatively choose not to be exposed to certain types of messages.

Although it probably won’t be enough to fix the problem for the over 700 000 people affected by eating disorders and won’t alone change the standards used by most teenage girls to define a “perfect” body, this is an important stepping stone, and a strong signal that authorities can contribute in a way to influence the citizens’ lifestyle.

Kahn’s move surely gathered a lot of consensus among the citizens, and increased its popularity. Apparently, the involvement of public and administrative authorities was more convincing than the many attempts form private companies to launch campaigns for women body confidence. An example was the Dove Real Beauty Campaign, from Unilever, a highly controversial deal that was seen by many as a mere marketing expedient to increase the company’s sales.

The mayor’s effort, instead, simply telling women that they can take a break from the “impossible quest” at least when they run the underground, seemed to be highly appreciated by everyone.