Jo Swinson: “Ban airbrushing in children’s adverts”

“Real Women,” a new policy paper from the Liberal Democrats’ women’s policy group, has proposed a set of measures to protect women and girls from body image pressure and to encourage healthier lifestyles.

These include:

· Children to be protected from body image pressure by banning airbrushing in advertising aimed at under 16s
· Adverts aimed at adults to indicate clearly the extent to which they have been airbrushed or digitally enhanced
· Cosmetic surgery advertisements to give surgery success rates
· Modules on body image, health and well-being, and media literacy to be taught in schools
· Schools to include greater choice in physical activity to stop teenage girls dropping out of exercising
· Money to be invested in improving school and community sports facilities to make them cleaner, safer and more female-friendly

Jo Swinson MP, who leads the group, said,

“Today’s unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing mean that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no-one can live up to in real life.

“We need to help protect children from these pressures and we can make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them.

“The focus on women’s appearance has got out of hand – no-one really has perfect skin, perfect hair and a perfect figure, but women and young girls increasingly feel that nothing less than perfect will do.

“Liberal Democrats believe in the freedom of companies to advertise but we also believe in the freedom of young people to develop their self-esteem and to be as comfortable as possible with their bodies. They shouldn’t constantly feel the need to measure up to a very narrow range of digitally manipulated shapes and sizes.”

You can read more in the Telegraph.

The Real Women policy paper also contains sections on feeling safe, money, work and family issues.

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This entry was posted in News and Party policy and internal matters.


  • This is a /fantastic/ idea.

    And Duncan as to ‘how do you tell’ you can’t necessarily tell if a photo has been ‘shopped but the law mainly works through self enforcement. If people accept that this is immoral and illegal they will self-enforce the law and report people who break it. If people are worried about someone else reporting them they won’t do it.

    Of course it might not stop all photoshopping of children’s adds but it should certainly reduce it.

  • Nick Hodder 3rd Aug '09 - 3:08pm

    Good point Mark Wright, an interesting idea. Sounds a bit like the large messages on cigarette packets. It would certainly ruin a few front pages of magazines and make them think twice about using airbrushed pics.

  • Banning is illiberal. Mark Wright’s idea is both liberal and sensible.

  • I’m rather concern over a call to ban such images, especially coming from the Lib Dems (I became a Lib Dem voter precisely because of the illiberal behaviour of the two main parties).

    Flagging up such images would be more than sufficient (and in line with rules for commercial advertising where the viewer may be misled).

    How broadly would this apply? My understanding is that manipulation of images is rather common – we’re not just talking about making a woman look thinner, but rather its use to correct issues in the photograph. I mean, is something as trivial as adjusting the lighting going to be banned? If not, how is the line going to be drawn? It seems unworkable. Even as far as flagging images, there’s a good chance that all that’ll happen is that every advert will continually say “this image has been manipulated”, making the whole thing pointless anyway (similar to “This product may contain nuts”).

    Is this official Lib Dem policy? The media (e.g., the BBC) are reporting it as if it is. It’s unclear what position the “women’s policy group” has in the party, and whether their proposals are likely to become official Lib Dem policy (if not already)?

    Is there a link to the paper online?

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 11:07pm

    And what happens if a bar chart in a political leaflet has been edited to make some of the bars longer and/or shorter than they should be? Should that bar chart be banned altogether, or should it just have a caption saying “This bar chart has been digitally manipulated”?

  • Libdem Guru 4th Aug '09 - 1:38pm

    has jo not got anything better to do with her time…and our money???

  • Daniel Owen 4th Aug '09 - 2:20pm

    I don’t doubt that there are people out there who feel the social pressure that you describe, and that it is miserable for them. But it does not logically follow that the government should step in. Yes, there are people who feel bad about themselves – that’s life. And getting past those insecurities and realising what’s really important is part of growing up. Governments have no more of a role in shaping a society’s notion of ‘beauty’ than they do in shaping its understanding of sartorial style or sofa design trends.

    As I argued previously, Ms Swinson’s proposal would, in any case, be utterly ineffective (even if, as you suggest, it is extended to all publications). Visual media will continue to use actors and models who look attractive; they will continue to use make-up, lighting, costume and photographic techniques to make those actors and models look even more attractive; and that will continue to apply the social pressure that you describe. Perhaps you think there should be a government censor on every film, TV and photo set to make aesthetic judgements on whether or not the cast are ‘excessively’ attractive?

