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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!

Step in the right direction or PR exercise?

I was recently invited onto Channel 7’s The Morning Show to discuss an “Extreme Makeover” story in Girlfriend magazine’s June 2009 issue. Using before and after shots of a teen girl, they show readers just how much work goes into producing the perfect images on magazine covers: the hours of hair and makeup, clever lighting and photography, and fashion styling – not to mention all the digital manipulation necessary to make beautiful girls impossibly flawless, with no blemishes or cellulite, and with perfectly white teeth and eyes. According to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Cornish, Girlfriend’s aim was to dispel the myth that readers too should – or could – look like the beauty icons they see in the media. Click on the screen image below to watch the interview I did alongside Sarah Cornish, or use the following URL: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/the-morning-show/video/-/watch/13306869/


I applaud the magazine’s sentiment, and the June 2009 issue of Girlfriend magazine does include some good articles. There is a “Love Your Body” section and a sealed “Good Advice” section that presents the advice of psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, author of books on parenting teen girls, and Dr Sally Cockburn, aka radio’s Dr Feelgood, an expert on women’s health. But this valuable and positive information is offset by a range of advertisements and advertorials that offer conflicting, toxic messages. How about this full-page advertisement on the inside back cover?


The model looks like she has stepped straight from a shoot for the men’s magazine Ralph: stilettos, skimpy bikini, large breasts. She is faceless. It is all about her body. The ad is for hair-removal products “specially for active and youthful skin”.

After we finished filming the segment at the Channel 7 studios, I raised my concerns with editor Sarah Cornish, and she agreed that the ad was not consistent with the values the magazine claims to espouse. She also assured me this particular ad would not get run again.

Sarah, and indeed all magazine editors, are in highly influential positions and have the power to communicate helpful messages to teen girls about body image. The need to do so has never been more urgent. Girlfriend magazine itself acknowledges in another article, “Drastic Plastic,” that 26% of their readers admit they have contemplated cosmetic surgery as a solution to their angst about their bodies.

I appreciate that editors may not be able to completely revolutionise their magazines overnight, and I suspect that in our tough economic climate they may even become less selective about the advertising they accept – but if they are serious about their commitment to young women, they simply must be more vigilant. During our brief meeting, Sarah struck me as genuine and open to an ongoing dialogue about how she can improve the messages she presents to girls. Watch this space.

Teacher Resources – ready to go!

Don’t you just love good quality, free lesson plans and teacher resources? This web site one is one of my more recent discoveries:

btn_homemagazine_over.jpgMy Pop Studio www.mypopstudio.com

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Their blurb:

“My Pop Studio is a creative play experience that strengthens critical thinking skills about television, music, magazines and online media directed at girls. Users select from four behind-the-scenes opportunities to learn more about mass media:

In the Magazine Studio, users compose a magazine layout featuring themselves as celebrities. They write an advice column, explore the power of digital retouching, and reflect on the role of body image in today’s culture.
In the TV Studio, users edit a TV show where the story keeps changing but the images remain the same. They examine their TV viewing choices, comment on teen celebrities, and compare their daily screen time with others.
In the Music Studio, users create a pop star and compose her image and song. They explore the power of music in selling a product and search for truth in media gossip. The comment on the values messages in popular music.
In the Digital Studio, users test their multi-tasking abilities. They share their experiences with the challenges of digital life online. They consider the “what if’s” of social networking sites and reflect on the power of media and technology in their social relationships.”

I have played around on this site and think it will have enormous appeal as it is really educational, interactive, and fun! There are also excellent accompaning lessons and activities for teachers and parents too (all free and downloadable as PDF’s).  

 I particularly like this one on photo fakery  photo%20fakery.pdf

“After playing Photo Fakery, students look at the web site of a professional photo re-toucher and read and discuss a persuasive essay about the impact of digitally manipulated images on personal identity and cultural values. This activity strengthens reading comprehension, critical thinking, and writing skills. After reviewing the vocabulary as a pre-reading activity, students read independently and complete the questions. Afterwards, they discuss the questions provided on the worksheet.”

It would be marvellous to adapt this exercise for seniors by getting them to read through the highly controversial and illuminating article that appeared in The New Yorker this week on premier photo retoucher Pascal Dangin – “Pixel Perfect.” This article is jaw dropping.

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Pascal is the photo retoucher the magazines call in “when they want someone who looks less than great to look great, someone who looks great to look amazing, or someone who looks amazing already-whether by dint of DNA or M·A·C-to look, as is the mode, superhuman.” We are told that in the March issue of Vogue alone “Dangin tweaked a hundred and forty-four images: a hundred and seven advertisements (Estée Lauder, Gucci, Dior, etc.), thirty-six fashion pictures, and the cover, featuring Drew Barrymore.” Not surprisingly, his work is not credited in the magazines that pay him to “translate” their images. How disturbing is this observation by writer Lauren Collins: “Dangin showed me how he had restructured the chest-higher, tighter-of an actress who, to his eye, seemed to have had a clumsy breast enhancement. Like a double negative, virtual plastic surgery cancelled out real plastic surgery, resulting in a believable look.”  

Dangin is the man behind the Dove Real Beauty / Real Hypocrisy controversy I mentioned last week – in this article he claims he did the retouching on their ad’s too: “Do you know how much retouching was on that? But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”

Used any excellent resources in your classroom? Love to hear about them!   

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