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Thursday 8 June 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Opinion What the evolution of the Special K swimsuit taught me about body image
Michelle McBride has grown up with the evolving Special K swimsuit, and wonders about its impact on how it has affected how she looks at herself.

CAN WE TALK about the evolution of the Special K swimsuit?

I have grown up with this swimsuit. It punctuated whatever television show I was watching – and usually after dinner, so I felt just the right level of guilt for consuming whatever carb was on the plate and getting further away from the dream they were selling.

I am pretty certain that it was responsible for my first real bout of body consciousness -the stinging awareness that I was not at my best physical self and it was clearly because I was drinking hot chocolate when I should have been consuming Special K. My fault, not theirs.

They simply drew my attention to it. Even if I was only in primary school.

‘Have they created the nightmare?’

It – The Swimsuit – has changed colour over the years but it’s still hanging around – it hasn’t been left behind carelessly in any advertising changing room post-dip.

That is because ‘they’ know that the swimsuit is the stuff of nightmares. Well, the thoughts of getting into one.

But have they created the nightmare? The swimsuit in question has been white, red and now it’s a bright yellow – colour of madness apparently, or maybe that just applies to wallpaper.

But it is madness. It’s madness to think that this cereal can just adapt to whatever image of womanhood or femininity advertising companies are trying to sell, in order to get us to eat their cereal.

By ‘us’ I mean women. Men clearly wouldn’t make it to the front door after breakfast, they’d collapse in a weakness.

But not ‘us’. Not if we want to be special. And so they have never abandoned their trend of solely pitching the cereal and all of its spin offs at women. Back in 1989 The Swimsuit was white. The faceless lady in the ad had legs of Amazonian proportions and had a wonderfully healthy tan.

Two things I was/am never going to have. My legs look more like the well-rounded legs of a coffee table and their colour varies from a transparent bluish white to a corn beefy type hue.

‘You too can have this body’

The 1989 ad looked more like a Duran Duran music video than something selling breakfast. But still the message was clear. Eat this after your morning swim in your private pool and you too can have this body.

There is also a nice bit of text for us to read, just in case you are in any doubt that this was the food to make you unrealistically slim. They don’t want to get your hopes up though.

It comes with a gentle reminder that it only works in a calorie-controlled diet. Otherwise known as hell.

In 1994 the swimsuit was still white but this time we had moved on from the glam life of breakfasting in pools. That was just so 80s.

Now this super cereal had you bouncing back to your pre-baby body. The lady in the ad kindly demonstrates as she wraps her son lovingly in a towel on the beach after chasing him around for a while (I’m not sure where she got the energy).

Now the cereal is helping her (you) to ‘stay special’. So, the message here seems to be if you were struggling with motherhood in the early 90s, a bowl of cereal was your only man. Fast forward 15 years or so and there was a whole other level of commitment needed to get into the swimsuit.

The Special K Diet no less. Or Challenge as it was fondly called. All you had to do was replace two of your meals with this magic cereal and ta-daa! You are now in the swimsuit. Well not quite. Terms and conditions clearly apply. The adverts pitched you against the swimsuit, asking: who was going to win?

Desire for the beach body

If you think you can hear alarm bells you’re wrong. That’s just your stomach rumbling. It was hardly rocket science. Eat less. Lose weight.

But they had just found a way to make more money out of the female desire to be everything the ads say we should be. The company kindly expanded their snack market to help us beat the swimsuit too.

These were the ads I grew up with. The panic that set in a week before your holidays and you realised you had to parade your non-Amazonian body on the beach. I’m sure I tried it. Even though the only beach I went to was in Donegal. Still, I failed miserably. But that didn’t really matter. I had already paid.

Ads of Brands / YouTube

But their latest advertising campaign seems to have abandoned the need in ‘us’ (again still only for women) to be slim. They seem to have accepted that it is unfair to expect so little of us.

Now we can carry the shopping and baby at the same time. We can do a high energy fitness/dance class. We can go out socialising for the evening. We can become cycling couriers. We can go for an early morning run. We can do an adventure race. We can go for a swim in the newly evolved yellow maternity swimsuit.

Words like ‘slim’ and ‘calorie-controlled’ are nowhere to be seen. Instead it’s all about Power, Defence, Recovery. And all done eating the same flaky cereal. If only we’d known, we could have stepped up to the mark long ago.

Michelle McBride is a primary school teacher and freelance writer from Dublin.  

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