Perez Hilton has blogged about a Lib Dem policy paper

Last Wednesday I tweeted the unlikely words: “Never thought I’d say this, but Perez Hilton has blogged about a Lib Dem policy paper”.

It’s fair to say that the Real Women policy paper proposals on body image have stirred up quite a bit of debate: in the press, on TV & radio, in the blogosphere and, I also hope, in the pub, around the dinner table and over a cup of coffee.

Lots of women (and a few men) have got in touch to say they’re glad someone is finally trying to tackle the huge pressure on women to look slim, smooth and perfect.

Some have blogged their concerns about the policy, and I hope to answer some of the questions that have been raised.

Is there really a body image problem?

Yes, and it starts young. Research has found that girls under the age of ten equate attractiveness with happiness (1), and teenage girls rate the pressure from unrealistic images as a key political issue (2 and 3). Further along the age scale, a Grazia poll of 5000 women found that just one in fifty was happy with their body, with a third constantly worrying about the way their body looks. Frankly, a straw poll of a group of women of pretty much any age would back this up; there are few, if any, women saying there is no problem with the current body image pressure on the female form. At the extreme end, we can see a worrying rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders among the under 18s, up 47% from 562 in 2004 to 852 last year. Pictures in magazines don’t cause eating disorders, but they can negatively affect self-esteem and confidence levels, and certainly make it harder for those recovering from eating disorders (4).

Surely it’s illiberal to ban things?

The media love a good headline (”Ban airbrushed ads, say Lib Dems”), but the actual proposals say this:

1. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising.

2. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to indicate clearly the extent to which they have been airbrushed or digitally enhanced and altered.

3. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught to and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types.

4. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week.

5. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects.

6. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools.

So the proposed ban on digital retouching of bodies is only in advertisements aimed at children, recognising that young children are less able to critically assess adverts, and young teenagers are at a particularly vulnerable time of life with regard to body image. For all other adverts – the vast majority – the proposal is nothing more onerous than requiring an upfront statement about the extent of digital enhancement. No ban, no restriction on what retouching goes on: just a requirement to give people honest information about it.

Of course the ideal situation is for everyone to be well informed about how the media manipulates images, hence why we also have the crucial point about education. There are other ways to raise awareness of the issues; for example, the Swedish Government has itself commissioned a hard-hitting campaign which is well worth a look:

However any government campaign budget is tiny compared to the power of advertising, which is why the best way to ensure people are aware of the digital enhancement that goes on is to declare it on the advert itself. Would that really be the end of the world?

But could it actually work?

We’re a political party, not graphic design experts, so we’re not best placed to dictate the exact wording of the new code of conduct. However it is eminently possible to get together industry professionals to agree on standard wordings for common enhancements for the declaration statements. The ASA already enforces its code of conduct, and has the power to investigate and adjudicate on complaints relating to advertisements, so there’s no additional organisation or procedures required.

There isn’t a silver bullet to solve the problem of the unrealistic media portrayal of women; it is a huge cultural issue that needs tackling from many sides. Our proposals are a step in the right direction, both in bringing a little more reality to images of women in advertising, and in encouraging debate about what kind of images we want.

Is this really what Lib Dems care most about in a recession?

The economic crisis is having a huge impact on women, and a third of the policy ideas in “Real Women” are about financial issues and helping women get a fair deal. The paper also covers family and relationships, careers, flexible working, health and fitness, violence against women and safety on public transport.

Just because the stories on body image have been illustrated with photos of celebrities, it doesn’t follow that the issue is a trivial one. Empowering women to achieve their full potential means encouraging self-confidence, and for many women the current pressure for physical perfection undermines that.

The extensive coverage for the body image proposals is welcome, though I wish the media would devote as much airtime to our excellent policies on equal pay and childcare. I look forward to the opportunity to debate all of these issues at Conference.


1. Girlguiding UK “Under Ten and Under pressure” October 2007: “Almost all the girls made a connection between being happy and being physically attractive.”

2. Girlguiding UK “Active Citizenship” December 2008: “Put an end to the airbrushing of models’ photos in fashion magazines” was cited by 27% of girls as one of the issues they cared about most.

