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The Australian mags that are refusing to airbrush.

Back in 2010, Mamamia’s very own Mia Freedman chaired the Australian Government’s National Body Image Advisory Group. Mia and the Advisory Group made a whole lot of recommendations to the Government about how to make young people more resilient in the face of endless pressure from the media, advertising and fashion industries to look a certain way.

In response to those recommendations, the Government set up a voluntary code of conduct for industry, which you can read all about here. The Government also announced a series of other initiatives including a new set of awards that recognise efforts by those in the industry to promote positive body image.

The first set of those awards were handed out just one week ago. So we sat down to chat with Helen McCabe, editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly and the big-boss lady when it came to picking the winners and asked her to tell us all about them.

1. This is the inaugural year of the Body Image Awards, have they been a success?

Yes, in the sense that we wanted to start the ball rolling. I would have liked more entries in some of the categories. It is clear to me that for many organisations this is still not a priority, so I think there is a lot more work to be done. But we launched it in a deliberately low-key way because we wanted to take some of the negativity out of the debate.

2. Were there any entries or winners who surprised you?

To be frank, the scope of what Dolly and Girlfriend have been doing did surprise me. They know this stuff backwards and are leading the way, in terms of sending positive messages to young women.

I think magazines get blamed all the time but few people have stopped to look at what some of them are actually doing. And let’s face it the readers of Australian Women’s Weekly, for example, are not the main target of this initiative, it is about what the younger magazines are doing so from a media perspective Dolly and Girlfriend are critical.

3. It’s always important to commend those who are doing the right thing but will the awards have any influence over the organisations where we most need to see a change?

The real power lies with the consumer. If women reward the businesses that respond to this stuff, then that is when you will see change. Consumers have the power. [With these awards] we wanted to help the conversation and keep up the pressure.

4. Seventeen magazine in the United States has taken a strong stand against air brushing and Dolly and Girlfriend magazines here at home, were both award recipients. Do you think it is more important for images aimed at young people to be realistic?

Well, we know young people are strongly influenced by these images. I don’t think it was a problem in my day but all the research shows it is today, so I think it is important to respond. A coroner in the UK blamed the fashion industry for the death of a young girl who suffered from eating disorders. So it’s serious.

5. Dove received an award for some of the great work they’re doing to promote positive body image. But they’re owned by Unilever who also promote the Lynx brand to men and they’ve run some pretty controversial campaigns in the past that quite overtly objectify women. Do you think Unilever are being disingenuous in only applying their positive body image message to the brands where they think it will appeal to consumers?

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Well no, actually I don’t. Dolly is a brand owned by ACP magazines, which has Zoo Weekly! The Dove team is responding to its audience like Dolly is responding to its readers. I know many people probably disagree with that and it was an issue the panel discussed but in the end we decided to reward the good, instead of becoming bogged down in the bad.

6. Women’s Weekly recently featured Chrissy Swan on its cover, wearing clothes from a plus size line. What was the reaction to that edition?

The reaction was incredibly positive but it did turn nasty over a picture inside [the issue]. But I think the overwhelming view was that Chrissy is a great person, with an honest approach to public life. She was not on the cover because she was wearing plus-size or because of her children, she was there because she’s interesting and loved for just being herself. She was there because she quit TV at the height of her success because she wanted to raise her kids. It was a nice story. That was really it for me.

7. As a magazine editor yourself, you are faced with choices about how you alter images on a daily basis. What is your philosophy at the Australian Women’s Weekly? Has your approach changed over time?

Well I believe in minimal photo-shopping full stop and we declare when an image has been altered. Some celebrities (Mia) ask not to be retouched, which is great. Some ask for lots of retouching (Kerry-Anne) and we are just honest about that.

But we will never slim a body or stretch a model and we attempt to leave the images as natural as possible – although we are a commercial product. That means we change background colours or even fix a top that doesn’t quite work (Julia Gillard) – that sort of thing.

The truth is there are different sorts of photoshopping. Our readers were very vocal about the images they thought were too altered and we have largely eliminated that criticism. Although readers are still very alive to anything they suspect has been changed.

The interesting thing is that great lighting used by photographers such as Michelle Holden [who shot Georgie Gardner’s cover] means very little needs to be done. And in that case very little was done to Georgie’s image apart from tweaking the background colours and we did nothing to the shots inside. But over-photoshopping has made readers suspicious of everything and I guess we are to blame for that.

However to anyone who says “why do it at all?” the answer  is that really beautiful covers are very important to selling magazines and we sit alongside Vanity Fair etc and it is highly competitive business. It is important to me that this magazine is commercially successful and continues to employ lots of people.

8. Does the Government’s code of conduct need to be made mandatory for it to have any meaningful impact?

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I don’t think so. I think people will get behind it but it needs time to grow, now that it’s been established. I think we will see a lot more entries [in the awards] next year and the year after that. I think that will be the measure of success. I believe companies will want the competitive advantage of being recognised for responsible behaviour is this area and I believe consumers will become even more vocal about it.

I think making anything mandatory just adds an extra layer of red tape to businesses  and many of them are only small. And many fashion labels, for example, are already struggling – so adding additional government regulation is not a great idea. But if it is to be successful, as I said, it is up to your readers to make it known.

Here are some of the worst offenders when it comes to extreme use of photoshop:

Mamamia sends our congratulations and one massive fist pump to the Positive Body Image Award recipients for 2012:

Winner – DOLLY Magazine, “DOLLY Magazine’s fashion sections aim to present healthy images of young women by including non-models and plus size girls in photo shoots. DOLLY only endorse age-appropriate clothes, make-up and hair styling, and adheres to a self-imposed strict retouch-free policy, which means that every image they have production control over is free from digital manipulation.”

Highly Commended – Dove BodyThink Program, “The Dove BodyThink Program is a groundbreaking teaching initiative developed globally by Dove that provides a tool for teachers and youth workers to help young people put the modern beauty world into perspective, to be more media literate and to learn how to foster a healthy sense of self esteem. The Dove BodyThink program is designed to make a difference to the lives of young people.”

Highly Commended – Girlfriend Magazine, “Girlfriend magazine has created its own body image policy that is strictly adhered to. This includes the implementation of a “no retouching” policy, whereby a person’s body shape, size, hair colour or permanent marks (such as scars and freckles) are not to be removed. It’s also committed to encouraging positive body image through the introduction of more rigorous guidelines, including the use of age-appropriate models, wearing age-appropriate clothing and makeup, and featuring readers who encompass all shapes, sizes and ethnicities.”

Commended – En Vogue Modelling Academy, “En Vogue work with models of all sizes, from size 6 through to size 26 and only use fashion stores that allow them to utilise plus size models. As a result they have broken through the barrier created by a stigma that all models must be a certain size. The main focus to promote positive body image messages is on young people aged 12 and up due to the increased demand on girls of that age to be thin, from both media and social outlets.”

Do you think the Body Image Awards will be effective at making media and advertisers think twice about using photoshop? Do you think negative body image effects us more when we’re young?


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