Why the Real Women proposals are flawed

ATTENTION: features conference amendment!

The Real Women policy paper which we’ll be discussing on Saturday afternoon at Lib Dem Federal Conference is, on the whole, a very good one. It contains lots of proposals which will help make women’s lives better, covering issues like safety, childcare, health and discrimination.

But there is one significant part of the policy motion which is flawed and that’s in the sections covering body image. Basically, the problem is that it seeks to use state legislation and regulation to tackle issues which can only really be addressed through processes of cultural change. As a result, its proposals are largely unworkable and will not make the promised difference to women’s lives.

First of all, section 3 of the motion seeks to require Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority to ‘mainstream’ gender equality into their regulation of the media. Now, apart from being completely ungrammatical – there’s no such verb as ‘to mainstream’ – what does that actually mean? What images or portrayals of women would be banned under this proposal? How on earth do you define what is and isn’t an acceptable level of gender equality? And how do you give effect to that in legislation? It sounds to me rather like a recipe for arbitrary censorship.

The other part of this section is equally unacceptable: to require all advertisements to declare the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfect and unrealistic images of women (and men). For a start, there’s an instant get-out  in that last clause: advertisers can simply claim that the images they’re creating are not overly perfect or unrealistic. Again, how can you actually define that in legislation or in an advertising code of conduct? What level of unreality is unacceptable?

But apart from that, this proposal doesn’t even work on its own terms. A model used in an ad might have had a tummy tuck, breast enhancements and a nose job. She might have been on a diet of no more than a lettuce leaf a day. She might be using half a tonne of cosmetics. The photographer might be using special lighting, soft focus and filters on the camera. The location and costume may have probably been chosen specially to enhance the model’s image. But heaven help the photographer if he or she uses Photoshop to lighten skin tone a little or hide a tiny blemish!

Similar issues apply to section 4 of the motion, which seeks an outright ban on digital retouching on ads aimed at under-16s. Again, how do can you decide whether an ad is specifically targeted at under-16s? And guess what, girls and boys who aren’t yet 16 do read Cosmo, Vogue or FHM and can be influenced by the images they see there. In what way will a ban on airbrushing achieve its stated goals of making youngsters more comfortable with their own bodies? This section also contains a proposal for lessons in schools on body image, which I think is fair enough. However, given that we in the Lib Dems believe in slimming down the centrally-imposed national curriculum in schools, I believe that the decision on whether and how to provide such lessons is one best left for schools and local authorities to decide.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve submitted an amendment to the Real Women motion which seeks to ensure that the issues relating to body image are dealt with through processes of cultural change rather than through legislation or regulation. The state can not and should not be getting involved in this area. I hope conference representatives will support this.

I certainly don’t believe that issues relating to body image are unimportant – far from it. But they can only be addressed by people campaigning directly for the changes they want in the way women and men are portrayed in the media. I happen to believe that neither women nor men are such fragile creatures that they need the state to step in and do that on their behalf.

Bernard Salmon is a member of Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber Lib Dems and blogs at The Sound of Gunfire.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 7:13pm

    Ah’m with Bernard on this one.

  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 7:17pm

    @Jane, “how do you suppose we achieve this cultural change if we aren’t going to use any mechanism to encourage it”

    At a guess, I’d suggest direct involvement/contact with the modelling industry and/or the magazines would be a good place to start. Not easy, of course, but then nor is enacting legislation. I don’t know the industry at all, but surely if a group were committed enough they could find someone who did and could advise them on the best way to lobby. If not the bosses, has anyone thought of approaching the models? They vote too, some of them must have informed and perhaps quite nuanced opinions on the matter. There was one did an undercover documentary about the seamy side of modelling etc recently, which touched on some of the health issues. Wonder if she’d be interested in talking to campaigners?

  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 7:58pm

    Not necessarily true. It depends what comes out of the talking phase. What you’ve just described, i.e. a set in their ways industry, and models who are tightly controlled, is the status quo for sure. But we’re in the business of changing the status quo, right? There are a few murmurings from a couple of models brave enough to lead the way and speak up. There are some magazines occasionally publishing pics of “real” women – though it’s largely tokenistic and infrequent, I understand the consensus in the industry is that it’s “better than it used to be”. If things are changing in the industry, a determined lobby group with the right contacts and funding could try pushing on an opening door.

