Last Wednesday I tweeted the unlikely words: “Never thought I’d say this, but Perez Hilton has blogged about a Lib Dem policy paper http://bit.ly/Dkfe5“.
It’s fair to say that the Real Women policy paper proposals on body image have stirred up quite a bit of debate: in the press, on TV & radio, in the blogosphere and, I also hope, in the pub, around the dinner table and over a cup of coffee.
Lots of women (and a few men) have got in touch to say they’re glad someone is finally trying to tackle the huge pressure on women to look slim, smooth and perfect.
Some have blogged their concerns about the policy, and I hope to answer some of the questions that have been raised.
Is there really a body image problem?
Yes, and it starts young. Research has found that girls under the age of ten equate attractiveness with happiness (1), and teenage girls rate the pressure from unrealistic images as a key political issue (2 and 3). Further along the age scale, a Grazia poll of 5000 women found that just one in fifty was happy with their body, with a third constantly worrying about the way their body looks. Frankly, a straw poll of a group of women of pretty much any age would back this up; there are few, if any, women saying there is no problem with the current body image pressure on the female form. At the extreme end, we can see a worrying rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders among the under 18s, up 47% from 562 in 2004 to 852 last year. Pictures in magazines don’t cause eating disorders, but they can negatively affect self-esteem and confidence levels, and certainly make it harder for those recovering from eating disorders (4).
Surely it’s illiberal to ban things?
The media love a good headline (“Ban airbrushed ads, say Lib Dems”), but the actual proposals say this:
1. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising.
2. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to indicate clearly the extent to which they have been airbrushed or digitally enhanced and altered.
3. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught to and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types.
4. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week.
5. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects.
6. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools.
So the proposed ban on digital retouching of bodies is only in advertisements aimed at children, recognising that young children are less able to critically assess adverts, and young teenagers are at a particularly vulnerable time of life with regard to body image. For all other adverts – the vast majority – the proposal is nothing more onerous than requiring an upfront statement about the extent of digital enhancement. No ban, no restriction on what retouching goes on: just a requirement to give people honest information about it.
Of course the ideal situation is for everyone to be well informed about how the media manipulates images, hence why we also have the crucial point about education. There are other ways to raise awareness of the issues; for example, the Swedish Government has itself commissioned a hard-hitting campaign which is well worth a look: http://demo.fb.se/e/girlpower/.
However any government campaign budget is tiny compared to the power of advertising, which is why the best way to ensure people are aware of the digital enhancement that goes on is to declare it on the advert itself. Would that really be the end of the world?
But could it actually work?
We’re a political party, not graphic design experts, so we’re not best placed to dictate the exact wording of the new code of conduct. However it is eminently possible to get together industry professionals to agree on standard wordings for common enhancements for the declaration statements. The ASA already enforces its code of conduct, and has the power to investigate and adjudicate on complaints relating to advertisements, so there’s no additional organisation or procedures required.
There isn’t a silver bullet to solve the problem of the unrealistic media portrayal of women; it is a huge cultural issue that needs tackling from many sides. Our proposals are a step in the right direction, both in bringing a little more reality to images of women in advertising, and in encouraging debate about what kind of images we want.
Is this really what Lib Dems care most about in a recession?
The economic crisis is having a huge impact on women, and a third of the policy ideas in “Real Women” are about financial issues and helping women get a fair deal. The paper also covers family and relationships, careers, flexible working, health and fitness, violence against women and safety on public transport.
Just because the stories on body image have been illustrated with photos of celebrities, it doesn’t follow that the issue is a trivial one. Empowering women to achieve their full potential means encouraging self-confidence, and for many women the current pressure for physical perfection undermines that.
The extensive coverage for the body image proposals is welcome, though I wish the media would devote as much airtime to our excellent policies on equal pay and childcare. I look forward to the opportunity to debate all of these issues at Conference.
1. Girlguiding UK “Under Ten and Under pressure” October 2007: “Almost all the girls made a connection between being happy and being physically attractive.”
2. Girlguiding UK “Active Citizenship” December 2008: “Put an end to the airbrushing of models’ photos in fashion magazines” was cited by 27% of girls as one of the issues they cared about most.
3. Girlguiding UK “Teenage Mental Health” July 2008: “Looking at pictures of models, popstars and actresses makes a fifth feel sad, two-fifths feel bad about themselves, and over a tenth (12%) feel angry.”
4. Beat “Has fashion got its house in order?” October 2007: “beat had conducted a survey with 100 young people – all of whom had personal experience of an eating disorder. They were clear that it wasn’t fashion or the media that made them ill, but they also felt very strongly that it made it so much more difficult for them to recover.”