A National Strategy on Body Image

The issue of negative body image has officially crossed over into the mainstream public debate. We now have a proposed National Strategy on Body Image, put together by an advisory group appointed by the federal government.

Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, put together the group, which was chaired by Mia Freedman, former editor of Cosmopolitan, and  featured big names in the fashion industry and  media such as TV presenter and model Sarah Murdoch, children’s health and psychology experts including Professor David Forbes of the University of Western Australia, and leaders of youth organisations such as the YWCA. They considered submissions from the public–mostly young people, teachers, youth workers, social workers and psychologists–then came up with recommendations for government action to deal with the widespread problem of poor body image.

What excites me, and my colleagues at Enlighten, is that the Strategy gives public recognition to the important role school programs can and should play in helping girls develop positive body image.  The Strategy calls for increased funding for “reputable and expert organisations to deliver seminars and discussions on body image within schools” and for workshops that increase girls’ media literacy so that they can stand up to negative media messages.

Many schools access independent organisations to deliver one-off body image workshops or to facilitate body image discussions among students. A number of these types of interventions have been demonstrated as effectively reducing the body dissatisfaction of students. The Advisory Group encourages government to increase the opportunities schools have to access these activities.

Proposed National Strategy on Body Image

As a first step, I call on the federal government to immediately introduce the Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist in the Strategy (on page 42). It has some great practical ideas that I would love to see implemented in schools across Australia. The best of the recommendations:

  • Bring positive body image messages into the curriculum. It is easy to see how body image can be incorporated into health and physical education lesson plans, but teachers need not stop there. In English, students could be asked to write a critical thinking essay on how the media affects our idea of what a woman should look like. A media studies class might focus on the way that programs such as Photoshop are used by magazines to create an unattainable ideal of beauty.
  • Consult with students to develop a sports uniform everyone feels comfortable wearing. Being involved in sport has been shown to boost girls’ self-esteem and body image–yet it has also been shown that figure-hugging uniforms are one of the greatest barriers to girls participating in sport.
  • Provide Mental Health First Aid training for teachers that can help them identify body image and eating disorders in students and then know what steps to take next.
  • Give training for teachers in how to use body-friendly language with students–that is, no “fat talk”, either about themselves or their students.
  • Include positive body image in the school’s policy, even writing positive body image and the celebration of diversity into the school’s mission statement.
  • Do away with weighing and measuring students. It seems kind of crazy that in this day and age that has to even be spelt out, but it is still done in PE and even some maths classes. And for many students, the humiliation they experience leaves lasting scars.

Beyond the school system, there are some other good (and long overdue) suggestions in the Strategy that I hope the government implements. A standard system of clothing sizes to avoid the distress many feel when they find they can’t fit into a certain size. Stores stocked with a broad range of sizes, reflecting the diversity of our body types. Mannequins that look more like the many different women we see every day in the street.

But as with most such working papers put together by committee, within parameters set by a federal government, the Strategy of course has its limitations. For instance, it can simply suggest that funding should be increased in schools to ensure all girls receive the media literacy and self-esteem workshops they need; it can’t provide an assurance that this will actually happen.

The limitations of the Strategy become clearer when it deals with other avenues for promoting positive body image. The right principle is there: to encourage clothing designers, magazines and TV, the diet industry, advertisers and marketers to finally shoulder responsibility for the shame, disgust and body anxiety they routinely encourage young women to experience. But the Strategy recommends first trying the softly, softly approach: asking companies to follow a voluntary code of conduct and rewarding them for good behaviour by listing them in a roll of honour and awarding them the right to display a logo. Think of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval, but in this case for creating positive body image rather than lowering cholesterol. Only once this approach had failed to produce results would penalties be considered.

I would be overjoyed if companies voluntarily started treating girls and women with more respect. And I think some would, so long as it was good for their bottom line. Think, for instance, of Dove, which uses the body image issue to sell a truckload of soap–while their parent company’s other key brands include Lynx (Boom Chicka Waa Waa, anyone?), Slim Fast and Ponds Skin Whitening cream marketed in Asian countries. A lot of fashion designers would  simply pull one of those frosty catwalk model faces in response to a suggestion they promote positive body image. I mean, can you really see Gucci saying “Hey, they’re right, we should stop promoting this unhealthy stick-thin image and adopt that voluntary code of conduct”?

I do wish that the proposed national strategy had more to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and especially of girls. While body size and shape and the lack of diversity in the media are prime sources of despair, the pressure to be sexy–and only within a narrow ideal of sexiness–is increasingly causing serious problems.

