Damned if you do and damned if you don’t – why body image needs regulation

Blaming ‘Jordan syndrome’ doesn’t really cut it. Robert Jaeger/EPA

Our obsession with women’s weight and attractiveness manifests in different ways in the media, including being sold images that are far removed from reality and often impossible to achieve, or focusing on women’s looks rather then their achievements.

Overblown ‘plus-size’. Calvin Klein

The pressure to represent more realistic images of women in the media has lead to larger models being used, though as Calvin Klein discovered when it featured a US size 8-10 (UK 12-14) model, criticism was quick to be triggered by a suggestion on Twitter that she was “plus-size”.

In the UK, Jameela Jamil, the female presenter who became the first woman to host the Radio 1 Official Chart Show in 60 years, recently won a body confidence award for speaking out against how her achievements as a presenter (including widening the Chart Show’s audience by a quarter of a million listeners) were overshadowed by negative reports about her increased weight.

Although her acceptance speech was witty, emotional and impassioned on the continuing focus on women’s appearance rather than talents, she still apparently felt it necessary to explain her weight gain as the outcome of a health problem.

Jameela Jamil in 2009. George Darrell, CC BY-NC-SA

Jamil’s speech came a few days after new data from the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that only 63% of women aged between 18-34 and 57% of women aged 35-49 were satisfied with their appearance. And not just women – men are also showing signs of suffering from this pressure.

Most people now feel that how they look has a real impact on other aspects of their lives and a lack of body confidence is linked to risky behaviour and poor health outcomes including depression, eating disorders, obesity and low self esteem.

But convincing people that appearance isn’t the be-all and end-all is a tall order – and suggesting that they simply avoid looking doesn’t appear to help either. So what we need to do is develop a social and political culture that makes the media, beauty and fashion industries more responsible. They won’t do this by themselves.

Government campaigning

Making a case. Foreign and Commonwealth Office

In, 2010 the UK government’s equalities department launched its Body Confidence Campaign – the campaign which gave Jamil her award. Lynne Featherstone, the then minister for equalities, said the campaign was important because:

Whether it’s a perfectly toned “six-pack” or a painfully thin “size zero”, men and women are bombarded everyday by airbrushed body images which bear little or no resemblance to reality. These images can cause real damage to self-esteem.

Featherstone also said the body confidence campaign would work “closely with the media and other industries to reverse this trend and promote more honest and diverse depictions of men and women”. The awards, she said, showed there was real support across industry to tackle the issue head on.

The campaign aims to tackle the causes and consequences of body image anxiety and to promote cultural change through developing better support systems and better relationships with the fashion and beauty industries and celebrities.

Cultural commodities

But, admirable as these initiatives appear, it is also unclear why the government doesn’t take more direct steps to regulate areas of the market that contribute to unhealthy lifestyles and the cultural obsession with appearance.

Take cosmetic surgery, for example. Since the PIP scandal in 2012, where industrial-grade silicone was used in breast implants that doubled the chance of them rupturing, the government has taken little concrete action to tackle the way cosmetic surgery is regulated, sold and marketed.

Silicone implants. FDA

The ambivalence in government appears to have reflected not merely confusion over whether breast implants are medical devices or beauty aids, but also an implicit moralising about the women who had PIP implants. Women who elect to have breast implants are often represented as risky and vain consumers and – in the context of the PIP scandal – it was their “lifestyle choices” that were condemned rather than the marketing, organisation, growth and regulation of the market for cosmetic surgery that pathologises breasts and sells beauty aids to fix them.

Douglas McGeorge, a former president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), argued that the demand for outsized breasts was influenced by a “Jordan syndrome” after glamour model Katie Price. Rather than critiquing the women who have elective surgery, shouldn’t we be questioning why gender, breasts and appearance are so central to a woman’s identity and how it is that breasts can be marketed as a cultural commodity that improves women’s appearance and self esteem? Especially given the increase in the number of ruptures that accompany many more breast augmentations (from 293 cases in 2009-10 to 1,543 in 2012-2013).

Cosmetic surgery is increasingly used to shape us and to correct weight problems when all else fails. Liposuction procedures increased by 43% between 2012 and 2013, and body contouring and bariatric surgery procedures to combat obesity are also popular. More than two-thirds of British adults are overweight and the UK has the largest rates of child obesity in the EU – so this is a growing market.

Despite research indicating that the food industry in the UK uses high levels of hidden sugar and salt in food because it is cheap, the focus of the government response to the obesity problem is to improve information on diet and teach people to be responsible for eating healthily rather than regulate the foods industry.

Battle over femininity

Messages about what is wrong with our bodies and the moral discourses about who is responsible are therefore confusing. Are women too fat or too slim? If women are slim, the accusation that is levied is that they are dupes of the media and being exploited by the gym and diet industries companies.

A caricatured debate. James Gillray 1794, Wikimedia Commons

Campaigns such as No More Skinny in the Sun newspaper normalises the larger woman who has a curvy and shapely body and labels slim women as unhealthy, which just sets up a battle over femininity. Class divisions are also expressed in this hatred of slim women, as it is assumed that their bodies are produced through the healthy and expensive eating habits of the middle classes.

Then on the other hand, women who are not slim are damned for taking risks with their health, for failing to make the right consumer choices and to take responsibility for their weight. Women are thus blamed for their obesity and lack of cultural knowledge about foods (knowledge which, it is implied, comes with social class). In both these scenarios, the focus is on self-help rather than on the lack of regulation. What is missing from these debates is a closer look at how the state has colluded with the market to produce a population that is obsessed by body appearance and turns to the free market for solutions to “correct” these bodies.

A critique of the political economy of beauty, food, transport, leisure and so on might help to focus the debate on policies rather than celebrities and their appearance. Our unregulated markets have led to unhealthy bodies and a culture that teaches us to judge ourselves rather than the free markets that shape us.

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