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Found Feminism: How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Say No To The Special K Lady

2011 July 19

Just in case anyone hasn’t seen this rather gratifying piece of graffiti, I’m borrowing the Found Feminism mic to extend its reach.

@annarchism on Twitter took this shot on Mill Road, Cambridge.

Photo of a poster advertising special K. A white brunette model poses in a red swimsuit. Graffiti stickers are pasted over the poster. They read 'hey there special K lady, I know you think I should diet so I can be slim like you. Thing is, I think I look fabulous just the way I am. Also Special K tastes like cardboard, so piss off.'

Special K is one of those things I’ll happily eat for breakfast, or if I feel like eating cereal. The berry edition is kinda okay. The Special K diet, on the other hand, is about as special and remarkable as white in a snowstorm, especially when you realise that you’ll get a more interesting bunch of flavours from taking your hungover colleague up on the offer when they dare you to shove your own face into the shredder tray at work and explore whether it can double as a food trough. The entire diet is marketed towards going down a jeans size as fast as is humanly possible for £3.89. (I have already mastered going down four jeans sizes without paying any money. I just walk out of H&M and into M&S.)

But! Aside from the fact the diet is as useful and realistic to genuine lasting weightloss – or healthy living – as wearing a loaded fruit bowl on your head, and aside from the fact that these ads are flagged squarely at certain kinds of gendered insecurity that make me go “Shine? Shine on fire, Kellogg. Right on fire“, a quick look at some history of Special K’s posters is an interesting little trip to go on.

Because it didn’t used to hang quite this way, ironically. Kellogg launched Special K in 1955, when my mum was toddling and the NHS was just hitting a ripe old age of seven. It was, Kellogg’s big proud blue-and-white “history site” informs me, “the first high-protein breakfast cereal ever offered to consumers.” Two years before, they’d launched “melba-toasted PEP flakes”, which … yeah. The Fifties. I don’t even.1

Here’s a Special K poster from that era, in which the elderly, man and woman alike, are DISCOMBOBULATED BY THE SHEER IMPACT OF KELLOGG’S NUTRITIONAL PROMISE. However, neither of them are particularly bothered about dress sizes at this particular historical juncture. (There’s been a War on, you know.)

There is something distinctly strange about the vintage poster looking kinder to women as consumers than the now-poster, is what I’m saying. Especially given our common habit of dissing our idea of the Fifties as some sort of comparative hell for that hackneyed GCSE-textbook concept, “the role of women”. Holding forth in the pub, you might crack one about how ads like Special K Lady look like they fell “out of the 1950s”, until you remember that in the 1950s they were just ditching rationing and things like bananas were riveting news. So maybe nobody wanted to goddamn well eat any more cardboard than they really bloody had to. This is not to say that things were better then (I also found an ad showing a bikini-clad woman trying to touch her toes with the slogan IT’S TIME FOR JELLO) but they’re not really much better at all now, are they, which gives me quite a bit of uncomfy pause for thought. Yes, following on from (in the UK) the Ministry of Food and Doctor Carrot and all, there was a real focus on nutrition, convenience foods, and how (or whether) these could be combined – and I mean, yeah, Kellogg were good at playing with that, with slogans like Teen-agers welcome a new protein cereal that helps you have – A FINE BODY. But it wasn’t quite “Is your man off checking out a peppier model? Never mind The Second Sex! Give dinner the shove! Subsist instead on Special K until your tastebuds fair expire from unparalleled wheaty boredom, and a prevailing vague suspicion that life really should, by now, be a bit more fun.”

Hurrah for you, therefore, Cambridge-based graffiti warrior. You are hereby awarded one BadRep salute, and we have dedicated breakfast in your honour.

Not a cardboard flake in sight.

  1. For more cereal posters, check out the hall of fame here. The 1960s was even less sensible, with the launch of a poster proclaiming NOW – ICE-CREAM IN A NOURISHING CEREAL. Age of extremes, guys. Age of extremes. Even Coco Pops have not yet gone that far. []
17 Responses leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011

    It does wors actually, as I found out by accident a couple of years ago through choosing to eat Special K for more meals than just breakfast on account of I find it delicious. In fact I don’t have it in the house anymore because I tend to demolish a box in about two days by continuously snacking on it. And it’s too overpriced to do that.

  2. Stuart permalink
    July 19, 2011

    There was probably a McDonalds poster on the other side of that one (they’re everywhere at the moment), but unlike the Special K lady, *those* posters are not sparking torrents of internet abuse. Give the woman a break, she looks like a perfectly healthy size 8 or even 10. Throwing abuse at somebody because you dislike their body shape (for whatever reason) sounds to me like the opposite of feminism.

    • July 20, 2011

      I don’t think anyone is disliking the model’s body shape – the issue is the advert’s suggestion that if you have any *other* shape you’re Doing It Wrong and need to buy some overpriced cereal so you can go on an unhealthy diet until you conform.

    • Jenni permalink
      July 20, 2011

      I, also, take issue with the line in this article that suggests we should throw abuse at the Special K lady, because she is a size 8 – 10. Indeed, where it says we should throw abuse at thin women in the street.