    Governments can, should and do promote healthy lifestyles. They can and should ensure that our education systems help to instill a healthy sense of self-confidence in our children. They can, should and do provide counselling and other services for when individual insecurities become severe. But in a free society (Ms Swinson supposedly belongs to a ‘liberal’ party), governments should not be interfering in the minutiae of creative industries.

  • “The Real Women policy paper also contains sections on feeling safe, money, work and family issues.”

    Then why on earth is the bit we choose to feature the airbrushing of photos? I can’t believe those four aren’t more serious concerns to women.

  • Helen Duffett 4th Aug '09 - 3:59pm

    Hywel, all the topics will be published and discussed in due course.

  • If airbrushing is to be banned in order to avoid unrealistic representations of body image in magazines then surely, – in logic – we must also ban the following from photographic shoots for magazines:
    – make-up
    – artificial lights
    – reflectors (used to achieve an ‘up-lighting’ effect
    – camera filters
    – breathing in.

    Daft, daft, daft & dangerously illiberal.

  • “Give me an ugly politician who says the right thing any day.”

    Didn’t that idea die with Nixon in the 1960 Presidential debates?
    (I’m not suggesting that Nixon was right but a people listening to the radio debates had Nixon as the “winner”)

    And didn’t we dump Ming (who whatever else you say can’t be accused of lacking substance) for Nick?

    Fair enough – but I’m not convinced that we get a lot of coverage for the second release of a policy paper.

  • Simply teaching visual culture and giving citizens a firm grounding in how media manipulation works is not enough – being flooded with images, whether believable/realistic or not, has both subconscious and conscious impact – face it, to stop airbrushing today is not going to sweep all the ways youth destroy their health in pursuit of idealized body shapes, whether we’re looking at eating disorders of steroid use. Would it be so outrageous to take an inclusive position and couple education regarding media manipulation, basic human physiology/health/nutrition AND curtail the bombardment of under 16’s (i’d suggest both female and male) with images that present unrealistic bodies as the norm and effectively denigrate the wonderful variety of human form?

  • Mark, why would the party’s media operation be congratulated on getting publicity for the most nonsensical part of any policy paper? Anyone can do that.

    If the idea that opposing Labour style micro-management of absolutely everything in society is callous I am extremely callous and proud of it.

  • Helen Duffett 5th Aug '09 - 12:55pm

    I agree with kiki. Both advertisers and parents have responsibilities, to boys and girls alike.

    Note: the policy paper is talking about banning airbrushed ads aimed at children. I think there’s a special case to be made for protecting kids: they’re visual, spontaneous, literal, often pre-literate. Still forming their self-image and developing their critical skills.

    Ads aimed at children are by their nature intended to bypass adult interpretation and play directly to children’s desires. This crosses a line.

    Parents have a tough job raising their children to be whole, healthy people – especially when outnumbered by media which are accessible, ubiquitous and hungry for the pocket money and pester power of the tween market.

    It’s neither nonsensical nor micro-management to consider the vulnerable. Hell, I’m horrified that the number of girls under 9 who are being treated for eating disorders is now up 25%. Though I wonder how much of that is influenced by media aimed at adults but seen by children. So that’s a whole ‘nother censorship/choice issue…

  • “Note: the policy paper is talking about banning airbrushed ads aimed at children.”

    How many of these are there? Surely many of these sorts of things are promoting beauty & clothing products and are aimed equally at adults and children.

    “Hell, I’m horrified that the number of girls under 9 who are being treated for eating disorders is now up 25%.”
    A bit of googling gives me the figures that they are up from 35 to 44 which puts the %age figure into a bit of context

  • Those are hospital admissions – presumably there are some being treated out of hospital.

  • @Mark

    That may be the strategy but this story made it onto the BBC politics pages, the immeasurably more serious story on rape convictions hasn’t (at least as yet)

  • Herbert Brown 7th Aug '09 - 11:48am

    “44% of girls under 9 have received hospital treatment for an eating disorder?? I’m afraid that’s a statistic that I find particularly hard to swallow.”

    I think it’s “44 girls”, not “44% of girls”!

