Body confidence campaign

This speech was given by Lynne Feathersone at the Endangered Species International Summit at Royal Festival Hall in central London on 4 March 2011. This version is as written, not as spoken.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Lynne Featherstone

‘Thank you, Susie for not only the kind introduction but for the inspiring leadership and immense contribution you have made to the debate. I am hugely honoured to be invited to speak. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

Anyone who’s had even a passing interest in what I’ve been saying will know body confidence is an issue I am very passionate about.

It’s an area I championed with my colleague Jo Swinson while I was Liberal Democrat Shadow Spokesperson for Equality, throughout all the five years or so I was in opposition and even during my election campaign before I became an MP.

So I can’t tell you how excited I am that, after all that talking, I am now finally doing.

I want to use today as an opportunity to explain what I see as the scope of the problem around body image and some of the practical steps the government has taken so far to make body confidence a reality.

Concerned for a long time

I have for a long time been concerned about the way our young people have come to see themselves.

The numbers who feel negatively about the way they look is reaching epidemic proportions.

A recent survey carried out by Girlguiding last year showed:

  • 47 per cent of schools girls believe that the pressure to look attractive is the most negative part of being female
  • half consider having surgery to change the way they look
  • and 75 per cent said that they went on strict diets to be attractive to others

I worry that these feelings of inadequacy are contributing to low-self esteem, depression, anxiety and eating disorders amongst our young people.

Public health concern

The seriousness of poor body image as both a social and public health concern is something I want to really be clear about. Indeed, the government has embedded the Body Confidence work in both our recently published Mental Health Strategy and the White Paper on Public Health.

What we are talking about here isn’t just a simple case of young people worrying about the clothes they wear. It’s not even about a few here and there complaining about the size of their thighs. 

It is about reports that girls as young as six are worrying about how many calories are in their lunch box.

It is about teenage girls dieting in a desperate attempt to try and look like the pictures of emaciated models and celebrities we see splashed across magazines - pictures which have been digitally altered to make these women appear thinner than they could actually ever be. 

It’s about young women being so convinced their bodies are inadequate they are resorting to extraordinary lengths to transform them. Like the recent tragic case of the young British woman, just twenty years old who passed away after undergoing backstreet cosmetic surgery in America.

Not even young men are immune to these body fears. Increasingly more and more are feeling the pressure to look like the aesthetic of the perfectly muscled and toned male, in some cases leading to misuse of steroids.

The pressure to look ‘perfect’ is becoming part of our human condition. It’s everywhere. It affects everyone. And it can consume a life.

Digital manipulation is even now no longer just confined to television and magazines. Through a few points and clicks on their home computers, people are now using technology such as photoshop to alter their family photos.

And what does this mean for the next generation? Well I am a true believer that every single young person has something great to offer our society - something far, far greater than their physical appearance.

Particularly for young women, advances in gender rights have meant they now have limitless career possibilities - they can dream about their futures in ways most of us in this room could not.

Reaching full potential

But my biggest fear is how many of them will ever be able to reach their full potential, if they are this unhappy in their own skin, or think their body is their greatest asset in life.

And even if they do, they will still feel an underlying inadequacy, or lack of confidence, seeded in their young years by the relentless pressure to be thin and beautiful.

The government’s work to promote body confidence is really about saying ‘enough is enough.’

Of course there is no single wham bam answer. It’s about working in the right direction.

The aim of the work is three-fold.

Firstly, I want to use it as a vehicle to raise awareness about body image.

All of us need to start talking more openly and publicly about what we know has been a problem for several decades now.

Secondly, I want to make sure we start supporting young people to healthier and happy futures where a wider spectrum of body shapes is represented.
That doesn’t mean waging a war on skinny people.

Nor does it mean making the curvaceous Christina Hendricks a new fantasy figure for girls, as some suggested I said!

It means widening the definition of beauty to include all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities.

And thirdly, but most significant of all, I want young people to recognise that their value is worth so much more than just their physical appearance. What about intelligence? What about talent? What about being kind or humorous?

There is no question achieving these aims will be challenging - further complicated by the fact that this is a problem which is not the fault of any one group or industry.

The pressure really is coming from all directions.

It can be triggered from something as simple as watching Mum standing in front of the mirror complaining about her body. Parents need to understand the influence they wield from the earliest of years.

Even my email inbox isn’t immune. It’s continuously filled with invitations to enlarge this, to extend that or to try the latest remedy to lose weight!

And so while it might be tempting to try and invent some miracle piece of legislation or regulation to make this go away, that really isn’t the answer.

The scale of the problem is just all too encompassing; it’s too much part of our fabric of life for quick heavy handed solutions.

