Jo Swinson MP writes: Making inroads into our looks-obsessed culture

Last year, Lynne Featherstone MP and I launched the Campaign for Body Confidence. Since then, we have been raising the profile of the urgent need to address increasing body dissatisfaction in the UK. Everyone should be able, whatever their size, shape, age or skin colour, to feel good about their body.

The bombardment of super-skinny flawless models advertising everything from face cream to cars is puts an overwhelming pressure on women, men and children to conform to impossible and unrealistic beauty ‘ideals’. This is damaging our sense of wellbeing and leading to increasing unhappiness, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders in women, particularly amongst young people and children – and men. Everyone is feeling the strain, with 1 in 4 Brits currently depressed about their bodies, and 47% girls claiming that the most negative part of being female is the pressure to look good.

All around us, beauty is increasingly being equated with flawless perfection, as men and women strive for the ‘ideal’ body they see in magazines. These narrow ideals are being sculpted through media images of impossibly beautiful people, with no diversity of body sizes and shapes.

So what would we like to see? To start, more honesty and transparency in advertising: following one of our Real Women campaigns in 2009, 700 people complained to the ASA about an anti-wrinkle cream ad featuring Twiggy, where her own wrinkles had been airbrushed out. A diversity of body shapes and sizes in magazines, advertising, broadcast and on the catwalk is urgently needed – something our campaign partners All Walks Beyond the Catwalk have successfully been promoting. We must move away from our appearance-obsessed culture and give children positive examples of using their bodies, as well as bolstering their resilience and self-esteem with media literacy and body confidence lessons in schools.

The growing body of scientific evidence also reinforces the urgent need to address this problem. I recently presented a portfolio of studies to the Advertising Standards Authority on the impact of media images on body image and behaviours. 172 of these studies detailed within it overwhelmingly showed that children and adults suffered negative effects from exposure to idealised media images. Many showed that over the long term, viewing these images lead to severe body image pressures. Its conclusions were rejected by the ASA, but we are continuing to put pressure on the advertising industry to change its practices.

With the newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image and action from our campaign partners on all fronts to push forward the body confidence agenda, we are making inroads into our looks-obsessed culture. It’s time to move toward a more realistic portrayal of bodies in the media, because men, women and children deserve to enjoy life without the distress of feeling inadequate compared to the retouched, resized and idealised pictures they see.

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  • I am at a loss as to how the upsurge in the demand for cosmetic surgery and the “ideal” body image has come about. After all, it was the Feminist movement that got rid of the Miss World contest taking place in the UK. And in the eighties, young women were going around dressed in dungarees and Doc Martin boots. It was the feminist movement that accused men of using and portraying women as sex objects. And now it seems that is exactly what women want to be!
    However, regarding fitness and health, if National Insurance contributions were banded at 15%; 12%; 10% and 8% with 15% being the standard rate. The 12% rate for those who take part in three 5 kilometre road races per year; 10% rate for those who complete the jogs in 35 minutes or under and 8% for those who completed the jog/race in 23 minutes or less. Those who qualified for the 8% contribution would be the correct bodyweight/ dress size for their height. It is impossible to be overweight and move that quickly at the same time.

    This is using the “visible hand of capitalism” to make it in a persons’ self-interest to reduce their taxation and their weight at the same time.

  • Paul McKeown 21st Jul '11 - 4:25pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Lynne Featherstone and yourself in this campaign. I would hope that it receives broader support from the Liberal Demoocrats, as it is certain to be well received by a sizeable part of the British public. What I notice, though, is that there do not appear to be specific proposals for changes to statute, industry guidelines or the like.

  • Ruth Bright 21st Jul '11 - 5:35pm

    Oh for goodness sake – how on earth would you use “statute” to protect women from being oppressed by adverts for face cream? Can’t we get a sense of proportion about this?

    Jo is a courageous campaigner (witness her question in yesterday’s hacking debate) but this Mumsnet nanny state stuff is a poor use of a Liberal’s time.

    “Real women” are worried about health, jobs, education, childcare. As a size 12, 44 year-old I wish I had enough time on my hands to feel threatened by a retouched picture of Kate Middleton on the front of a magazine. Fortunately I have a life.

  • Paul McKeown 21st Jul '11 - 6:33pm


    Yes, Jo Swinson is a courageous campaigner, she is also an excellent communicator, and in my view, a potential future Lib Dem party leader. Perhaps you are right that statute is not needed, but, as we now clearly currently see with the press, setting standards for themselves is something that industries can do very badly. I see nothing “illiberal” about requiring the advertising, fashion, cosmetics, film and media industries to present realistic images for young women to aspire to, nor requiring them to present a positive image of older women or different physical characterics. That you do not feel threatened by a retouched picture of Kate Middleton, does not stop other less well adjusted children, teenagers or women from developing unrealistic ideas of how women should look and potentially engaging in harmful diets, undergoing unnecessary cosmetic surgery, suffering anxiety or depression. Real people should indeed be worried about health, jobs, education and childcare, but government ought to have the capacity to deal with a large number of other issues, too. (Incidentally, I would suggest that this campaign relates to health, education and childcare.)

  • Ruth Bright 21st Jul '11 - 7:54pm

    No of course not, but I fail to see how any of this would protect the young and the vulnerable either.

  • Ruth Bright 22nd Jul '11 - 9:14am

    Sadly I feel all this is about our party (where women are so painfully under-represented) being seen to tick the “women” box.

    I wish our female MPs would empower women and mothers in a serious way – perhaps by restoring the health in pregnancy grant which they allowed the coalition to abolish without a squeak or not forcing single mums back to work without affordable childcare.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 22nd Jul '11 - 11:11am

    @ Geoffrey Payne “Presumably it works because they keep on doing it?”

    It’s worked since time immemorial, that’s why they keep doing it.
    Image has been used as a mighty tool since the dawn of time and there’s nothing we can do about that.
    The ‘wrong’ bit is that the graphic wizardry in use these days make for fraudulent imagery.

    We need to tackle this dishonesty, whatever it portrays. Whether it be Twiggy’s wrinkles or a shot of Nigella’s sensuous apple pie, a prominent “DOCTORED PHOTO” stamp would quickly disabuse readers of any notion that they too can aspire to be domestic goddesses with flawless complexions.

    Enhancing pictures is straight out of the manual for snake-oil salesmen and that’s what we need to stop.

  • Martin Liddament 27th Jul '11 - 8:26am

    Collections of research papers that have been self-assembled by politicians always make me suspicious. Is Jo’s portfolio of research a peer-reviewed metastudy that takes in all the evidence, viewed as a whole, or is it a collection of only those studies whose findings support the campaign?

    Unfortunately I find the assertions oppressive. Politicians would like the creative sector, in whatever form it shows itself, to take the blame for society’s ills, many of which they have created themselves. It is a soft target, operating in the zone of feelings and emotions rather than clear cause and effect, so anyone can claim anything about its impact. That is why our theatre was censored up until 1968 and why photographers and retouchers are having a hard time at the moment.

    If Jo was around when Leonardo da Vinci was painting would she have told him to cut down on the egg white because the Mona Lisa’s skin really didn’t look like that? That kind of interference is where this is heading.

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