Fat, Feminism

R.I.P., Anita Roddick

Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, has died of a brain hemorrhage at 64.

Roddick was well-known for her charity work and her amazing efforts to make it clear that The Body Shop has corporate values other than profit. Those values are listed on the website next to the slogan “Made with Passion”:

Against Animal Testing
Support Community Trade
Activate Self Esteem
Defend Human Rights
Protect Our Planet

I want to talk about the third one.

In 1998, I was into my second year of living as A Thin Person for the first time since I’d hit puberty, having lost 65 lbs. in 1996-7. I didn’t know — well, more accurately, didn’t believe — that two years later I’d be fatter than ever. I thought of myself as the rare dieting success story — a belief supported by my Jenny Craig counselor asking if I’d like to submit my before and after photos for a chance at being in one of their ads, as the smiling thin woman right above the “Results Not Typical” fine print.

One day, on one of the manic, hours-long walks that helped sustain my weight loss, I passed a poster featuring a naked, fat, redheaded Barbie-type doll reclining happily on a couch, with the slogan, “There are 3 billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels, and only 8 who do.”

I stopped and stared. I didn’t even register for a couple minutes that it was an ad for The Body Shop. I just thought it was the coolest thing I’d seen in a really long time.

I went to the Body Shop and got myself a postcard of the same ad, and put it on the wall above my desk. Meanwhile, I still thought I was a dieting success story. And yet meanwhile, I still thought my thighs were too fat. I still wanted to be thinner — if I tried harder, I could be a size 2, not just a 4! I still hated my weak chin and big nose and problematic skin. I did not personally want to look like “Ruby” ever again, and yet, I couldn’t stop looking at that picture of her every damned day. I loved it. I loved her. I just thought I would never, ever be able to be as comfortable in my own skin as that plastic doll. I thought I would never, ever be content with my lot as one of the 3 billion.

These days, my body looks an awful lot like Ruby’s, actually — only with nipples and pubic hair and stretch marks and zits and freckles and skin tags and scars. And I am very comfortable in it. And Ruby is partly to thank.

I’ve had cause to say frequently over the last few days that body acceptance is not something I arrived at overnight, as if the logic just clicked and that was that. It was a long, painful struggle. And for a long time, I really liked the idea of fat acceptance, while still really, really not wanting to be fat — so as I’ve also said frequently in the last few days, I have a lot more empathy for fat acceptance supporters who still want to diet than it might seem like I do.

Coming to love my body for what it is — a fundamental part of who I am, not something separate from the Real Me, and most importantly, not an enemy of the Real Me — was a gradual process, most of it happening below my conscious awareness. But there were major flashpoints that will always remain fixed in my memory as early fat acceptance epiphanies. Reading No Fat Chicks, when I was still on Jenny Craig (the first time). Reading The Obesity Myth, after I’d done Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers more than once each, lost a total of 110 lbs., gained it all back, and was finally ready to stop fighting my body. And standing on that street in Toronto, staring at that Body Shop poster.

There are 3 billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels, and only 8 who do.

On Anita Roddick’s website, she wrote in 2001 about the controversy surrounding the Ruby campaign. Mattel sent a cease-and-desist letter in the U.S., arguing that Ruby made Barbie look bad. (Roddick: “I was ecstatic that Mattel thought Ruby was insulting to Barbie — the idea of one inanimate piece of molded plastic hurting another’s feelings was absolutely mind-blowing.”) In Hong Kong, the posters were banned for being too titillating — while genuinely provocative images of real women remained.

Says Roddick:

And there, in a nutshell, is my relationship with the beauty industry. It makes me angry, not only because it is a male-dominated industry built on creating needs that don’t exist, but because it seems to have decided that it needs to make women unhappy about their appearances. It plays on self-doubt and insecurity about image and ageing by projecting impossible ideals of youth and beauty.

Leonard Lauder, son of Estée, once refused to advertise in Ms. Magazine (back when they still accepted ads) because, he said his products were meant for “the kept woman mentality.”

I think it is a moral imperative that The Body Shop, as a cosmetics company itself, continue to buck the industry on issues of self-esteem, and to expose the cruel irony of the myth that a company must make a woman feel inferior in order to win her loyalty.

They did buck the industry — long before Dove’s much talked about Real Beauty Campaign — and they did create change. Not to mention, they did create brand loyalty without playing on women’s fears. (Mmmm, Body butter.) Believing that all that can be done doesn’t seem so crazy now, but it did when The Body Shop started doing it.

I will always be grateful to Anita Roddick for Ruby, just as activists for animal rights, the environment, HIV awareness, domestic violence awareness, human rights and numerous other causes are grateful to her for making The Body Shop a powerful force for good.

Thank you, Anita Roddick. Rest in peace.

29 thoughts on “R.I.P., Anita Roddick”

  1. Kate, thank you. You never know, until it happens, which celebrity death will affect you. And of course, a thoughtful tribute helps… this made me cry. She was the real thing.

  2. Oh man, Ruby! I had her on my wall too, cut out of a magazine. I think a lot of people felt this way about that ad, although not all of us can express it so eloquently. :>

  3. My friend works for the Body Shop’s At-Home division and always looked forward to the yearly meetings that Anita attended. She said that Anita was one of the funniest, mouthiest, smartest women she had ever had the pleasure of meeting. Body Shop products are ones I’m proud to buy (an almost ridiculous amount of!) because of all the reasons you stated above. We need more Anitas now more than ever.

  4. I actually bought a poster of Ruby and gave it to my youngest sister! I might even have bought two, I wonder if I have the other one around somewhere. And I still have an old Body Shop T-Shirt that reads, “Life Is Not A Dress Rehearsal.” RIP Anita, and thank you for everything you did.