All of us need to work together to fight this:  government, health professionals, fashion, beauty, the media industry, the voluntary sector and so on. if we are to achieve the long term cultural change we need.

That is why last year I convened an advisory group encompassing representatives from all these different sectors - to ensure a more joined up and coordinated push at tackling low levels of body confidence.

The idea of the group, of which Susie is a member, is to form a kind of loose collective whereby we all continue in our own spheres to push forward the work, while committing to meeting regularly to report back on our actions and successes - and move forward the agenda.

Other members of the group include: All Walks, YMCA, Girl Guiding, Mumsnet, the Family and Parenting Institute, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, Anybody.org, Race on the Agenda, the Institute of Education, the National Children’s Bureau, BEAT, Sport England and Unilever.

I want to thank them for all their contributions so far and recognise those members of the Group here today. 

As part of that work, I am delighted to welcome the production of a new media literacy tool that will address the body confidence issue from the not for profit organisation Media Smart. 

New resource for children

This new resource will encourage children to think critically about the body images they see in the media, and help them to understand that altering techniques are used to enhance appeal.

The demand for something like this is really out there. Many teachers have written to me personally, expressing a real interest in incorporating body image issues in their school curriculum. They just don’t know how to go about doing it. 

So while we are not putting any obligation on schools to use the resource, I am confident if it there, ready and available to use, we will start to see real movement on this - I hope with the potential to reach thousands and thousands of young people on a subject they are interested in.

Aside from education, the other key area of our work will be focused on encouraging change within industry and popular culture.

The good news is there is already momentum within the industry on the issue.

Debenhams has not only banned airbrushing ads, but they have revealed the tricks of the trade by releasing a ‘before and after’ airbrushed image from its latest swimwear campaign;

And Dove beauty products are leading the way by making body confidence part of their brand through thought-provoking ads, confidence-building programmes and messaging that embraces all definitions of beauty.

These are but a few of the fantastic examples of what can be achieved when industry decides to take a stand.

Our work will be focused on supporting more industry professionals to move beyond the ‘business as usual’ approach to fully embracing the body confidence work.

Over the next few months I will be announcing initiatives to help push forward this objective.

But I can tell you, to kick start the process, I will be very shortly meeting with the industry body responsible for toiletries and beauty products - to see what can be done to echo the values behind the Dove brand on a much wider level.

Now, I am fully aware there are plenty of people out who think I am embarking on the impossible.

But I truly believe change is possible.

Already, the body confidence work is gaining real momentum. Over the last few months it has received vast amounts of coverage in the press - some of it negative, some of it positive - but the fact is people are talking!

We know the resonance this has out there. Any parent knows the anguish, knows the agony of seeing their children count the calories in everything they eat or at the other end of it comfort eat because they have such an unhealthy relationship with food. Of hearing their daughters cry about the way the look or cover themselves because they believe their arms are too big or their tummy is too rounded to show.

The challenge for us now is to make sure we maximise the tide and turn what is an acknowledgement of a problem into real, concerted action.

That will require the efforts of all organisations from government, through to schools, through to big industry.

But it’ not just the ‘big guns’ who have a role to play.

I am a great believer in people power. And nowhere am I more a believer than when it comes to body confidence.

The truth of the matter is that our television programmes, our magazines, our adverts and so on are producing what they think you want to see, and what they think will make you buy their products.

Make your voice known

But if each and every member of the public, who felt strongly about this issue, was to make their voices known, the possibilities for change would be enormous.

And I want to give you one significant example of how you might do this.

In the past we have seen the Advertising Standards Authority or ASA take action on adverts where they have proven to be misleading.

We saw this last year, when they banned an advert for Olay anti-wrinkle products featuring Twiggy, in response to almost 1,000 complaints received as part of the Real Women campaign.

The ASA upheld the complaint that the advert was misleading because viewers were led to believe that Twiggy’s appearance was achieved using the product and not through digital alteration.

The ASA have recently added a new social responsibility clause to their codes of practice which will now mean they will also have to consider complaints about adverts being socially irresponsible.

And it could take is just one single complaint for an ad like this to be removed, they tell me.

While I am in no way advocating that when you leave here you should pick up your phones and wage a crusade against the Advertising Industry.

What I am saying is that when you see an advert which is clearly misguiding or socially irresponsible, not just to say to yourself ‘this is wrong’ but to actually do something about it and make a complaint.

Let me finish by saying thank you. Thank you once again to Susie who has played such a significant role in promoting body confidence.  And thank you to everyone who has made it here this evening.

There is no doubt in my mind that if each and everyone of us take responsibility for tackling body issues, and work together on this, we will, eventually, start to see change.’


Published 4 March 2011