  • It’s not just girls who drop out of excercise. I would have done almost anything to be allowed to get out of PE at school (come to think of it, I did an extra GCSE that I neither needed nor wanted to avoid an extra half an hour of excercise). The problem with sport in schools is that, if you’re no good at it (I am dispraxic, and therefore hopelessly un-co-ordinated) it becomes a sort of ritual humiliation.

  • “Hywel: of those different parts of the policy paper, the one that looks to me most likely to get media interest is the one that’s been press released first. ‘Lib Dems say women should feel safe’, even spiced up a bit, doesn’t really have the same news value (it’s what lots of people have been saying for a long time). Whatever the merits of the proposal (and I’ll be interested to see Jo’s response on the question of why ban rather than label), it seems to me this is a good example of the party’s media operation working as it should – take something from a policy paper and get widespread media coverage for it.”

    Except the media has reported this as “Lib Dems want to ban airbrushing”. With no caveats or anything.

    Terrible policy, which is searching for a problem to fix which doesn’t exist.

  • Alan Knight 8th Aug '09 - 4:30pm

    Policies have to be practical and much as it may be desirable to ban airbrushing I wonder if it is feasible. I would like to see a draft bill which can be checked by leading lawyers.

  • Libdem Guru 8th Aug '09 - 7:11pm

    i can’t believe you lot are still debating this minor point. has miss swinson and the party not got better things to do?

  • Based on a Google news search on Lynne’s quote in the rape figures story and the phrase “one in 16″/”1 in 16” that story has not been reported anywhere in the mainstream media.

    If the strategy was a partial release of different aspects then it doesn’t seem to have worked.

  • Oh dear Mark – what’s of most interest to the media is knee jerk reactionism. So why not get rid of anything Liberal in our policies and simply regurgitate lowest common denominator bollocks that fuels the lick spittled prejudice of the Sun, Mail and Express? Or we could call ourselves Liberals and stop idiotic policy working groups chaired by self publicising MPs coming up with shite like this. In fact – lets get rid of self appointed, self interested, self seeking policy groups altogether – they always come up with stuff that either accepts ‘expert’ producer interest or lunatic ill thought out useless drivel like this. We might be able to save some money that might go some way to pay off the half a million defecit we ran up last year.

  • @Mark

    The party’s own Real Women site collecting media comment on the policy paper only gives links to “airbrushing stories” and nothing on the rape convictions point.

    On your second point, it could of course be true that the media are more interested in gimmicky and superficial stories than more serious ones….

  • Libdem Guru 12th Aug '09 - 3:16pm

    Does on-one understand the media at Cowley Street? (i’m beginning to wonder)

    Mind you, do they understand the voting public or party members?

  • I welcome this move and do not consider it illiberal at all. A ban on airbrushing / retouching children’s advertisements (and compulsory labelling for other advertisements) would merely complement the existing stringent laws against misleading advertising. I used to work in this area as a consumer lawyer at the OFT and (even though it is accepted market practice and has not been subject to regulatory challenge) there is a good argument that any retouching of a model’s image in an advertisement is unlawful. Using Snow-White in an advert would not be misleading, as she is clearly a cartoon character, but using a manipulated image of a person is likely to be misleading unless the retouching would be obvious to the average member of the target audience (e.g. the average girl aged 10-14).

    As for what any ban / warning statement would apply to, I think we can clearly distinguish between make-up / lighting etc, which should remain legal (as it represents exactly what the camera captured during the shoot), and manipulation of a digital or printed image, which should be subject to control.

    And on a moral level, what is the social harm in insisting that advertisers use unmanipulated images in children’s advertisements? I can see that this may lead to the adverts being very slightly less effective but surely this commercial interest would be strongly outweighed by the public interest.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Aug '10 - 9:35pm

    I think the whole concept of “Real Women” is ill-conceived and offensive. The implication is that some women (usually, ones who are not thin) are “real” whereas other women presumably are not. At least that is always the impression given in the endless newspaper articles and TV programmes championing “real women”, which invariably include a torrent of abuse aimed at “skinny” and “skeletal” (i.e. not real) women.

    The whole thing stinks. All women are real women, whatever size and shape they are, and it is simply crass to think that you can improve the confidence of one group of women by marginalising a different group of women. I’d be interested to know what the Lib Dem definition of a “real woman” is. If it is simply any woman, then what’s with all this “real” nonsense?

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