This Week, on International Womens’ Day, my colleague Lynne Featherstone and I launched the Liberal Democrats’ Campaign for Body Confidence with a debate on the increasing pressure to conform to idealised body ideals. There was a fantastic atmosphere and some really impassioned contributions from the panellists which led to lively discussion between the panel and members of the audience.
The increasing pressure to conform to unobtainable and unrealistic body ideals can lead to misery and low self-esteem for children and adults, and even serious, life-threatening eating disorders. The debate focused on the causes and possible solutions to this growing problem.
On the panel were Clothes Show presenter and Co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk campaign, Caryn Franklyn; journalist and feminist blogger Laurie Penny; academic specialising in body image Dr Helga Dittmar and Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue and convener of the AnyBody campaign.
The debate was attended by prominent figures from the fashion industry and the media, as well as leading activists and campaigners, from the Girl Guiding UK, the eating disorder charity B-EAT, YMCA Central and the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE, to name but a few. Evan Harris MP also was also in attendence.
Dr Helga Dittmar drew attention to the constant barrage of images of overly perfect, and often incredibly distorted images of bodies to which people are subjected, pointing out that people are on average exposed to over 3000 adverts every day. She also outlined the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that exposure to such images causes body dissatisfaction and low self esteem in children.
Laurie Penny made a particularly impassioned contribution on the way in which unobtainable ideals are created and manipulated for the benefit of the beauty and fashion industries. She also spoke of the effects that this manipulation of body image can have, through her own battle with anorexia. She powerfully argued that policy makers should listen to what young people have to say, rather than just portraying them as passive victims.
Caryn Franklyn argued that the fashion industry increasingly uses models of only a very limited range of ages and sizes. She announced that her campaign, All Walks Beyond the Cat Walk, would be launching a Graduate Fashion Week to try to engage the next generation of designers in cutting clothes for a greater diversity of body shapes.
Susie Orbach lambasted the diet industry for constantly bombarding people with messages encouraging them to lose weight, arguing that they have a vested interest in creating and perpetuating a thin ideal to sell their products. She suggested new mothers should be given help to maintain healthy attitudes toward their bodies which they could pass on to their children.
I was delighted that Dr Linda Papadopoulos, author of a recent Home Office review on the sexualisation of children, was present to explain what she felt were the key messages arising from her report. In particular she highlighted the fact that the worrying trends we are seeing toward growing dissatisfaction with our bodies are the result of pressure from many different directions and therefore cannot be solved through just a single approach.
All those present were asked to sign a pledge to use their influence to campaign for greater body confidence. The next step is to put together a steering group of experts and campaigners who will meet regularly to help drive forward the Campaign for Body Confidence. We will push for a greater plurality of shapes, sizes and ages in magazines, advertising and on the catwalk. We must also empower children to develop the resilience they need by giving media literacy lessons in schools as part of the national curriculum, which include a component about body image. Bringing about cultural change is not an easy task, but changing the way society thinks about bodily beauty is vital to the public health of this country.