Earlier last week a reporter from a Mississauga publication reached out to Vancouver-based underwear brand Understance for comment on city councillor Sue McFadden of Ward 10 and some of her residents calling the company's bus shelter ad offensive.
This was the first Understance director and founder Jiayi Lyu had heard of the complaint.
"My first question was, is there something that we missed? Like, what is the nature of the complaint?" Lyu tells Vancouver Is Awesome.
An article came out in the Mississauga News and Toronto Star the following Friday detailing the complaint, the councillor's perspective, and Lyu's comments but Lyu says that Understance was never contacted directly by McFadden.
"It seems like the issue that they had was over nudity, and they thought the ads were inappropriate for their community," says Lyu. "And I think they mentioned they had communities of faith and that our ads were insensitive to them."
'Racism and fatphobia disguised as concern'
The ad in question featured Vancouver model, fashion influencer, and writer Lydia Okello (they/them) who is Black and plus-sized, in a matching bra and underwear set.
Okello has worked as a model for several years and says they have largely received positive responses to the ad campaign with folks reaching out to share photos at train and bus shelters "which felt great."
"I’m disappointed to hear that there were issues with the ad in Mississauga, particularly the verbiage used around the ad," says Okello. "My photo is called 'offensive to women' and 'inappropriate'. Which I strongly disagree with. I think it’s racism and fatphobia disguised as concern."
Lyu agrees. "The first thing that clearly jumped out at us is nudity seems to be an issue only when plus size models are featured in our ad creatives," she says. "There's nothing sexually suggestive about our ads. The models are not posing in a flirty way or gazing sultrily at the camera. We're not using sexuality to draw people to the products" and yet they have had editorial boards retract their ads for similar complaints, again only when using plus size models.
The brand posted a statment on their Instagram on Tuesday doubling down on their choice "to show people as they are, unapologetically strong and beautiful." The screenshot of the Toronto Star headline and an email complaining about the image is juxtaposed with images of Okello smiling with a dozen comments, tweets, and social media posts in support of the brand's inclusive and empowering advertising.
'Underwear is not bad for you'
"Let's not pretend that we've never seen underwear before. If you want to compare underwear ads to ads for cigarettes and alcohol and casinos—here's the thing: underwear is not bad for you. It's not bad for your health and everyone wears them. There's no age limit for wearing them. So I think they're definitely not inappropriate in that way."
She also points out that that Understance is an undergarment retailer and the only way to market their product is to display it. They make the choice to hire models with a diverse range of body types that reflect their customer base. Understance's sizes range from 32-48, A to G and Lyu says that the average best-selling band size is a 38.
"Advertising has a powerful effect on our self image and how we think we should look," Lyu says. "When we see an impossibly beautiful, digitally altered image of someone, even when we know it's an altered image, we tend to feel bad about ourselves." She feels that some advertisers deliberately exploit that insecurity which she believes to be harmful but also impractical.
"We think that having like a realistic having realistic images is a really good way to help our customers get to know our products, and we want to expect from them."
'Fat shaming and fatphobia are still very present in our media and marketing'
Making that choice however has put real people, like in the case of Okello, in a position where people feel entirely comfortable and unchecked to call their body offensive. Okello thinks "it often boils down to fatphobia and racism."
"Concern trolling and bullying is often regarded as okay if a fat person is in public. Fat shaming and fatphobia are still very present in our media and marketing," explains Okello. "Upholding beauty standards that value thinness and whiteness is still the norm. I think that makes people feel okay to harass folks who don’t fit those ideals."
Lyu shares that many of the complaints that Understance receives are anonymous either online or via email, they've even received a few handwritten letters. In the cases where Understance's models come under fire and are perhaps vulnerable to criticism or hate, the marketing team will contact them to give a heads up about the situation and monitor the comment section, removing anything about the model's body or that doesn't refer to a product or the brand.
Okello agrees that that's how the situation should be handled. "I think the best brands can do is monitor their social media, especially the comment sections. And be vocal when issues like this come up. I think it’s a disservice if brands (or social media managers for a brand) don’t monitor the comments when models or content creators are harassed. A great way to be an ally is to step in and be protective of folks who may receive these kinds of comments."
'We want to show our products and real bodies'
"We are doing the best job that we can moderating our online spaces," says Lyu, adding that it doesn't feel good as a business owner watching her models and the people she works with getting attacked. "I think our intentions are simple. We want to show our products and real bodies...it seems like that sometimes can lead to people making comments that has nothing to do with our products that have to do with the model, their bodies, their scars, their appearances."
Despite the fact that the ad campaign was taken down, not because of the complaints but because it had run its four week course as per contract, according to the Toronto Star report councillor McFadden and a review panel will still be convening on Tuesday, May 17 for the first time since 2018 to discuss stricter rules for public advertising. In 2018 the panel met in response to complaints the city received about a promotional campaign for the hijab.
The Toronto Star also reports that McFadden claims that the complaints are not based on body type.
Vancouver Is Awesome has reached out to Outfront Media who manages the advertising space to request a history of ads that have appeared in Ward 10 since 2018 but have yet to hear back.
"I think that the public has a very long way to go in terms of acceptance of the human form," says Okello. "As a fat creator, I get told extremely rude things about my body, and my health. Things that can’t be determined by looking at me. My health is no one’s business, and it’s clear we as a society still find it acceptable to tell fat people what we don’t like about them. Particularly people who are fat in the public eye."
Lyu echoes, "it saddens us that people sometimes have their differences with our stance but we will stick by our values."