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Do Magazines Create Body Image Anxiety? UK Parliamentary Inquiry Finds Out

Posted: 01/02/2012 23:00

On Monday, I gave evidence at the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Causes and Consequences of Body Image Anxiety in the UK. Two weeks ago, the diet industry was on the stand and it was a focused debate where the Weight Watchers representative got so tangled up trying to answer the questions without incriminating herself, she admitted out loud that Weight Watchers customers are being unrealistic if they expect to lose much weight. It was fantastic!

This was ignored by the media, and the week following gave a glimpse of the invasive weight-loss industry fingers coldly gripping our TV stations and the press. The media was filled with almost desperate pro-dieting propaganda. The most insidious on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff (Newsnight for the brainless), in which satanic-faced Matthew Wright asked if dieting is making us all look too thin. You could almost see the diet industry money in pound signs rolling up in his eyeballs like a fruit machine. Kerching!

On Monday the media were on the stand. Hardly anyone from the media would give evidence - mainly because editors and publishers know the causes and consequences of body image anxiety and no one wants to admit their part in it. There were three of us, me as editor of Beautiful, Maria Welch, editor of teen girl's mag Shout, and Matthew Todd, editor of gay men's magazine Attitude.

They were nice guys but they were waffling on, avoiding the point which lulled the room into a kind of 'nodding trance' allowing the real issues to be avoided.

The Attitude editor said he has no control over advertising and it's true, but editorial is carefully monitored by editors so as not to damage the impact of the adverts. I worked on the subs desk at Woman for a few years and a part of the job was to make sure the content didn't clash with the ads. (We once mistakenly put a feature about anorexia next to an ad for Slimfast and were all threatened with the sack). Keeping advertisers happy will also be part of Matthew Todd's job.

He said covers with Stephen Fry and David Cameron don't sell as well as the ones with shirtless muscle guys. I was glad when Stephen Williams MP asked if this is because the media has created the public obsession with appearance and that it's a chicken-and-egg situation. This could have led on to a more effective line of questioning forcing the Attitude ed to admit his magazine is creating insecurity in its readers so that they can sell them solutions to that insecurity. But it went straight back to a weak list of excuses and avoidance of responsibility. His stand was a case of 'blame the readers'.

Maria Welch gave a list of the body confidence articles in Shout, but didn't mention that all the images are of thin, pretty girls. It seemed to be: "We're giving evidence at the Body Image Inquiry, we'd better trawl through the magazine to find body positive features, keep talking about those and not mention the rest." Shout covers are chock full of pictures of skinny girls with headlines like: "You can look like Vanessa." Welch also said the images were never airbrushed. But she'd told me earlier in the queue outside the committee room that airbrushing is obsolete and Shout images were enhanced using more modern digital techniques. So she was only technically telling the truth but misleading everyone at the same time. This Shout cover here shows the young model's outer thighs have been shaved off.

So while all this was polite and nice, it was a lot of hot air. When I spoke I felt like a pair of hobnail boots stamping on a garden of flowers.

I was asked if there should be guidelines forcing the media to publish more diverse body shapes; I said yes because the media ideal is one of the root causes of the deaths from anorexia and the independent research shows it to be one of the main factors in overeating, which means it is also responsible for the deaths that we call 'obesity related' said to be the biggest killer next to smoking. When asked if Government intervention was adequate I said no because every bit of information and advice on the Department of Health website is based on diet industry-funded research.

I felt like an ex-employee of Phillip Morris taking the stand against the tobacco industry in the 1950s.

It was disappointing. But, even though misinformed in some areas, The APPG on Body Image and MPs Jo Swinson MP, Caroline Nokes MP, Mary Glindon MP and Stephen Williams MP are on our side - and that's a sharp hoof to the privates for the weight loss industry.

 
 
 

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