An Authority on Airbrushing? :: Government and Body Image

by Ashley Solomon

To follow up on last week’s post about a recent Dove casting call for “real women.” I thought some of you would be interested to learn that two governments recently proposed initiatives to address the use of certain models and technologies in advertising.

This June the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government, approved a bill forbidding the employment of models determined to be underweight. As the bill reads, the display of underweight models will be banned, as will their employment or representation by agencies. “Underweight” will be determined by an analysis of the model’s body mass index (BMI), which will be to be part of a medical permit required of women seeking modeling jobs. What happens when  companies ignore the prohibition and use “ultra-thin” models in their marketing efforts? They face a fine of NIS 75,000 to 220,000 ($19,500 to $57,000). That’s hefty.

A particularly dramatic retouching of singer, Faith Hill, by Redbook.

Unlike the bill approved in Israel, its Australian counterpart takes a slightly different approach. The initiative, revealed only three days after Australia’s first female prime minister took office (coincidence?), takes the form of a voluntary code of conduct that modeling agencies, designers, retailers, and magazines will be encouraged to utilize. Should they choose to abide by the regulations outlined, they will be rewarded by earning a “body image friendly” recognition. The guidelines, developed by the National Advisory Group on Body Image, encourage the use of diverse models and call for a ban on rapid weight-loss product advertisement, the use of ultra-thin and ultra-muscular models, and the “unrealistic” digital enhancement of people. They also call for carrying a wider variety of sizes in stores and only using models aged 16 or older (for adult clothes).

These initiatives come on the heels of the recent bans on ultra-thin models on catwalks in Madrid. It appears that efforts to address the purported damage done by so-called unrealistic images are becoming a global cause. So where is the United States?

This issue is an admittedly complex one. I find it difficult to imagine that a regulation like the one in Israel would ever take hold in the U.S., where our commitment to the freedom of expression and our distaste for government interference are so fundamental. And on another level, are governmental bans really the answer?

On the one hand, I fear that the bans, such as those addressed in the Israeli bill, are potentially discriminatory toward thin women and muscular men. The bill proposes using BMI as an gauge of underweight, which brings up a host of issues. Significant research is showing that BMI is, in fact,  not a reliable indicator of body fat or health. Two reasons are that BMI does not distinguish between body fat and muscle mass and it does not account for waist size. Some even suggest that statistics used to determine BMI are nonsensical. In fact, if body fat is taken out of the equation, BMI is unlikely to be predictive of health status.

Separately, some might argue that it is not a modeling agency’s or a retailer’s job to “protect” consumers, but rather to sell product. While I do not totally agree with this sentiment, I understand that there are potentially dangerous consequences of putting such limitations on these organizations. And I believe that these organizations are not solely responsible for creating the image of beauty that they sell – they use ultra-thin models because consumers continue to look at their ads and buy their products when they do so. The change starts not only with the large corporations, but with our daily (or more realistically, moment by moment) decisions as consumers.

What I can stand behind is the fact that change is needed. We have ample research that demonstrates the impact of unrealistic media portrayals on both men and women. As an example, Stice and Shaw (1994) exposed 157 undergraduate women to magazine images of female models of either thin or average size, or to no models at all. The women’s self-reported depression, shame, guilt, body dissatisfaction, insecurity, and stress were all significantly greater following exposure to thin models than to the other images. And this was after only a few moments of looking over magazines. Imagine the impact when we are exposed to when we are engaged with entertainment media for over seven and a half hours per day (which, by the way, the average person is).

So what is the answer? Well, like I said above, I think the development of a healthy body image is multi-faceted. It incorporates quality parenting, strong relationships, well-developed self-esteem, and a healthy dose of media literacy. It might also involve cultural shifts that start with governmental intervention. Interested to hear your thoughts…

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4 Comments to “An Authority on Airbrushing? :: Government and Body Image”

  1. Wow, to your 2nd to last paragraph.

    I’m with you: change is needed. I do applaud the Israeli and Australian governments, as well as the fashion industry in Madrid, for taking SOME step, even if it’s not the “right” one. You gotta start somewhere, right? And only through trial and error can we discover what measures will work and what won’t.

    Also, am I the only one that think Faith looks a LOT better in the unairbrushed version?? I mean, part of it is the contrast (higher contrast images usually look more appealing than washed out) but even her smile is brighter in the original. To be honest, I wouldn’t have noticed the arm airbrushed so much thinner on the magazine if you hadn’t pointed it out, but now that I can see, I definitely prefer the reality. She’s still thin, but naturally so.

  2. Looks like I can’t model in Israel before dinner, but should be fine after! 🙂

  3. It is amazing how quickly someone can be depressed from something as simple of a picture, but I am like that as well. A while ago I heard Kate Winslet doesn’t allow those magazines in her house. She doesn’t want her daughters exposed to those images since she knows they are not realistic. If only there could be some kind of “disclaimer” or something to let people know… it’s not real.

    Great post, Ashley!

  4. Great Job Ashley, as always.

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