Two years ago I was asked to chair the National Body Image Advisory Group. It was a diverse mix of 12 people who were invited by the then Minister for Youth and Sport, Kate Ellis MP to come together in order to provide the government with some recommendations about how to tackle the issue of body image. There were representatives from the magazine and fashion industries, psychologists and professors who work in the field of eating disorders, community groups who work with youth and body image and eating disorder advocates and charities.
We met several times in person over the following nine months and more frequently via phone conferences and email. Public submissions were opened – anyone could state their case, make suggestions and re-tell their experiences in the area of body image.
Why the fuss? Because in every annual survey by Mission Australia, body image showed up as the number #1 concern among young women AND men. And when you consider that every single face and body they see in a magazine or billboard has been digitally altered (so, in effect, doesn’t exist), is it that surprising?
One of the things we were asked to look at as part of our recommendations was a voluntary code of conduct for the media, advertising and fashion industries. “Why voluntary?” demanded some people?
The answer to that was, at the time, simple. It’s impossible to legislate around subjective terms like ‘thin’. And it’s inappropriate for fashion editors, designers, art directors or photographers to be running around shoots and castings with calipers and calculators, determining the BMI of models.
So the answer, we thought, was self-regulation. Diversity in the kinds of models that are featured in magazines and in advertising and on catwalks is half the battle. The other, more insidious half, is re-touching.
Because you can look at a tall, skinny blonde white girl on a catwalk and say, “Oh, she’s tall and white and blonde and skinny and I’m not.” But what if you saw a picture of a tall, skinny, blonde white girl in a magazine and she wasn’t any of those things. Perhaps she is short but she’s been stretched. Perhaps she is size 12 but her body has been carved into to make her a size 8. Or 6. Perhaps her hair was brown but it was made blonde with a computer. Perhaps her skin was dark but it was lightened.