    Suppose the industry is actually wrong about what makes women buy clothes? Suppose if we saw pictures of women like ourselves, we’d be more likely to buy the clothes and make-up they’re wearing? (I would, because I find it difficult to find skirts that look good. If I knew a model had more or less my body shape, I’d be more likely to buy skirts). Clearly, there’s no way the industry is going to voluntarily risk trying that out and discovering it for themselves, in case it all goes wrong. But what if you can lobby them to do it just once, or as part of a PR exercise, or put some other incentive in it for them? Then let the incentive – more clothes buying – speak for itself?

    All this is the bit I’m hazy on, because as I say I don’t know the industry. This is where talking to models, magazine subs and other assorted underlings, as well as the top bosses, would really help. Maybe it’s nothing to do with the high street clothes – maybe it’s all run by the couture brands, or by the cosmetic giants. The people who work in different bits of the industry – especially, I reckon, the junior people, who often know better than their bosses what makes the latter tick – might have suggestions for a determined lobby group seeking to change behaviour, but we’ll never find that out if we don’t ask.

  • In addition, ‘to mainstream’ something is grammatically fine. It might not be fine in terms of vocabulary, though I have no problem understanding it.

    I am not with Bernard or Alix, and I think Jane is right.

    I’ll be backing the motion in full, because some honest regulation (working in a framework that already exists within the Advertising Standards Authority) will have a cultural impact where one has simply been impossible. Occassionally, action is needed, and whilst I agree this would hopefully be a temporary measure, like the ‘safe carriages’.

    I think Ignatieff put it succinctly when he said of a Liberal view: “There is such a thing as society, and government’s purpose is to shape a society in which individual freedom can flourish.”

    I would say that the changes, minor regulation, and small freedom-promoting would do just that: ‘Shape’ and nothing more, to allow individual freedom to flourish.

    (It is a good speech of useful soundbites by the way: http://www.liberal.ca/en/michael-ignatieff/speeches/16008_isaiah-berlin-lecture-liberal-values-in-tough-times)

  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 7:59pm

    Sorry, the “Not necessarily true” etc was my answer to Jane.

  • @ Alix,

    I agree with your idea that a determined lobby group could be a good idea, but the biggest, swiftest effect would be a temporary extension (not strengthening) of the ASA’s remit.

    The cultural pressures are massive on every gender, and occassionally, some action is needed by society at large in the form of democratic government to get some real change.

    I back the motion, but hope it is a temporary measure to resolve a problem.

    On a wider note, the ‘safe carriages’ policy is great temporarily, but in the end risks creating more fear that we might like: Shouldn’t all out carriages be safe? I think these temporary proposals, to deal with Labour’s growing failures on gender equality, are spot on.

    (I am aware the policy does not specify temporary nature, but we can always make sure we can vote on it again after a Lib Dem government has done somthing about it…)

  • @ Alix, dare I plug my former tutor’s book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0271033029/?tag=libdemvoice-21

    “Focusing on choices by women in liberal cultures, she detects two troubling features – disadvantage and influence. When both are present, an injustice is likely to be done, warranting state intervention.”

    A massive influence on my thinking, and critical in the distinguishing of an over burdensome communitarian approach (of the agressive illiberal kind pursued by Harman et al) from a political liberal approach of mild regulation only when seriously justified.

    I think the Real Women paper comes under the Liberal heading, and should be supported in full, given the cultural failings, and the current backwards direction of equality in the UK.

  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 8:41pm

    “Focusing on choices by women in liberal cultures, she detects two troubling features – disadvantage and influence. When both are present, an injustice is likely to be done, warranting state intervention.”

    I can get behind that, but I would differ on the nature of state intervention. The only state intervention I think is ever warranted is the kind that repairs the disadvantage in the first place and thus limits the potency of the influence. I.e. in this case, education, good mental health, or a combination thereof. This would, incidentally, start to solve some of the other problems associated with disadvantage as well. I wouldn’t dispute that it’ll take a hell of a lot longer than extending the ASA’s remit, but then sticking plasters never do take very long.

