by Ian Shires on 30 December, 2012
The following article was written by the Liberal Democrat Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson and was published yesterday on the Huffington Post website.
Back in 2008, Lynne Featherstone MP and I were discussing how to reflect the evidence we had heard about body image problems in our forthcoming Liberal Democrat policy paper. Four years and a General Election later, and the issue is firmly on the government agenda.
Looking back, it has been quite a journey to get to this point. Following the publication of that policy paper, Lynne and I resolved to turn it into a campaign rather than gather dust on a shelf in Lib Dem HQ. We ignited the debate about retouching in the media through high-profile complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority that saw adverts featuring Julia Roberts, Rachel Weisz, Christy Turlington and Twiggy banned. In 2010 we co-founded the Campaign for Body Confidence, bringing together partners in the media, fashion and fitness industries, as well as those who spend their days trying to heal the damage caused by low self-esteem and distorted views of eating and exercise. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image followed in 2011, and gave the campaign a parliamentary focus with cross-party support from MPs Caroline Nokes, Mary Glindon, Caroline Dinenage, Stephen Williams and Sharon Hogdson.
2012 has been a vintage year for body confidence. It kicked off with a special Parliamentary screening of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentaryMissRepresentation which explores how media misrepresentations of women have led to their under-representation in positions of power and influence. In April we held the first ever Body Confidence Awards presented in association withbareMinerals – an electric celebration of inspirational and deserving efforts to promote body confidence, diversity and the acceptance of broader beauty ideals. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image Inquiry into the causes and consequences of body image anxiety heard evidence from a wide range of organisations, and published its report in June. In government, we’re particularly proud of our work this year to improve young people’s understanding of how the media and celebrity culture affect us through the Media Smart teacher and parent packs – if you want to discuss these issues with your child or teenager do download the free online resources. And of course we had a fantastic summer of Olympic and Paralympic sport, showcasing diverse role models who value their bodies for what they can do, rather than how they look.
So I was absolutely delighted in the reshuffle to take on the role of Minister for Women and Equalities, and pick up the baton on the government’s body confidence campaign from my fellow campaigner Lynne Featherstone. Building on a brilliant 2012, I’m excited about what we can do in 2013.
We need to develop a better understanding of the full mix of causes and effects. We will soon publish a short review of evidence on body image, which points to some interesting areas for further investigation. Although body image debates often focus on young women, there is evidence to suggest that women over 40 also experience high levels of dissatisfaction with their weight and bodies in comparison to their younger years. That’s a huge, and largely hidden, reservoir of distress that we need to understand more fully and take action on more effectively.
We need to open the debate up further and to talk more openly. We already understand how low body confidence can affect 15 year old girls. But what happens when those 15 year old girls reach 25, 35, and 45? How does their low body confidence translate into social confidence? How does it affect their performance in the workplace? How does it affect their families? The government is already doing a lot to support women, but we also need to ensure that we can nurture and support the aspirations of women and girls. Women are at the heart of the country’s economic growth strategy and we need to do everything possible to harness their talents and skills.
In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry, there is understandably a lot of talk about his findings on the representation of women and minorities in the media. Our work with media partners is made much easier when both sides accept that the old polarised debate about whether media images cause eating disorders is redundant. The evidence supports what common sense suggests: that body image is formed at the interplay of a number of influences, including individual resilience, family relationships, peer norms and – yes – social messages about desirability.
Body confidence is not all about women. While men are, generally, less likely to suffer from negative body image, they are far from immune. And I think that they are also part of the solution. So, one of my personal commitments for the coming year is to recruit men in positions of influence (as fathers, designers, CEOs and ministers) to play their part in reducing the devastating waste of human energy, confidence and contribution that is the result of our social epidemic of low body confidence. I feel like we’re really starting to make a difference now and I am eagerly looking forward to the next chapter.
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