Why Equinox's new ad featuring a cancer survivor's masectomy scars isn't receiving universal praise

Why Equinox's new ad featuring a cancer survivor's masectomy scars isn't receiving universal praise

On Tuesday, luxury gym brand Equinox rolled out its 2017 "Commit to Something" campaign with the goal of cashing in on the most popular of New Year's resolutions: weight loss.

Similar to its 2016 campaign of the same name, the advertisements, once again shot by famed fashion photographer Steven Klein, are chock full of expectedly ripped bodies doing activities that one would typically do at the gym: experiment with virtual reality, tend to one's greenhouse and allow a swarm of bees to graze across one's body — ya know, gym stuff.

Equinox's 2017 "Commit to Something" campaign Equinox

One image amongst the seven released stood out: That of 41-year-old thyroid cancer survivor Samantha Paige proudly displaying her mastectomy scars.

Samantha Paige Equinox

In an accompanying video, Paige speaks directly to the camera:

Scars aren't ugly. Scars are really just beautiful badges, reminding you what you chose to go against. Not just the size of your opponent, but the size of your commitment. Because the things you commit to are the things that make you. And when the things that make you mark you, you'll know what commitment looks like."

Refinery29 called the image "powerful." Glamour called it "bold." The Evening Standard called it "brave." The Observor called it "provocative" and "stunning."

“Equinox’s message of ‘Commit to Something’ is about being able to look at yourself in the mirror and realize who you are and stand up to those values," Paige told People. "It just dovetails with what I believe in ... I hope people will look at the image and walk away saying, ‘Wow, that’s incredible that that woman feels so comfortable in her own skin.'"

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It seemed, in line with last year's image featuring model Lydia Hearst breasfeeding, that Equinox had successfully launched a campaign that helped establish a discourse around the identity of a gym-goer.

Not everyone was impressed. 

"Hey Equinox. I'm a big fan of your gym. And I've had a double mastectomy. This is insulting to me, as Equinox doesn't know a thing about what it means to lose breasts," one commentor Megan Masters wrote, on the brand's Instagram page. "Please rethink how this comes across to your members, and stick to what you know."

"I also am BRCA2 positive, and similar to Samantha Paige, I opted for a prophylactic double mastectomy" Masters, 35, said in an interview. "I've seen many images like this before, so it wasn't anything new. What was new is seeing that it was a promotional piece for Equinox that they'd paid via an Instagram sponsorship to get into my feed. Was Equinox committed to finding a cure for breast cancer just like they're telling me that she's committing to her health? I'm not familiar with large organizations showcasing a woman's battle wounds without also saying what they were doing to eradicate the disease in the future."

It's a complicated discussion in examining the blurry line between celebration and exploitation when it comes to advertising. While it's difficult to argue the value in showing diverse representation, the cherry picking of such representation can often lead to questioning a brand's intentions. It's particularly noticeable in an instance like this, one that features only one differently abled body amongst the seven images. 

Equinox's 2017 "Commit to Something" campaign Equinox

It's no coincidence that that image is the one everyone is talking about. That's good, right? It depends on how you look at it. Equinox is the one receiving near universal praise for including a person who is simply living their life authentically. Not only that, Equinox is profiting from it. But perhaps most important in this discussion is Paige's decision to offer the story up — as she herself is likely profiting from it as well. 

Not profiting from any of this? Breast cancer research. "If Equinox wants to be a conduit to share positive stories based on unfortunate circumstances and showcase commitment — like this story ultimately was meant to do — I'd hope that they commit to pay it forward to that cause," Masters said.

While Equinox does raise money for Cycle for Survival, 100% of its proceeds go to Memorial Sloan Kettering for research and trials into rare cancers. As Masters notes: "Cycle for Survival, while extremely beneficial in its own right, does not benefit the masses of breast cancer patients, as most breast cancers are not rare."

She continued: "Paige and I both opted for preventative mastectomies based on our BRCA status, so we need continued research in high risk programs so we can ensure our continued health and that future generations of men and women don't have worry about the same things we do."

In response to this article, Equinox's Executive Creative Director, Elizabeth Nolan, offered this statement to Mic

The images, by design, are a commentary, intended to inspire lively conversation, debate and inner reflection.  Equinox isn’t trying to make general statements about Cancer, Breast Cancer or mastectomies.  What we are doing is documenting one woman’s commitment to being the best version of herself, which she discovered through a journey that involved the removal of her breast implants.  
Samantha, a thyroid cancer survivor, made a highly personal decision, and we gave her the platform to share her truth with the world. We are asking people to embrace what they believe in and live it—whether it is addressed in the campaign imagery or not—so it’s OK to disagree with what we’re portraying here.

Jan. 5, 2016 10:21 a.m.: This story has been updated.