    Of course, the irony is, Real Women is probably full of exactly the kind of long term stuff that I (and Bernard) love, it’s just that for some reason the party chose to undersell it by putting a sticking plaster in it AND showing the sticking plaster bit to the media as opposed to anything else, so that 2 weeks before Clegg publishes a pamphlet called “The Liberal Moment” we had headlines all over the press with “Lib Dem” and “ban” in close juxtaposition. And we did that to ourselves. Go figure.

  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 8:45pm

    BTW is anyone else getting “1 secret rule to a flat belly” advertising with this?

  • All is solved then 🙂

  • Alix Mortimer 17th Sep '09 - 9:20pm

    Ha, yeah I remember that, the “carbs are evil” phase. Whereas everyone knows that carbs are God’s own plankton. Nomnomnom.

  • Herbert Brown 17th Sep '09 - 9:21pm

    “You just buy the book and find out what button to push.”

    Don’t most people’s bodies have only one button to choose from anyway?

  • @ Alix,

    Indeed. I thought the focus on the media battle was wrong.

    I think the paper is a “sticking plaster” (safe carriages, labelling of adverts, clear regulation) coupled with the real long term therapy (‘shaping’ is definitely my new favourite term) which – had it been in place for a while – would have made the world radically different already.

    So oppose the amendment, and apologise on behalf of an overblown media coverage desire, downplaying the sticking plasters (but not removing them), and support the motion is my way forward…

    I must get back to packing.

  • “Basically, the problem is that it seeks to use state legislation and regulation to tackle issues which can only really be addressed through processes of cultural change.”

    The idea that achieving change through legislaion and achieveing change through culture are mutuall exclusive is simply wrong. Very rarely can such a big issue be improved without changes in some degree to both law and culture, so opposing the proposal on the basis that it argues for legislative change is a non-starter.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Sep '09 - 12:58am

    The key point for me is that yes, the overall aim is to acheive cultural change, but more often than not it takes a chunk of legislation to move cultural change along.

    We would never have made the progress we have against racism if it had not been for the Race Relations Act and subsequent legislation. Clearly there is a lot further still to go, but the cultural change that has already happened would not have done so without legislative back up.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '09 - 10:34am

    @ Alix
    Whilst I’m not convinced that “airbrushing”, or digital manipulation (which I imagine is what we’re really talking about) is the key to this, and I do think we should be a lot more certain of the effectiveness of this sort of intervention before making it — I am entirely unconvinced by your suggestion of exploring financial incentives. You seem to imply (in your 9.37 post) that the fashion industry just haven’t thought of how they could make more money, and if we could just get them to try this out they’d find it was in their own interests. Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood you, but can they really all be that stupid? Has no one attempted to make money out of modelling real clothes on normal-shaped women? If the market was the answer to this one, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be happening already.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 10:45am

    Aha, there it is!

    “I disagree and I think you’re underestimating the work that people do in media and advertising departments to find out what works.”

    Then I think we’ll have to agree to disagree there. The more I see of media and PR, the less I am convinced that many of its practitioners have a fart of a clue what they’re actually doing. The very fact that, as Jane correctly describes, the fashion magazine industry is ossified into one way of doing model shoots, and the very fact that the modelling world in particular is so closed and secretive, does not suggest to me a freethinking, evidence-based research environment for what works. On the basis of how much discussion one tiny image of a model with a tummy roll in Glamour generated a couple of weeks ago, I simply can’t imagine a magazine with that model on the front not flying off the shelves. There’s my catalyst. Of course, after a while, the novelty wears off, I totally see that. But by then, you’ve got your new norm.

    I’m all for some kind of information portal to provide data and maybe stick up the “real” photos, like the ones that have been going round on Twitter this week. But with warnings we run into the original problem cited by Bernard – the reductio ad absurdam will be that a warning will have to state “This model is wearing lots of make-up, pretty clothes and is well lit and being shot by a professional photographer. She also has exceptionally good genes.” How do you draw the line between “fake” and “real”, and who determines what is unrealistic for most women?