  5. We had that advertisement — ripped out of an environmentalist/health-food magazine — on our fridge for a large portion of my adolescence. I’m sure my mom still has it floating around somewhere. It was amazing to see that in an ad.

    I didn’t know her name was Ruby, though. :)

    RIP, Anita. Hopefully they’ll continue your work.

  6. I’m a doll collector and would love to have a Ruby. Is she for sale anywhere? As TR pointed out a few weeks ago, it’s hard to find fat dolls, so the vast majority of my dolls are ridiculously thin. I’d really like more variety.

    RIP, Ms. Roddick, you’ll be missed.

  7. If they are available, Rose, I don’t know about it. I was actually just thinking they missed an opportunity to make some money by producing Ruby dolls. Unless they did, in which case, they just missed an opportunity to get MY money.

  8. Nah, I’ve been looking around online, and I guess they never did make a Ruby doll. Too bad! I think that The Body Shop should sell the Ruby doll give the profits to Anita Roddick’s favorite charity. That would be a great way to honor her memory.

  9. This is a lovely tribute, Kate. Ruby rocked my world, too — I have never thought about the beauty ideal the same way after reading the sentence on that ad.

    Also, now I want some Body Butter.

  10. I’ve never really been a fan of the body shop (though these days Lush far exceeds them in terms of the need to hold one’s breath when passing by). I’ve never seen the Ruby ads either, but I just want to thank you for posting this. It’s a fabulous sentiment, and a fabulous doll.

  11. Kate, thanks so much for writing this. I found out about Roddick’s death a few minutes after posting my September 11 tribute, and even though I really wanted to write something, I’d done my max on grief writing for one day!

  12. This is how I found out.

    I had the opportunity to interview Roddick for BFB a number of years back (style-less web archive link) after she did a fat suit documentary, and she was just fantastic. Of note from that interview is a great piece of advice for our movement:

    Have a voice that is strong, witty and positive. Include the language of everything you write and promote with the style and tone of self-worth and self-knowledge!

  13. That ad freakin’ rocks. I remember when it came out (my senior year of high school, when I was in full self-righteous teen rebellion and insisting on my Constitutional Right to wear flannel shirts), and how refreshing it was to see a marketing campaign buck the Barbie trend. Brilliant.

    To me, Ruby was so positive and encouraging and uplifting. Of course, I think the same thing of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaigns, and I know a lot of women view them very cynically. I was involved in a focus group here in Chicago that centered on those ads, and it was shocking (I mean, literally jaw-dropping shocking) to me just how many women of diverse demographics ridiculed that campaign as an insulting marketing ploy and generally bad advertising – the general sentiment was something like “they’re selling beauty products – they shouldn’t pretend like they’re doing something good for anyone.”

    Irresponsible advertising is one of my big pet peeves (and a venue where I’d love to see some real-world fat activism!), and Ruby was a great example of how to sell products without demeaning or manipulating or inciting fear. I wish more people had the guts to try things Anita’s way.

  14. I am very sad at this news. I just wrote this in another thread, but it’s probably not well-known that The Body Shop Foundation provides funding to women’s organizations to address the issues of violence against women and women’s economic security.

    The world will be somehow a little duller, now that there is one less woman out there who puts her money where her mouth is.

  15. I think you should make the tribute a permanent fixture on your site. I’d love to see this image kept alive as a testament that will inspire those who come after.

  16. I knew about the Body Shop and Ruby, but wasn’t aware of Anita Roddick’s other achievements. Thanks for the post; it’s really educating and inspiring.

  17. i remember ruby with awe, and a lot of admiration for the people behind that campaign. I was barely a teenager when it came out, but even then i was horrified that it got banned! I couldnt believe it, really. It disgusted me. I remember things in the papers like ‘my little girl cried when she saw it, youve scarred her for life!’

    oh my god. people are really, really, really, REALLY stupid.

    and yes, the only reason it got banned was because it made a mockery of all the insidious, poisonous beauty advertising out there, and people didnt like that it made women feel satisfied, instead of striving for more impossible standards.

  18. like everyone has said, thanks for posting this. i had no idea anita roddick had passed, and i feel like we’re all a little less off for it.

  19. anyone know anyone in the plastics industry? what a great homage to Anita – lets get together and put the Ruby doll on sale world wide!!

  20. “And for a long time, I really liked the idea of fat acceptance, while still really, really not wanting to be fat ”

    Thank you for this, Kate. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and this is the stage I’m in right now. And I’m struggling with it – this love of the positive, fat acceptance I find here going against the dieting I’m still doing. I can’t reconcile it right now, so instead I’m just reading and taking it all in. I’m not sure what I’ll end up believing or thinking, but for now I’m glad I found your site (and the other wonderful bloggers you link to, and the studies you’ve made me aware of) and have been made aware that there’s something to even think about, explore and confront in the first place. I’m glad to read that you understand where I am and that it still might be okay to be here.

  21. I always had a good feeling about The Body Shop, and not only because I love love love their products. I had seen that ad, but it didn’t really register that it was a big (no pun intended) deal in its day until I read this. Awesome.

  22. I’m surprised and pleased to see other people got so much out of the Ruby ad. I still have a problem with its premise; there are a lot of women around who are as beautiful as supermodels, but no-one notices because they don’t have a whole industry dedicated to doing their hair and makeup and Photoshopping their photos and writing breathless articles about their beauty.
    I suppose that the ad was more about the very small number of women who can be model thin without their hair falling out and their eyesight failing and all the other symptoms of starvation.

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