The body image trap: let’s fight it together


September 5-11 was National Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

“Awareness” about these serious and widespread issues is reasonably high these days. No young person can get through high school without being acutely aware of the pressures on physical appearance and personal image.

The Mission Australia 2009 National Survey of Young Australians found that body image was the third-ranked issue of concern. A quarter of respondents (25.5%) said it was a major concern.

Anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness for adolescent women (after asthma and obesity).

About one in 100 teenage women will develop anorexia (five in 100 will develop some form of bulimia nervosa) — and 90% of young people suffering an eating disorder are women.

In Australia, 70-76% of high school girls consistently choose an ideal figure that they wish to have that is thinner than their own. Only 16% of young women are happy with their body.

The Victorian Office for Youth released these findings in 2008, along with the fact that half of teenage women had tried to lose weight, and extreme dieting and depression are closely linked.

New studies have found the trend continues well into adult life, with some magazine studies revealing more than half of respondents aged 18-35 took diet pills to lose weight, 88% regularly skipped meals and close to one in five women would regularly starve themselves for a day.

Forty-seven per cent of Australian women of healthy weight believed they were overweight.

Similarly, “awareness” about the role that the advertising industry plays in pushing insecurity and self-criticism onto women has grown significantly over the last decade.

As a result of positive body image campaigns, an Australian government advisory group recently released a “voluntary” code of conduct on body image. The code asks the fashion industry to adopt practices that don't totally destroy self-esteem and worth.

For example: “The code recommends designers not to hire models with a dangerously low body mass index”, ABC Online said on June 27.

Magazines in particular have been increasingly criticised for the air-brushed, digitally modified woman that is the supposed ideal of “beauty”.

Women's Weekly editor Helen McCabe said she'd adhere to the government's code by “revealing” when an image has been digitally changed. Considering almost every photo of every model that appears in fashion advertising appears altered, this isn't much of a promise.

“Awareness” of this acute and chronic Western disease has even breached the cosmetics industry, with companies such as the Body Shop and Dove claiming to sell us “natural beauty”.

Figures that are less well known include the obscene wealth of the industries that perpetuate impossible standards of attractiveness, as well as just how pervasive the message really is.

In 2006, Marketdata said the US weight-loss market was worth US$55.4 billion. In 2007-08, Australia's cosmetics, perfume and toiletries manufacturing industry was worth about $1.5 billion. Australians spent about $5 billion on this stuff.

And why? The pressure is hard to escape.

Sexism is used to sell crappy products to a mass market. Women's bodies — or parts of their bodies — are used to sell products to society and promote spending money to eradicate insecurities.

In 2000, said the average US woman sees 400 to 600 advertisements per day. A 17-year-old woman has received over 250,000 commercial messages through the media.

Meanwhile, young women rarely have access to the diet programs, gym memberships and cosmetic regimes peddled as “solutions”. But these lucrative commercial industries encourage food fixation and compulsive exercise, resulting in the horrendous statistics that are now common knowledge.

“Awareness” means little to those who suffer as a result of a multi-billion dollar commercial industry that shows us what it means to be “beautiful”, and sells us the diets, the clothes, the cosmetics and obsessiveness it takes to try to get there.

Most “self-acceptance” and “positive body image” campaigns tell us this is a personal battle that individuals must overcome by defying the society that shapes them.

Resistance is a feminist organisation that believes there are many different kinds of beauty and popular culture should reflect women as they are — with many different faces and shapes. Smashing through sexist advertising and showing women they are not alone is a battle that should be waged strongly and collectively.