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 10:46am

    @Malcolm “Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood you, but can they really all be that stupid?”

    Hehe. Yes! Seriously though, it doesn’t have to be stupidity. Groupthink and a monthly bottom line are quite sufficient to strangle profitable long-term experimentation, as many a frustrated middle manager will attest.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 10:49am

    @Jo, yes, sorry, for “front covers” read “advertising images” and for “fly off the shelves” read “product sales”.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 11:07am

    “Real” in what sense? In the sense that all women, even a majority of women, even a sizeable minority of women, can realistically aspire to them? Certainly not. And even if you, personally, are sure that that’s where you draw the line, what makes you think others won’t start defining other things as “unreal” and demand that they be regulated as well? But, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the slippery slope.

    Perhaps it would be useful if I went back and said something I meant to say after Henry’s last comment. I am much more pleased by the idea that this is a “temporary” measure, as the report says – but as Henry pointed out, the duration of this temporariness is not defined. How long, in your view, will it take before the restrictions can be lifted, or can be said to have worked?

  • Ruth Bright 18th Sep '09 - 1:05pm

    It is the vague do-goodery which really gets my goat about the Real Women motion to conference. ‘Recruit and train more midwives and health visitors’ it says. Great. Speaking as someone who has waited all week to get hold of my health visitor I would love there to be more health visitors – but how many, pray, and how will they be paid for?

    The female MPs who are wasting their time worrying about airbrushing would do better to do something concrete for ‘Real Women’ like supporting the Maternity Food Grant which the party opposes.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '09 - 1:10pm

    “I would be very surprised if the industry wanted to drop air brushing for just non air brushed women, and hire non airbrushed women as permanent models”

    I’m intrigued by the idea of “non airbrushed women”. Or indeed “airbrushed women”. I didn’t realise it was the women this was done to. I’m so naive.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 1:24pm

    “I mean, i really don’t get the problem with having legislation if you actually support the banning of airbrushing?”

    Eh? I don’t support the banning of airbrushing, that’s the whole point. I don’t like airbrushing, I disapprove of it as a practice, but that doesn’t mean I think we should ban it.

    @Malcolm, now that is an innovation I could get behind. No more make-up remover, just CTRL+F5…

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '09 - 1:29pm

    There can be a case where everyone agrees “No, we don’t want to do it like this”, but no-one wants to be the first to change. It would make you look wrong if you changed and no-one else did, so everyone carries on doing what no-one individually really likes doing. Ever had a “Christmas present pact”? This is where a group of people give each other Christmas presents out of habit, it’s become tedious, no-one likes the bother or really enjoys it, but no-one wants to be the first not to buy the others presents. So they all agree “let’s not buy Christmas presents this year”. It has to be done by a common agreement with some force to ensure all are confident to stick with it.

    This little example may help illustrate why restriction of freedom due to conformity may sometimes need to be broken by what on the face of it appears to be an illiberal imposition. We are right to be so concerned about liberty that we should not use such mechanisms that often, but I throw the possibility in as part of the argument against crude “libertarianism”.

    Unless I am weirder than I suppose, I think I am right in supposing no-one much really finds these extensively airbrushed images very attractive. Sure, there are good biological reasons why a young and healthy image is attractive, but ultra-thin isn’t healthy looking or attractive, and actually an image which is obviously of a real person is a more enjoyable sight than what might as well be a piece of plastic.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 1:37pm

    @Jo, yes, I do know this because we just had a conversation about it. However, Jane is still (for some reason) arguing a general case for regulations banning airbrushing in general, and is under the impression that I like the idea of banning airbrushing. I was answering her.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 1:38pm

    “Well why are you advocating that we should talk to the industry to talk about them stopping it then?”

    Because that’s not the same as a ban.