Research shows that over time women can come to see themselves as objects and subject their bodies to constant surveillance, feeling disgusted and ashamed about themselves. So even if the code helps industry to get serious about presenting more realistically sized women, the expectation to be ‘‘hot’’ and ‘‘sexy’’ will remain. And industry will have the right product and the latest look we need to achieve this false ideal.

Misty de Vries, COO, Women’s Forum Australia, in The Age

The way I look at it, the National Strategy on Body Image is a great place to start. But its recommendations are only worth something if the politicians, the fashion and beauty product industries, and the media and advertisers follow through on them. It is thanks to all of us voicing our opinions that the government commissioned a Strategy in the first place. Now we have to keep up the pressure!

8 thoughts on “A National Strategy on Body Image

  1. Ella says:

    While I think it borders on offensive to say “you get anorexia from magazines” (given that…you know…it’s like the most complex area of psychiatry with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness), I don’t doubt for one second of my time that magazines and our media contribute to low self esteem.

    As well as this, I think there needs to be censorship in reporting about eating disorders. Suicide reports aren’t allowed to have details – method or anything which indicates to that and as far as I’m aware, method of self harm cannot be reported in conventional media either – so why are we allowing people to write in detail their eating disorder methods? and publish this where the greater public can access it? Besides this – why are we allowing promotion of diets which we KNOW don’t work (cos drinking nothing but powdered milkshakes would seemingly defy all logic and basic nutritional knowledge you’d think….)

    However, I think that unless there are some incentives for sticking to this code of conduct, and unless it’s made a mandatory code of conduct, it’s really not worth the piece of paper it’s written on. It’s just MORE public servants pushing paper and looking like they’re trying to tackle the issues when really they’re doing sweet fruit all.

    Just my 20 cents. I just like to see things really changing and having grown up in a public service household, I’m not unfamiliar with the government’s love of “policy” and lack of action.

  2. Lisa Cox says:

    Firstly, may I congratulate EE on their work and recommendations (above) for the schools program.

    I would like to make comment on the influence of the ‘media’. As somebody who has worked in the media/advertising/modeling industries for about a decade, I have seen the distortion of body image from both sides of the camera lens. In all my time working at advertising agencies, I can tell you – from first hand experience – that this ‘voluntary code’ of conduct will be about as useful as (my Grandmother would say) “tits on a bull”.

    Until quantifiable, enforceable standards and are implemented and met, we will only continue to circle around the problem with more ‘feel good’ voluntary codes that do little to address the bigger issues.

    Oh I hear you say “But it’s a positive start!”… Granted, it is. But this same debate about the (mis)representation of body image has been raging for years and we are well past the positive start days.

    I’m now using my background to speak at schools to teens and pre-teens about media literacy and body image. Experience taught me that popular culture is dictated by demand. Unfortunate but true. I aspire to educate the kids about the messages they are being exposed to and teach them to make educated, media literate decisions for themselves.

    Last week I was asked to attend a National Collaboration about body image dissatisfaction in Canberra. While it was a good idea, ‘in theory’, the problems of body image dissatisfaction amongst our youth cannot be solved with statistics and reference to dated theoretical models – as some participants attempted to do. The solutions are as complex as the problems themselves.

  3. Sonia says:

    Keep up the pressure … we do need to do!!! As we know from the Senate inquiry into the sexualisation of children the boards decisions were only mere suggestions, nothing definitive at all.
    This is a great for awareness and a fantastic starting point. I feel it will be a case of ‘watch this space’ to see what we can do it to ensure they produce clear, decisive outcomes.

  4. jo - livingsavvy says:

    Very important issues raised and you can talk on each one of them for some time. School uniforms, I noted that the call has gone out for consultation for the design of sport uniforms. I would encourage that t be extended to all school uniforms. My daughter who is in prep this year wears culottes …which allow her freedom to run and climb and be very active. Next year in grade 1 her uniform is a tunic- much more restrictive in terms of physical activity. For primary school girls, I would like to see a skort or continuation of culottes adopted so my daughter can do cartwheels, handstands, climb, run with confidence. Standardised sizes – I don’t understand the fuss. I have clothes in my wardrobe that range from size 8 to 16 – my size has remained relatively unchanged for 10+ years. I try something on that I like, that I know suits my body shape in some stores I take an 8 into the change room in others I take a 12 depending on the maker of the clothes and the store brand. I refuse to let my self-esteem be determined by a number on a piece of clothing. I recently spoke to a friend who refused to buy anything larger then a 12 because she felt bad – I took it on as my mission to shift her attitude and make her clothing choice based on how she feels when she puts on the article of clothing – her outlook is changing.

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