opinion

Senator Deborah O'Neill: 'A very welcome change is coming to your social media feed.'

Senator Deborah O’Neill: ‘A very welcome change is coming to your social media feed.’

Millions of Australian women have flipped through magazines and poured over images of celebrities and models. Alongside those images were the stories and advice and headlines promising we’d achieve our “sexiest body ever”.

Now, with the rise of social media and the persistence of digital connectivity, Australian women of all ages can endlessly scroll through curated images of toned models, celebrities and social media influencers.

While social media can be great for connecting with loved ones, we also know that it facilitates the consumption of imagery that can be damaging for men and women’s body image.

Men are met with images of chiselled torsos and sculpted, strong limbs. You know it, the Adonis ideal. Women face a barrage of ‘perfection’ – perfect hair, teeth, skin and bodies with curves in all the ‘right’ places.

The pressure to imitate these body types – that often become idealised – can be harmful to our mental, physical, and emotional health. And, it’s well established that this can be associated with the development of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, which affects over one million Australian men and women. Of all psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders have amongst the highest mortality rates.

A lot of the time the portrayal of these ‘ideal’ bodies is often unattainable or only attainable through unhealthy practices thanks to digital alteration. You’ve seen it before: the model’s waist has been tightened – and it’s disproportional to the rest of their body. It’s literally impossible to look like that.

Reality TV star/influencer Khloe Kardashian has come under fire several times for altering images of herself. Image: Instagram.

Portraying heavily manipulated images or those that cannot be attained through healthy practices is harmful – it harms our sense of self and the way we perceive our own bodies. But the good news is we are seeing some progress in this area.

I am proud of the noise we’re making that’s drawing attention to this important issue. Earlier this year, I called on fashion, media, and advertising bodies to revisit the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image that was established by the Federal Labor Government in 2009. Labor noticed a gap in existing guidelines and introduced this Code of Conduct as a result of the National Advisory Group on Body Image that sought to increase the use of realistic images and improve the diversity of those portrayed.

This Code of Conduct was all but abandoned after the 2013 election by the Liberal Government. The Code was essentially filed away into a bottom draw, never revisited again. There remains still no trace of the Code on any government website.

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But today I am going to make some more noise – applause.

It is with joy I can say that the advertising industry has heard my earlier call for action.

Last Friday, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) launched an updated Code of Ethics Practice Note, written to assist advertisers in their understanding of how the Code of Ethics applies to the portrayal of body image in advertising.

This new note prohibits advertising that depicts unrealistic bodies. Advertising that provides an unrealistic body image by portraying body shapes or features that are unattainable through healthy practices, which is not justifiable in the context of the product or service being advertised, may no longer be permissible.

This is a huge win in the pursuit of good mental health and positive body image.

Practically, it means tightening a model’s waist disproportionately to the rest of their body may breach the Code of Ethics.

Importantly, the Code is technology neutral, which means this will apply to all ads, including on social media – a medium which advertisers are increasingly using thanks to the rise of influencers.

And, if an ad is found in breach it must be removed and never used again.

This is an important step to addressing the root causes of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Whilst I welcome this move with open arms, I look forward to seeing the effects of this and will be keeping a watchful eye on how its enforceability plays out in practice.

I am also going to make another call for action – this time, for all of you reading this. As citizens, we all have a role to play in creating a healthy society. So, I am calling on you to report ads that you feel are not complying with the Code of Ethics. If you see them on Facebook, Instagram or in magazines make a complaint to Ad Standards here.

I too will be keeping my eyes open. I’ll be on the lookout for facial features and body shapes that cannot be attained through healthy practices - because, thankfully, they are now no longer permissible.

Together, we can do this. We are the community. Let us reset the dial on prevailing community standards.

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