  • I can think of a few practical problems with the ban idea:

    1) Lots of pictures are retouched in ways that don’t really distort reality. For example, to make up for poor lighting, to remove glare, to remove (or add) something visually distracting to the background, to remove (or add) branding/logos from the shot, to change the colour palette and tones, to crop or resize the image, to move the primary figures in the shot closer together, etc. These effects are pretty harmless and I’m not sure how easy it would be to distinguish between ‘good’ retouching (which almost any image in a magazine will have had applied to it) and ‘bad’ retouching.

    2) It might just lead to greater demand for genuinely freakish models, who can be presented as ‘real’ even though they’re increasingly abnormal and unhealthy. Not sure if this is better or worse than the status quo.

    3) What about virtual models? Computer-generated images are getting pretty realistic these days; if there’s no ‘real’ women underneath the picture, would this be ok?

    4) I assume that a lot of the content that features retouched images is not strictly advertising at all – it may be editorial/feature content. If so, would this avoid the remit of the ASA and would the ASA have to expand its remit to cover such content? I don’t know if they look at this already, but if they don’t then I imagine that there’s a cost associated with it.

    I don’t really enjoy picking holes in these kinds of ideas, because they’re obviously well-motivated and I approve of the general principle. And even if the retouching ban would be only a small step, it’s true that any progress must be made up of such small steps. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that banning symptoms of a problem is the kind of thing that we, as a party, are meant to avoid doing. There’s an underlying problem about misogyny and expectations, but I’m not convinced that banning certain types of images will be effective. There will be ways around it, and the underlying problem will remain. And there’s always the law of unintended consequences – we might end up seeing some perfectly innocent examples of image manipulation being punished wrongly.

    All in all, I’d have hoped that we could do better than suggesting banning certain images as a policy to address the status of women in society. It’s not that it’s too ambitious or over-reaching, but that it’s nowhere near ambitious enough.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '09 - 1:41pm

    @Jo – Well, I learn something every day! I fear such analog airbrushing would do little to save me. I would require the full digital makeover. And even then, I doubt my wife would be convinced, so what’d be the point?

    Anyway, isn’t it interesting that the only thing we’re talking about is airbrushing? I can’t even remember what else is in Jo Swinson’s paper now, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the most important thing. As an exercise in attracting media attention it hasn’t really worked, in that even in such a worthy sphere as LDV we can’t seem to get past it to the meaty stuff.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 1:48pm

    Good point. If anyone feels like doing a post on all the meaty stuff in Real Women (in between eating hotel sandwiches and running around with bits of paper), get in touch 🙂

  • I think the proposal has an importance which transcends its actual practical application.

    I hate to say this, but that’s an awful reason to hold a policy. Laws/regulations are meant to be self-justifying, not there to ‘send a message’.

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Sep '09 - 2:57pm

    I hope the amendment debate is a quarter as good as this one has been!

  • Alix, you are aware that ‘Real Women” adverts are something ad agencies have actually done? It’s not a question of ‘group think’ stopping them doing it, Dove have run an aggressive “Real Women” campaign for bloody ages, even me in my no-TV, low-Movie life have bumped into them.

    Well worth everybody watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U.

    The end of the day there is a clear conflict of interest between people with stuff and people who want it. To prevent this getting out of hand we have property law which stops you taking it, then we have trading laws which prevent you lying about what you’re selling, or how much you’re selling. We need these laws because if they didn’t exist a pint would be more like 90% of a pint, a ‘beef burger’ might not contain meat let alone beef.

    Making people unhappy is a pretty strait-forward way to manipulate them, advertising has strayed out of the realms of informing people on products and into the realms of manipulating emotions to further the goals of the sellers, how does this benefit anyone other than the seller?

2 Trackbacks

  • By Conference: what to watch out for on Saturday on Sat 19th September 2009 at 8:56 am.

    […] a large volume of media coverage and much debate, such as the excellent thread of comments yesterday on The Voice, so this will be one of the votes to watch out […]

  • By Conference: First pictures on Sat 19th September 2009 at 10:06 am.

    […] note on  the Real Women policy motion which will be debated this afternoon – Bernard Salmon wrote here yesterday about his amendment to this paper, and I do recommend you read the fiery-but-friendly discussion in […]

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