In September 2014, Germany’s Bild newspaper had an urgent question for its readers: who in television has the best breasts?

Readers were given 11 names to choose from as well as 11 descriptions of cleavage including the words: lush, large, portable tits.

Bild is Europe’s widest-circulated newspaper and sells about 2.2 million copies a year – the largest circulation of any non-Asian newspaper.

Bild’s keenness on women’s body parts (brain generally excluded) is legendary. The paper had run a photograph of a topless woman on its front page every day for 28 years till 2012, and has carried features on breast sizes mapped globally and celebrity cleavage

Then there’s Bild’s garden-variety sexism. A rape trial generated a headline that said: Sex thriller comes to court. Ana Ivanovic and Sabine Lisicki, top women tennis players, bowing out of the Australian Open became “Tennis girlfriends crash” out (they were dating a footballer and a comedian at the time). A woman, who had an affair with a married comedian, became the seductress who trapped him into an affair.

In 2006, Spiegel Online, the web version of Germany’s most well regarded news magazine declared: “The Bild, Germany’s answer to the British tabloids the Sun and the Daily Mirror, serves up tripe, trash, tits and, almost as an afterthought, a healthy dose of hard news seven days a week.”

Enough is enough

One day, Kristina Lunz, a student at Oxford University at the time, was at a petrol station when she came across a racy bosom feature in the Bild. To her mind, this was one among a heap of indignities that Bild had built its brand on. It needed to stop.

In October 2014, Lunz launched Stop Bild Sexism: a campaign geared towards rooting out topless models from the tabloid’s pages, and more generally at stanching sexist representations of women in the media.

The campaign has steamrolled ahead since, with its petition gathering 57,000-odd signatures online, and amassing the support of key public figures including members of parliament.

“While studying in the UK I learnt a lot about power structures, human rights and discrimination,“ she said in a Skype interview from the United Kingdom. “And then I read about the No More Page 3 campaign as well.”

Bild’s closest competitor and spiritual counterpart is The Sun in the United Kingdom. The No More Page 3 campaign was one that aimed to get The Sun to stop publishing topless models and endlessly sexualising women.

Sexism the target

Lunz’s campaign started with a petition for the removal of the scantily clad, heavily sexualised Bild girl. “It would be ideal if Europe’s biggest paper stopped portraying women as sex objects,” she said. “We have been recording instances of sexism and there are so many examples. Far more than you would want to see.”

She added: “How can we tolerate such sexualised and objectified representations of women when we have massive problems of sexual violence against women? Studies have long proven that media representations of women contribute to higher levels of violence against women.”

Germany has had a female head of state for a decade now. It also has quotas for women in boardrooms and its women are highly educated. Thus, there’s a general sense that women have achieved a fair degree of equality in the country, but it’s more complicated than that.

“There is a misleading understanding that violence against women is happening exclusively in the developing world and the perpetrators are usually non-white people,” said Lunz. “There is an idea that in Europe we have equality, but we have a massive problem of sexual violence and the numbers confirm that over and over again.”

The evidence seems to support Lunz’s statements.

A study of 42,000 women across 28 countries in the European Union on the prevalence of gender-based violence against women threw up some astonishing results. For instance, one in 10 women had experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 15, and one in 20 had been raped.

“What emerges is a picture of extensive abuse that affects many women’s lives, but is systematically under-reported to the authorities,” said the introduction to the report.

The Stop Bild Sexism campaign has since grown and now has a 15 member team spread between Germany and the United Kingdom.

“Sexism is everywhere, and Bild is a prime example,” said Penelope Kemekenidou, a Phd student who leads the social media team. “People think we focus just on the Bild girl, but that’s just one example.”

Campaign members say that while the Bild might have highlighted injustices, for instance, when writing about trafficking of women, it would sexualise the entire report with the use of words like sex slave alongside photos of women in various stages of undress. Similarly, in a feature about female politicians, their physical attributes were highlighted, rather than their jobs.

In one of its first actions, campaigners demonstrated outside the Bild office in Berlin in 2014. Last year, they produced a mock-up of a Bild front page where they lived up to the tabloid’s spirit using raunchy photos and saucy headlines: except these were about men.

‘It’s not just about the Bild girl’

Started in 1952, Bild is owned by the Axel Springer group. In 2012 the paper moved the Bild girl from the front page to the inside pages but the everyday sexism apparently continues.

“I don‘t read the Bild, but whenever I have seen the front page, it was lurid,” said Susanne Marschall, professor and director at the Media Competence Centre at the University of Tübingen. “Bild prefers sex and crime stories and they have often been accused of not telling the truth. Sometimes they invent stories just for commercial benefit.”

In the eighties, an investigative reporter went undercover at Bild – working as a journalist there – and subsequently wrote about the fabrication of stories and unethical media practices the paper often employed.

In Germany, a regulatory body can issue reprimands to media outlets in cases of irresponsible or otherwise inappropriate reporting. Bild has been at the receiving end of such reprimands more than once last year, including for its coverage of a rape case.

The Stop Bild Sexism campaigners have also taken on the usual arguments against such representations of women: isn’t it okay if women choose to take off their clothes, and why be a prude about being in the nude?

“Rather than worrying about the individual Bild-Girl’s motivation why she chose to undress, we are more concerned with the social consequences of the everyday-sexism in this paper,” said the campaign’s website. “Amidst “serious” news, the Bild-Girl contributes to a normalisation of the objectification of women.”

It continued: “The far bigger problem lies in Bild’s biased news coverage: while men are shown as athletes, politicians and business men, stories about women mostly concern their physical appearance, their sexuality or their relation to men.”

The campaign said it doesn’t believe in having a Bild boy as a way of balancing out the fleshy exhibitionism on the paper’s pages.

Meanwhile, the editors at Bild have acknowledged the campaign if only to disparage it. On Twitter, former editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann swatted the campaign away with some jokes. “Three weeks ago the new editor-in-chief was asked about our campaign in an interview and she said something offensive,” said Lunz.

With support from prominent groups such as UN Women and Amnesty International, the campaigners believe they have had an impact in the public sphere. “I am convinced that we have managed to raise awareness and educate people,” said Lunz. “We have managed to be a pain in the a*** for the Bild.”