Industry code did a fat lot of good

POOR IMAGE: The West’s advertising focus on body image is turning around civilisation’s view of beauty.
POOR IMAGE: The West’s advertising focus on body image is turning around civilisation’s view of beauty. DAVE HUNT

BODY image may be the western world's ugliest export.

Images of thin, toned women and hyper-muscular men are conveyed via television, magazines, movies and the internet to the global market.

The ideal dictated by the mass media is virtually impossible for people to achieve without excessive dieting, excessive exercise, or both.

As a result, cultures that used to regard bulk as a sign of wealth and success now have a growing prevalence of eating disorders.

Research evidence links body dissatisfaction to physical and mental health concerns for men and women - and exposure to the media has been shown to play a significant role.

So how can we rein in advertisers?

The United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Agency has started banning ads that appear unrealistic. Is it time for Australia to do the same?

Among Australian women, body dissatisfaction mainly manifests with concerns about weight, even in those who are underweight or a healthy weight.

This is reflected in unhealthy weight-loss practices (crash dieting, fasting, laxative misuse, vomiting) across all weight ranges.

For men, body image dissatisfaction is more likely to constitute a desire to be larger and more muscular in addition to being thinner.

Among Australian high school girls, research has found that approximately 75% chose an ideal figure thinner than their own.

Among adolescent boys, a third wished to be thinner, while more than a third desired to be larger than their current size.

Women perceive their figures as heavier than their ideals and heavier than men's preferences.

So where to from here?

The Australian Government's National Body Image Advisory Group made recommendations in 2010 about the way forward in making young people more resilient to appearance pressure.

As a result, the government set up a voluntary code of conduct for the media, advertising and fashion industries.

This initiative included a new set of awards for those in industry that promoted positive body image.

Two years on, magazines aimed at young women such as Dolly and Girlfriend seem to be making some progress in this area, but by and large, this "voluntary code" has failed to have an impact on how the industry operates.

In fact, we're at a point where Victoria's Secret models who are portrayed as the ultimate perfection are claiming they "need" to be air-brushed to look better.

And so deeply ingrained are these perceptions of ultimate beauty that when we do see a model who doesn't fit into that industry stereotype it makes global news.

It appears that despite growing acknowledgement that body image is a great concern for men and women, we are unlikely to see any great change with a voluntary code of conduct.

Perhaps the only way to finally start making changes is to enforce mandatory laws regulating advertisers' use of unrealistic body images.

Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic is a lecturer and director of the master of marketing in the Faculty of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University.

Topics:  media photoshop

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