Adidas Sports Bra Ad: Objectivization or Empowerment?

Catholic women caution that the social-media ad, which featured faceless images of women’s bare chests, did not acknowledge the transcendent source of female dignity.

Flagship Adidas store in Guangzhou, China.
Flagship Adidas store in Guangzhou, China. (photo: kit lau / Shutterstock)

When Adidas posted an uncensored advertisement of 25 faceless images of women’s bare chests on Twitter, touting the inclusivity of their new sports bra line, the campaign immediately spurred controversy. 

In response to a comment sharing negative feedback, Adidas wrote, “We want to celebrate bodies in all their glory and proudly showcase how different we all are.”

Twitter doesn’t have the same censorship guidelines as sites like Instagram and Facebook that would prohibit Adidas from uploading the image. The uncensored image was posted to Twitter, the Adidas website, and on a billboard, while a modified version was available on Instagram. 

Many replies expressed concern, confusion, or disgust in reaction to the image. 

Tagging Adidas, one user wrote, “u guys can market ur new sports bras or products without the nudity, this isn't how body positivity is promoted. For crying out loud Twitter is a public platform that's also accessible to a lot of underaged kids, a tweet like this can corrupt someone. Do better.”

Some women questioned which audience the ad actually intended to target and engage and why they chose to create the grid of pictures.

“I would think you’d want to advertise the actual bra, the thing you’re advertising. This? Bye,” a female user wrote in reply, also acknowledging that the tweet included a link to the collection of sports bras. “This is just ridiculous and a repulsive way to ‘advertise.’ Nudity is not needed. Women know what their breasts look like.”

“… is this just another shock ad designed only to generate revenue by using women’s bodies?” said another female user. “Exhausting.”

Positive reactions included comments applauding the ad, writing, “Well done!” and admiring the brand for their promotion of the so-called body positivity movement and interest in normalizing a variety of body types. 

“I clicked on it immediately,” said Cindy Gallop, founder of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s U.S. office, according to The Wall Street Journal. She added that she appreciated the range of body types represented. “And they have done that in a completely nonsexual context. This is an entirely justified promotion of sports bras.” 

Melisa Henson, program director of the Parents Television and Media Council, told the Register that the image appeared like one taken in a medical context and wasn’t overtly sexual.

“There’s not anything inherently pornographic about the female body,” Henson said. “But certainly, nobody wants to see this become the norm or become mainstream or become a typical advertising strategy in the United States.”

The markets the ad targets are not largely inhabited by children, she explained, adding that parents want to have a high degree of discretion and control over when and where their children are exposed to images similar to this one, which would be difficult if advertising like this became more popular. 

“If their goal is just to generate buzz, then this certainly accomplishes that, but you don’t look at that ad and say, ‘Wow, I want to buy that sports bra,’” Henson said. “People will remember the provocative content, but they’re not going to remember the product that’s being sold.”


The Dignity of the Body

Not only did founder and president of FIERCE Athlete Inc. Sam Kelley think Adidas failed to target female athletes with the photo, she was completely baffled by the ad. 

Kelley told the Register that while Adidas was right in its intentions, it still missed the mark.

FIERCE Athlete, based on the teachings of the Catholic Church, aims “to radically influence the culture of female athletics and address the serious issues women face by teaching, leading, and mentoring women toward integration.”

“The female body is beautiful, and it’s unique, and that’s what makes it so stunning,” Kelley said. “But it’s not something we flaunt; it’s something that we cover, not because it’s bad.”

The body is covered, she explained, because it’s sacred. Its portrayal still calls for sensitivity in consideration for how people will perceive it.

“The body is not a cause for sin in any way, but we have to be sensitive to where people are and an overly pornographic culture,” Kelley said. “People are not going to be able to receive that the way they intend.” 

While Adidas seemed to be attempting to break the issue of oversexualization of women, specifically female athletes, to Kelley, the photo was more exposing than it was empowering.

According to Kelley, Catholics don’t talk about the body enough, or how the body reflects the soul, and the soul reflects the body. 

“The uniqueness of the human person is almost one of the greatest signs that points to a creator. We’re not all the same,” she said. “We know that even the world wants us to think we're the result of some random evolutionary process, but it's crucial for women to believe to know that they have been designed with a purpose.”


False Empowerment

When Kelly Marcum first read Adidas’ tweet, the voice of the late Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman ran through her mind. 

“The fashions of the day are all geared toward destroying women's sensitivity for the dignity of their sex,” Hildebrand wrote. 

Marcum, who is founder and president of the Gratia Plena Institute, a Catholic organization that seeks to prepare young women to “combat the disordered forces of toxic feminism” and the cultural aftermath of the sexual revolution, told the Register that people are viewed as commodities, rather than as an unique, irreplaceable image. 

“So when you look at a grid of women’s breasts and their faces aren’t even there, it presents the image that you’re not even looking at the whole person,” Marcum said. “You’re just detaching and separating and commodifying one element of a woman’s body.”

Adidas is attempting to empower women without acknowledging where women’s dignity comes from, according to Marcum. Without the transcendent, it becomes merely a collection of bodies whose faces and identity as beloved creation doesn’t matter.

In response to an accusation of the photo being soft-core pornography, Adidas tweeted, “It’s important to normalize the human body and help inspire future generations to feel confident and unashamed.”

Marcum recalled another comment from Hildebrand’s book: “The state of our contemporary society sheds light on the fact that when women ‘no longer know how to blush,’ it is a portent that this society is on the verge of moral collapse.”

With supernatural dignity removed from the equation, Marcum said, Adidas has license to put a grid of women’s bodies online, call it empowerment, and hide behind that.

“Are you treating the body that Christ has given you to carry out his work with the respect that task demands?” Marcum asked. “Right now, empowerment exists in terms of how much clothes you are willing to take off. It should be, ‘Is everything about you geared towards upholding others, including yourself?’”