3. Girlguiding UK “Teenage Mental Health” July 2008: “Looking at pictures of models, popstars and actresses makes a fifth feel sad, two-fifths feel bad about themselves, and over a tenth (12%) feel angry.”

4. Beat “Has fashion got its house in order?” October 2007: “beat had conducted a survey with 100 young people – all of whom had personal experience of an eating disorder. They were clear that it wasn’t fashion or the media that made them ill, but they also felt very strongly that it made it so much more difficult for them to recover.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Excellent article, Jo.

    I don’t think I’d have been so concerned about this if I didn’t have a 7 year old daughter and could see the effects of advertising on her. A simple example – she was at a safari park with her mum the other day, spotted the meerkats and said “look mum –,” A simple, clever advert for an insurance comparison site – which has stuck in the mind of a 7 year old. If insurance can do this, then it’s inevitably going to be easier for make-up or fashion adverts.

    I’m not sure that a voluntary code, under the ASA, is necessarily the best way for this – the ASA at the moment is a fairly toothless beast in that the worst it can do is refer a company to the OFT, and the only time it’s done this (with Ryanair) the company came out with little more than a tap on the knuckles.

    But are adverts the worst thing, and should we stop there? Have a look at “America’s Next Top Model” next time it’s on. Aside from the constant bitching between contestants, there actually is some judging going on. Comments will inevitably include something like “I don’t like her, she’s too fat” aimed at an 18 year old girl who’s probably a US size 2 or 4 at most. Producers will say “but a couple of series ago we did pick the ‘plus size model’ to win” but she was probably closer to a UK size 12 or 14 – and actually looked a whole lot healthier than most of the other contestants!

    The UK version, “Britain’s Next Top Model”, included in its most recent series a contestant who was openly anorexic – she had started treatment just before the series was filmed and was in recovery for it. She made it to the final three, before the judges finally admitted / realised that it might not be the best thing for an anorexic to be launched into the world of modelling. In the previous rounds, the judges had commented on her figure – sometimes negatively, but usually positively. Should she even have been allowed to go on the show?

    I don’t particularly want my daughter to grow up with a body hang-up. At the moment, she does occasionally say “Am I fat, daddy?” but I don’t really think she understands it fully yet. However, the concept is starting to develop in her mind, and unrealistic images in the media and fashion world aren’t going to help.

  • I think Jo is campaigning on some very serious issues here which deserve to be party policy (if not already)
    The party media advisers should be helping her place features in all the womens ( and mens ) magazine markets as the tabloids will only try to monster her.

  • Daniel Bowen 12th Aug '09 - 10:43am

    I’ve heard foaming-at-mouth comments from Party members who evidently do not understand the link between distorted media images and mental health and eating disorders.

    It is not the job of politicians to dictate the terms but it is their job to find appropriate mechanisms to regulate a media that is in part out of control.

    Simonsez is right.

  • I have a question about these proposals. How do you define an advert that is aimed at children under 16? How would you enforce a new code of conduct that would presumebly ban’s all airbrushing?

    It’s an important debate but going the proposals are going the wrong way. New codes and bans will not change the culture within the media and fashion industries. Education through schools and government advertsing maybe the way forward.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Aug '09 - 11:30am

    This is really part of a much bigger issue, which is that the worship of celebrity has replaced old-fashioned religion as the guiding factor in most people’s lives, and seems to be doing an even better job at messing them up than old-fashioned religion managed to do. The extent to which top-down manufactured entertainment really does seem to dominate the way young people in particular view the world staggers me. It does seem to me to be quite a nasty culture as well, all about swaggering and forcefulness, pushing yourself to the top by pushing down on others, and about meeting impossible ideal which are held out as reachable so long as you spend, spend, spend on consumer products.

    A culture which is run on guilt that you aren’t doing enough, pushed top-down by those who have a financial interest in creating that guilt and selling remedies for it which never quite solve the problem, which is based on creating spectacle to awe the masses into conformity? Where have we seen that before?

    I have difficulty with the idea of a legislative approach to tackling cultural reform, it’s not something we’re happy about as liberals, and picking at little bits of the problem as done here really isn’t tackling the big picture, and looks ludicrous even if workable wording could be found for it. A grander way would be a popular movement to name what this is, and to challenge the enslavement by conformity which the modern celebrity culture in effect imposes on people. Tackling this new religion in this way might be more profitable than smugly fighting the old battles over old religion with Atheist Summer Camps and the like.

