February 24 marked the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness week, a campaign run by the support charity Beat to improve the nations knowledge and understanding of eating disorders.
The charity reports that more than 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, one in five of whom will die prematurely either as a result of their illness or through suicide. Such illnesses are on the rise amongst Britain’s young people, with 2012/2013 seeing an 8% increase in the number of children and teens admitted to hospital with an eating disorder.
Though there has been a worrying escalation of eating and image-related disorders amongst males, they are still largely a gendered issue. According to the government’s Health and Social Care Information Centre, nine times as many women and girls are admitted for eating disorders as boy or men.
As an article in the Guardian recently highlighted, the complex nature of eating disorders means we should be wary of picking out any single phenomenon as the predominant cause of these illnesses.
But whilst it is crucial that we do not oversimplify the reason people develop such problematic relationships with food, it is also important that we tackle as many of the identified triggers as possible.
In some cases it might be stress, a traumatic experience, a family history of disorders, or another pre-existing mental illness such as depression.
In a proportion of eating disorders however, body image-related disorders such as Body Dysmorphia, low self-esteem and societal pressures are to blame.
As someone who has struggled with body-confidence and my relationship with food, I am very aware of the factors that can exacerbate the problem. I know how easy it is to compare yourself to perceived ideals and find yourself wanting. And in British culture, there exists an Ideal of womanhood against which most women will judge themselves at one time or another.
This ideal is a highly manufactured product of extreme diets, harsh exercise regimes, make-up artists, photographers and digital manipulation. We are faced with images of this impossible model of feminine perfection at every turn, as the beauty, fashion, film, music, advertising and health and fitness industries utilise it to exploit our insecurities.
So rare is it to see these industries taken to task about their harmful practices, that any movement daring to stick its head above the parapet and challenge these commercial leviathans should be recognised and commended. For this reason, I would like to take the opportunity presented by International Women’s Day to draw attention to the work being done by the All Party Parliamentary group on Body Image.
Established in 2011, the APPG set out to examine potential causes of negative body image and to bring together organisations from a range of relevant sectors – including those guilty parties mentioned above – to find ways of promoting a healthier culture around body image.
Following a public consultation that featured representatives from industry, the voluntary sector, academics, youth organisations and the media, the group drew up a list of recommendations.
– Calling on fashion, beauty and advertising industries to introduce new guidelines that promote greater body diversity and positive body image.
– Urging the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice to issue clearer guidelines on harmful and misleading advertising.
– Calling for the introduction of mandatory lessons in school to raise awareness of healthy body image.
The report is insightful and comprehensive, and the philosophy of the APPG admirable. However, heartening as it is to see our MPs taking such proactive steps to protect the nation’s physical and mental well-being, it is simply not enough.
Now more than ever, young girls are being bombarded with highly sexualised, drastically modified and increasingly homogenised representations of womanly beauty. Where once these images were limited to TV, films and magazines, now they are propagated by smart phones, laptops and tablets streaming pictures, footage and commentary from the internet 24/7.
Things need to change, and fast.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that self-regulating industries that charge themselves with constructing and reproducing our culture’s standards of beauty will ever make the step towards promoting healthier body image voluntarily. Businesses in film – where someone as slender as Jennifer Lawrence can be considered a “fat actress” – or fashion – which routinely drives employees to the point of starvation – will be unmoved by a mere request from a small handful of politicians and health professionals to kick their bad habits. These are industries that are motivated and controlled by money flow, not social responsibility.
What the situation needs is for the government to take the same kind of decisive and effective action on issues surrounding body image as it has done on those relating to smoking, drinking and nutrition. The consequences that irresponsible commercial portrayals of the female body have on thousands of women and girls are just as real, just as dangerous and just as costly to society as those of drugs and unhealthy foods – it deserves equal recognition and equally tangible interventions.
It just so happens that more than half of MPs told the APPG they would support policies for more responsible marketing and advertising to address body image issues.
So as we approach International Women’s Day 2014, I am appealing to those politicians to step up and push for more concrete measures to advance the health and well-being of generations to come.
Kate is a member of Headingley Branch and a recent graduate. She also writes as ‘Young Grass Roots Activist’ – you can read more of her blogs by clicking that category on our News page. She is in the process of recruiting writers and articles for a new blog site dedicated to issues relating to mental health, sex and gender and UK politics (http://thenaturalvenndiagram.wordpress.com/)
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