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Voluntary code of conduct: why I was wrong.

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?

This image has been stretched.

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.

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So, what exactly are you looking at? An illustration? Which would be fine if it didn’t look like a real person. A real person that you will probably compare yourself to, even if it’s sub-consciously.

The code was formally introduced by the government in  June 2010.

Here it is:

 

VOLUNTARY INDUSTRY CODE OF CONDUCT ON BODY IMAGE

Organisations that sign up to this Code of Conduct will abide by the following principles:

Positive content and messaging

Use positive content and messaging to support the development of a positive body image and realistic and healthy physical goals and aspirations among consumers.

 

Realistic and natural images of people

Should not use digital technology in a way that alters images of people so that their body shape and features are unrealistic or unattainable through healthy practices.

Make consumers aware of the extent to which images of people have been manipulated.

Healthy weight models

Use models that are clearly of a healthy weight.

Appropriate modelling age

Only use people aged 16 years or older to model adult clothes or to work or model in fashion shows targeting an adult audience.

Fashion retailers supporting positive body image

Stock a wide variety of sizes that reflects demand from customers.

And then what happened?

Nothing. Oh wait, re-touching got worse.

It’s time we were told when images like this are altered.

Apart from a few notable exceptions (Shop Til You Drop consistently feature a diverse mix of ‘real women’ of all shapes, sizes and nationalities on their shopping pages as well as a plus-sized monthly columnist) NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

The Body Image Code of Conduct has been given the fashionable middle finger by those it was aimed at.

Newspapers are able to self-regulate via the Press Council‘s guidelines. So why can’t magazines?

That’s why I’ve changed my mind. Voluntary doesn’t work. The disclosure of digitally altered images must be mandatory. It’s just not going to happen otherwise.

This is not difficult to do. It could be done in an instant. All it requires is a small symbol to be agreed on and appear wherever a digitally altered image appears. It doesn’t even have to appear on the image (although that would be my preference). Wherever you have a photograph, you need a credit. These usually appear in the ‘gutter’ of the magazine, the inside of the page along the inside spine.

There is plenty of room for a symbol to appear next to the photographer credit.

So how about it?

UPDATE & CLARIFICATION:
Let me be clear about something. In the post above, I said I though the idea of a voluntary aspect of the code of conduct was ineffective, something I am genuinely disappointed to discover after its introduction failed to cause any discernible change in the way magazines treat their images.
However, nowhere did I say that the work of the Body Image Advisory Group as a whole was a mistake or ill-conceived.
The opposite. I remain proud of what we did and the measures that were introduced.
This is from the Govt’s website:

In June 2010, the Australian Government announced body image initiatives to promote positive body image among young people.

These initiatives focus on building young people’s resilience to negative body image pressures and promoting leadership and positive cultural change in the fashion, media and advertising industries.

To help build young people’s resilience to body image pressures, the Government has:

Funded The Butterfly Foundation, the leading national charity focused on eating disorders and negative body image, to expand their body image education services. Over 2500 educators will receive new resources through this initiative, with an expected reach of over 100 000 young people.
Commissioned Education Services Australia to develop body image posters and supporting materials for school communities. These resources will provide practical guidance to assist schools embed positive body image policies and practices in their school environment.

To promote cultural change in the fashion, media and advertising industries, the Government has endorsed and released the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image developed by the former National Advisory Group on Body Image. The Code outlines principles to guide the media, advertising and fashion industries to adopt more body image friendly practices.

The Government, through the Department of Health and Ageing, is also investing $3.5 million over four years (2009–2013) for the related issue of tackling eating disorders.

The announcement of these initiatives included the release of a statement in response to the recommendations made to Government by the former National Advisory Group on Body Image.

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