    Women always did tend to have more of a problem with religious guilt, and there are aspects of this new religion which are about men imposing impossible ideals on women for the satisfaction of those men. But women themselves snap up the devotional manuals, which these days are those glossy magazines which so mystify me as an atheist on these matters. Even our quality newspapers seem to have the notion that someone who is a face in the entertainment industry is somehow a more worthwhile person to fill their pages with than most other human beings. Why? Why am I supposed to think that the views of an actor or pop musician are any more interesting than the views of anyone else in this world? Why does even the lefty quality newspapers that I buy fill so many pages with this sort of thing? I’d rather read the views of anyone else if we must have such personal stuff with actors covered in no more proportion than the proportion of such people as there is in the general population. Am I entirely alone in thinking this?

    Don’t suppose that man are entirely immune from the pressures of conformity. The pressures on men to conform to a particular image of manliness are, I would say, just as strong. As someone who is small, slow, clumsy, self-effacing and everything a man is not supposed to be in today’s society, I feel these enough, and it seems to be much worse for the young and those who have not been brought up with some sort of alternative world view. There also seems to be a fair (to say the least) pressure within the gay world to conform to certain stereotypical forms.

    So Jo, this is not trivial at all, if anything it’s grander than you put it, but needs to be seen as part of the larger picture. I am just about old enough to remember the excitement of the 1960s, and how it was thought that all the personal liberation that occurred then would make us much happier and better people. What has gone wrong that now, young people in particular, seem to be more miserable than ever?

  • Libdem Guru 12th Aug '09 - 2:18pm

    Jo, do you really think that making a big thing of a tiny connection between Perez Hilton and the Libdems, is gonna make an iota of difference?

    Concentrate of policy that appeals to the electorate otherwise no-one is gonna win next June.

  • Ruth Bright 12th Aug '09 - 3:01pm

    Sorry, but has anybody who wrote this paper actually got children at a hard-pressed state school? I’ll just be grateful if my daughter comes out of school literate – is there really time for her to receive an ‘age appropriate media literacy module’?

    Jo puts into practice what she preaches. She is a great supporter of women in the party. On this occasion, though, she is surely barking up the wrong tree. Why don’t we debate real policy? Why, for example, does the party oppose the maternity food grant which helps up to 700,000 real women a year? How, pray, will we pay for the additional midwives and health visitors promised in the motion to conference?

  • Ruth – why don’t you speak to the motion at conference and find out?

  • Ruth Bright 12th Aug '09 - 3:37pm

    Simonsez – might just do that if I can afford the £155 it will cost me to go!

  • A really interesting post is destroyed by the headline. Perez Hilton FFS. Jo, you are very bright and capable. Let the blog speak for itself. This simply smacks of trying to draw hits via Google by using the name of a Sleb blogger.

    I won’t speak any more on this as I think Matthew Huntbach has very eloquently summed up my views.

  • In most women’s lives day-to-day financial pressures are far more oppressive than the ‘pressure to be stick-thin’.

    Lynne, how should we relieve those financial pressures on women. Do you oppose the Health in Maternity Grant or do you support it?

  • Lynne,

    Jo Swinson is obviously trying to get attention by using Perez Hilton, but the crux of it is that we should be thinking about the big policies not obscure ones. We have an election last year, so although your defense of Jo is admirable; it does nothing to bolster the chances of Libdems increasing market share.

    Start getting tough with the Tories.

    For example: why has someone not crucified Alan Duncan for his comments on ‘rations’. This should have been immediately picked up on by PR/Comms and Nick to use this nasty slip by Duncan.

    You are missing opportunities like this to put the Tories in a bad light and you guys miss these all of the time.

    Being a ‘NICE’ party will get you nowhere.

  • spot the obvious mistake above (hehe)….election next year not last

  • Is the Perez Hilton anywhere near the Paris Hilton!? Seriously though, this is an issue for BOTH young men and women, and also some of us who are not quite so young, but are berated in public for being ‘fat’.

  • David Allen 13th Aug '09 - 3:01pm

    The problem Libdem Guru has identified is that lying liars tell lies.