      Oh no, wait. No I don’t, because that line -it’s not there-. It doesn’t say that. This blogger and the graffiti artist is clearly taking issue with the (diet diet diet!) message of this advert, not the model herself nor her shape*. I’m sure everyone everywhere has wished diet ads would just ‘piss off’ at some point.

      *which is almost certainly made smaller with photoshop anyway.

    • Miranda permalink*
      July 20, 2011

      I was intending to take a (predominantly playful, though I think the underlying issues are important) look at the way the advertising has mutated over time from images of elderly couples, men included, and stats about protein, to a preoccupation with female consumers and appearance.

      That was my aim, at least, not abuse throwing- the only thing in my article that directly references “the lady” is the graffiti, which I took as a funny riposte. I took care to criticise the diet – which I think can be criticised as a glamourised crash diet rather than a lifestyle choice with any useful healthy longevity – rather than the model.

      McDonalds ads are actually pretty gender bias free from what I’ve seen. That’s what people are taking issue with, I think, in terms of the “torrent of abuse” you’re describing.

      • Stuart permalink
        July 20, 2011

        I totally appreciate what you’re saying and I found your article very interesting and thoughtful. My criticism is aimed really at the original graffiti author and, I’m afraid, those who are applauding her. I find the graffiti to be needlessly personal and abusive and not deserving of praise.

        The graffiti writer comes across as being very insecure about her self-image (despite her protestation to the contrary). That’s very sad – I believe that every woman should feel good about the way she looks. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think that the surest way to increase the self-esteem of plus-size women is to denigrate and abuse thin women; that’s what the graffiti is basically doing, and that’s why I don’t like it. We should celebrate all women, whatever size they are – and that includes the Special K lady. There should be no place for the abuse of one body shape in order to make those with a different shape feel better about themselves.

  3. Stephen B permalink
    July 20, 2011

    The almost immediate response when I posted this link on Facebook came from an older woman, who said

    “Hate the special K ads. If I hear ‘stay special’ one more time, the TV’s going to be shot.”

    No hate for the woman in the poster, but lots for the fact she’s posing to show that you should be her body shape, and eat this to achieve it.

    • Stuart permalink
      July 20, 2011

      I think that you, like the graffiti artist, are ascribing motivations and intentions to this woman which you can’t possibly know. Don’t you think it’s possible she simply turned up to have her photo taken because that’s her job? For all you know she might be just as insecure about her body as any other woman. (In discussions around body image it’s rarely acknowledged that slim women can have negative thoughts about their bodies too.)

      • Stephen B permalink
        July 21, 2011

        I don’t think the graffiti artist is judging the motivations of the actual woman in the poster at all. I think they’re making a statement against what the poster DOES and is FOR, which is “to tell women they should be thin (and our cereal can do that)”. The model might just be doing a job, but when the artist says “Special K lady” they’re talking to image which is making them feel insecure, the brand and the message of the poster, not the individual human.

        • Stuart permalink
          July 21, 2011

          If that’s what the writer MEANT, then that’s what she(/he?) should have SAID instead of wording it in such a personal and abusive way, which is the only issue I have with it.

          Going back to the original poster (which is actually advertising a diet website, not a cereal), all it actually is is a picture of a woman who looks to be a perfectly healthy weight with the rather bland slogan “shine this summer”. There’s nothing bullying about it; it’s not telling anybody to do anything, it’s simply offering a choice. There is a lot of truly loathesome advertising out there presenting warped views of women – but I really don’t think this is an example.

  4. July 20, 2011

    I’m often annoyed that Special K is only ever marketed to women. Whenever the TV ads are, on I keep checking for a disclaimer saying, ‘Warning – Special K is for ladies. If you are a man who eats Special K, your dangly bits will fall off and you may have to wear a bra – FOREVER. Kelloggs accepts no responsibility for any testicle loss which may result as a result of male Special K-ing.’

  5. lorraine permalink
    July 24, 2011

    Just to advise every one that Special K adverts & posters are not allowed to retouch anything & a BMI is required for all models . So what you see is what you get .

    • Miranda permalink*
      July 25, 2011


      What I was really struck by is the way the advertising has become much more about feminine beauty and it’s relationship with ideas about preferred ‘healthy’ shapes. In a way I’m less bothered about how “real” the models are and more about the conflation of weight loss with beauty, specifically female beauty, as this component (and female focus) is absent from the earlier ads.

      But if that’s true, good to know!

  6. July 25, 2011

    the only way this diet would work is through eating less food – has anyone ever measured out the ‘portion size’ of 30 grams of cereal? It’s nothing!!

  7. Kirstente permalink
    September 28, 2011

    Special K’s new slogan is ‘For girls who want more’, and the Mill Road feminist has stuck a big sign saying ‘Feminism is…’ above it. I love Cambridge sometimes.

    • Miranda permalink*
      September 28, 2011

      All hail the Mill Road Feminist.

      Anyone got a pic of that? Might even do a follow up post ;)


      The Mill Road Feminist makes me smile, though.

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