The following is a guest blog post used with permission by the author Lydia Jade Turner. Lydia is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. BodyMatters Australasia is a specialist clinic that was established to not only treat disordered eating, but to diminish the complex factors that contribute to our global epidemic of eating problems.
Last week Youth and Sport Minister Kate Ellis revealed a new code of conduct for the fashion and advertising industries, backed by the Federal government, in what is claimed to be a world first attempt to regulate the industries contributing to increased rates of body shame and eating disorders.
The voluntary code, outlining a list of proposed changes that reward magazines, fashion labels, and modelling agencies who comply with its criteria with a ‘tick of approval’, has met with mixed response. Responses have ranged from the dismissal of the need for any regulation, to claims that the promotion of anything other than a thin ideal will inflate obesity rates. Others who acknowledged the need for industry regulation expressed scepticism that the code would work, given its voluntary nature.
Helen Razer wrote a scathing critique of the code arguing that eating disorders have been around for centuries and therefore it is misguided to blame mass media and regulate industry. Those who argue that media images are harmless, or in some cases, that resiliency programmes are all that is needed to combat body shame and eating disorders, do the field of public health a great disservice. Evidence extending over hundreds of international studies confirms that the promotion of a thin-ideal increases body shame, which itself increases risk of developing clinical eating disorders, unhealthy weight loss practices, self-harm, and depression.
The fact is that eating disorders have never been as prevalent as they are now. Arguing that they can’t be triggered by the bombardment of a thin-ideal because they have been reported to exist prior to media images is essentially like arguing that lung cancer can’t be triggered by smoking because it was around prior to the invention of cigarettes. Razer’s point that the Roman elite used to throw up after meals in a “practice we’d now call bulimia” is based on a myth that misinforms about the true function of the Roman ‘vomitorium’.
Contrary to popular belief, vomitoriums were not used by the Roman elite to get rid of their stomach contents. The vomitorium is an architectural structure within the Roman amphitheatre, designed to alleviate crowds by allowing the audience to “spew out” after the show.”
While there have been some historical reports of Romans deliberately vomiting, this was certainly not part of a regular binge-purge cycle and there is no evidence that it was accompanied by a sense of loss of control, cognitive distortions, body shame, or feelings of low self-worth, as seen in those suffering from bulimia.
Having had a previous patient justify her bulimia citing this very myth about ancient Roman practices, it is important to exercise caution when discussing eating disorders in this context. Eating disorder sufferers already experience great difficulty grasping the seriousness of their condition, and any argument that risks framing their illness as some sort of lifestyle choice or culture clash is potentially harmful.
Another reason used against regulation lies in the misguided belief that the promotion of anything other than thin-ideal will inflate obesity rates. What the weight loss industry has cleverly hidden is that the drive to be thin actually plays a role in contributing to long term weight gain. Engaging in a healthy lifestyle doesn’t necessarily bring on thinness, although it will bring about health benefits. Dieting, on the other hand, may bring about thinness (initially), but is actually the biggest predictor of binge-eating due to our hardwired response to the sense of deprivation. Dieting is also a significant predictor of weight cycling and long term weight gain.
It’s important to recognise that losing weight and being thin do not necessarily equate to health. Currently the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria reports that eight percent of teenage girls smoke in an effort to control their weight. The fear of being anything but thin is so strong in France, that the anti-tobacco campaigns now address women’s refusal to quit smoking for fear of weight gain. A whole variety of disordered eating behaviours are used to achieve or maintain a slim body, but at what cost? It’s time we stopped swapping health for thinness. What has been lost amidst Obesity Hysteria is the idea of health, and the idea that bodies do not have to exist in a ‘thin versus fat’ dichotomy.
Industries involved in promoting body shame and disordered eating must be held accountable for their actions. In this light, it is good to see our government acknowledge body image as a serious problem. But steps to regulate industry are not a “world’s first.” If anything, Australia is lagging behind. Both France and Spain, for example, began taking steps to regulate their industries several years ago, with The Guardian reporting in January that Spain’s lower chamber approved the banning of advertisements for plastic surgery, slimming products, and some beauty ads being shown before 10pm.
Some argue that legislation is not necessary to regulate industries. I disagree. Every governing structure has its limitations. Within a capitalist structure, the goal is to maximise profit. Corporations are accountable to their shareholders. As retail expert Brian Walker said, “Unless there’s a direct benefit to their sales margin for implementing the code, then retailers aren’t going to take this up. If the only benefit perceived is societal, I think there will be a mixed response, with many choosing not to take it up.” Indeed The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday that Myer has already backed out, while other retailers like Portmans did not even bother to return calls.
Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that a number of women who sit on the National Advisory Board have conflicting interests. Sarah Murdoch’s actions have proven nothing but hypocritical. How can anyone take her seriously as a body image advocate when her brand, BONDS, continues to make no effort to promote anything other than a thin ideal and sells padded bras to eight year old girls? She is also the executive producer and judge on reality show Australia’s Next Top Model, which last year labelled the winner of the show Tahnee Atkinson ‘plus size.’ Atkinson is a size 10. This year the show is reported to be limited to size 8 and smaller contestants. Ads for the show have already compared the contestants to greyhounds, as they are shown racing from stalls in a degrading manner as they chase the lure – in this case, a modelling contract.
Kate Ellis, who commissioned the advisory board, recently posed in a tight-fitting leather dress with Gucci heels for Grazia magazine’s “body image special” in a bid to raise awareness about body image issues. Yet when asked whether or not the images of her were airbrushed, she refused to answer the question. Disclosing when images have been digitally enhanced is one of the board’s key recommendations. How can board members expect corporations to ‘fall in line’ when they themselves refuse to adhere to their own code?
It seems much has been invested in creating the appearance of doing something – but so long as we continue with this voluntary code, any changes made are unlikely to be sustained.