For the very first time, the issue of body confidence and its relation to the media has been discussed at the United Nations. The 2012 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was held between the 27th February and March 9th, and, on the topic of body image and the media, both the UK Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone MP and writer and psychoanalyst Dr Susie Orbach addressed the commission.
Whilst accepting that issues such as poverty, starvation, violence and FGM [female genital mutilation] are at the top of the agenda, Featherstone explained that we are facing a new global crisis where huge numbers of women “feel compelled to conform to a distorted vision of beauty,” resulting in “low levels of self esteem, lack of self worth, anxiety, depression and in extreme cases, high levels of eating disorders and greater demand for cosmetic surgery.”
Dr Orbach poignantly compared these issues to other acts of violence against women internationally:
“The west congratulates itself on its distance from Eastern practices of foot binding which constrained and limited women. It fails to see the links between toe operations carried out now to enable women to fit into the latest 4 inch high heels.
The west smugly criticises FGM while sanctioning labiaplasty and the remaking of the genital lips which has become a growth area for cosmetic surgeons.
The west makes appeals about famine victims in the southern hemisphere but has failed to notice the voluntarily insane food practices that exist in their own countries.
The west hasn’t noticed that these are forms of violence and constraint for women.”
Featherstone emphasized the importance of challenging the “culture of conformity” which suggests to women that, in order to be considered beautiful, valuable even, they must be “young, white, skinny, with a perfect air-brushed face and a perfect photo-shopped body.” The Minister explained the importance of All Walks’ aim to widen the definition of beauty to include all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities, as well as the need to “help people to recognise that their value goes beyond just their physical appearance.”
Dr Orbach likened the need to take on the industries that promote body anxiety for their own gain to historic battles with the tobacco industry. She explained that:
“The beauty companies, the fashion houses, the diet companies, the food conglomerates who also of course own the diet companies, the exercise and fitness industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetic surgery industry combine together, perhaps not purposefully or conspiratorially, to create a climate in which girls and women come to feel that their bodies are not ok. … They are mining bodies as though they were a commodity like coal or gold.“
So, the media constantly bombards us with unrealistic images of ‘the body beautiful’ and this is leading to widespread image anxiety, but what can be done to lessen the negative impact? Featherstone described an education pack being used in schools across the UK:
“Kids look at images of celebrities before and after photoshopping and they are asked to bring photos of people they admire. They all bring photos of their parents, who are all shapes and sizes. Through this teaching pack, children understand they don’t need to conform to try and look a certain way, just because of the media messaging they receive.”
The pack has received extensive coverage in the UK press, as well as in Columbia, Australia, and Taiwan, and Featherstone extended an invitation to all other nations who would like to share knowledge and resources on this issue. She also announced the upcoming launch of a similar pack for parents.
Here at All Walks we are so glad that Lynne and Susie, both friends of our campaign, are taking these issues to the global political stage. Our bombardment with images from across the media promoting such a narrow view of beauty is a particularly modern phenomenon, and we will need to develop new ways of dealing with its negative consequences. We are heartened that such inspiring women are making it a global priority to develop solutions to ensure positive change for the future.
Words by Charlotte Gush
Images courtesy of the Home Office