    Jo Swinson’s proposals are in fact all very moderate and reasonable. We put all sorts of controls on advertising content to ensure it is legal, decent, honest and truthful. Jo is merely advocating a limited extension.

    Sadly, this seems to have given our right-wing shock-jock type of community some bogus ammunition to fire at us, by misrepresenting the proposals as do-gooding interference gone mad etc etc, and then slagging them off for things they do not say. This does seem likely to lose us votes, quite unfairly, but it is reasonable for LDGuru to be a bit upset about that.

    How can we play it a bit more savvy, so that the Right don’t get the chance to lie about us?

    Well, maybe we should just go back to “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. Never mind whether it’s under 16s or anything. Just ask the question, what right should an advertiser be granted to present a picture which is supposed to be a real human properly portrayed, but is not?

    No right at all. OK?

  • Libdem Guru 13th Aug '09 - 4:28pm

    No…I think the HUGE point i was actually trying to make is:

    What do the general voting public REALLY think of the Libdems?

    And why are they not voting for us in large numbers; when the main two parties are in complete and utter disarray?

    Is this not what Cowley Street and PR/Comms should be focussing on!!!

    (Not good Mr Allen to try and twist my words and thoughts)

  • David Allen 13th Aug '09 - 5:11pm

    Sorry Mr Guru, I actually quite agree with your point, my follow-up was not intended to distort or twist but merely to draw an inference relevant to the topic! Cheers

  • Libdem Guru 13th Aug '09 - 5:52pm

    thanks david

    i care about this party a great deal but so much needs to get sorted and quickly

  • Apart from getting cheap hits from chavs searching for Perez Hilton’s celebrity blog is there any other reason why this is imprinted firmly at the top of the page ?

  • Who – or what – is Perez Hilton anyway?

  • Tim Nichols 6th Sep '09 - 4:05pm

    @Libdem Guru

    One of the main reasons why Cameron has gained support is that he has made policies and created a narrative for the party that chime with the tremendous desire people are expressing for a better quality of life without so many of our modern day consumerist pressures. A more interesting Hilton is Steve Hilton, the architect of the the party’s new image and narrative, who is a PR genius and knew exactly how to respond to all the research evidence on what kind of changes people desire in their lives and our society.

    Jo has always been ahead of the vast majority of the parliamentary party in arguing for us to have a strong narrative about quality of life; and to innovate policies driven by fundamental Lib Dem principles that would break away the economistic politics of the last 30 years and put social wellbeing and environmental sustainability ahead of market dogma and the fixation with GDP growth.

    We don’t need a focus on ‘big policies’. I doubt you will find a single piece of evidence from polling, focus groups, sociological research or anything that suggests that is what we need. Voters tell us again and again that they want to know what values we stand for and what kind of people we are, because currently they don’t have any sense of that, so it is hard to put any trust in us. Making stands on value issues like this, which are important to the lives of millions of women – and men – is exactly what we need to do.

    If we follow your advice for a traditional and dull focus on ‘big policies’ rather than a social vision that people can relate to and want to personally buy into, we will never get anywhere.

    Last year we had a supposed ‘vision and values’ paper that was actually nothing of the sort. It was a dull and very badly designed pre-manifesto. We also set aside 90 minutes to debate it, but the whole time was given over to a pointless debate about whether we should have some tax cuts that were tiny in the big scheme of things. The whole debate was as pointless as bald men fighting over a comb given the economic crisis that was unfolding and the inevitable impact it was going to have on the public purse.

    So the one thing that we really needed to get right to gain more voters, we completely failed on. And 99% of Lib Dems I’ve talked to don’t understand that the debate that day was an utter disaster. Delegates even talked about what a good day for the party it was because we had a jolly good debate on the tax, but the leadership survived the vote.

    It is people like Jo who offer the party the chance of a bright future, not the dull and orthodox technocrats who have dominated the parliamentary party in recent years while we blew our best ever chance of a major breakthrough.

  • Not just Perez Hilton, also the focus of an article in today’s New York Times.

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  • By I’ve been emailed by a Real Woman on Wed 19th August 2009 at 8:55 am.

    […] readers of the Voice should know by now – Jo Swinson MP penned a piece on Perez and photoshopping last week – the Lib Dems have a policy paper on women’s rights. The […]

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