I am delighted to be here to talk about what we are doing in the UK to address the growing problem of poor body image.
This is my 7th year attending CSW. Each year I have noticed growing awareness of the importance and potential of this issue. Women’s bodies are, in countries everywhere, a locus for society’s negotiations over female identity, personal freedom and cultural identity. There is increasing understanding of this work and how deeply it influences our wider struggle for gender equality.
Poor body image is wrapped up with so many of the expectations we have of women, and the limitations we put on them, every single day. But more than that, there is overwhelming evidence for harm that says poor body image can contribute to poor mental wellbeing, eating disorders, obesity, low aspirations and a range of risky behaviours including drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and unsafe sex, especially among women and girls.
What used to be seen as the miserable reserve of young girls and impressionable teenagers has become a much wider, deeper and more insidious problem. In many parts of the world, the pressures on women to assert their human value through their physical appearance are not just intensifying, but spreading to include many more women for a much larger portion of their lives. Young girls, older women, women who have just given birth, women in the workplace, women who appear on TV to contribute their professional expertise in for instance, economics, science or architecture: all are expected to conform, or are punished for not doing so. Indeed, it is sometimes said that where women have achieved greater individual freedom, and less restrictive views of appropriate female behaviour, there you will find an increasing focus on how they carry ‘femininity’ on their bodies.
This societal pressure for bodily perfection focuses our young women on regimes of constant and relentless self-monitoring and improvement, and a conviction that they have to look perfect before they are entitled to expect equality, respect and appreciation.
We pay a particularly high opportunity cost for the impact of low body confidence on women’s educational and workplace aspirations, active citizenship, and participation in public life. Women’s acute self-consciousness, their constant awareness of how they are being viewed by others, diverts attention and energy that could be spent on education, growing a business, achieving a promotion, on family and personal life, and on the enjoyment of all of those things. This is an enormous waste of women’s time, talent and emotional wellbeing, sacrificed to the pursuit of looking like somebody else.
The UK with Denmark were the first countries to host a major side event at CSW on body confidence issues 4 years ago, using the famous Dove Evolution video and with the esteemed Susie Orbach, who many of you may know. As a government that seeks to maximise the talents of everyone, and in particular to support women’s increased contribution to economic growth, we are very concerned about the opportunity costs associated with low body confidence. We all know that better gender balance brings wider benefits, not only to women, but also to organisations, to the economy and to society at large. And a significant barrier in maximising women’s potential to progress and achieve their aspirations is the blight of poor body image.
Our work on body image in the UK has focused on building a strong evidence base around the economic arguments whilst promoting fairness and equality. We want to create a real cultural change through a voluntary approach, not one based solely on legislation. A change that allows women, and men, to use their full potential.
Our Body Confidence Campaign stems from the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image. From that group came government work and wider partnerships both in industry and the third sector. The GEO campaign launched in 2010, led ably first by Lynne Featherstone, and then by Jo Swinson, and Jenny Willott. The Campaign for Body Confidence, now Be Real, which is a charity with which we have a close working relationship and is a leading organisation addressing this issue in the UK, partners with GEO, Dove, and a range of other industry leaders and charitable organisations.
Government plays its part by adding its voice to the public debate, by bringing to the table a range of interested parties, by identifying the cross-cutting policy issues and by supporting those who work directly with those most affected. But we continue a close relationship with Be Real and other groups like All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, Beat, Body Gossip and Girl Guiding, to engage with and learn from their work with an enormous range of grassroots organisations and with women and men of all ages.
Our programme of work on body image focuses on three approaches:
Responding to public concerns and raising debate to promote cultural change
Supporting efforts to promote media literacy and resilience, particularly among young people
Developing constructive relationships with industry and other stakeholders to encourage positive action and good practice across all sectors
In the last five years we have developed evidence-based resources to raise children’s media literacy. Our packs for parents and teachers, delivered by the Media Smart Trust, have been downloaded over 35,000 times. Last year we launched a new toolkit for 16-17 year olds, which is primarily promoted through the National Citizen Service, and includes resources and lesson plans to encourage older teenagers to develop their own active citizenship projects to engage with this issue.
Arguably the most challenging aspect of our campaign is our work with industry. We feel that the best way to encourage effective and lasting change is to encourage industry to change from within. We work with the media, advertising, retail, fashion and sports industries to encourage more diverse and realistic representation of women, men, boys and girls.
Over the last few years we have developed a fantastic working relationship with the companies such as Dove and also with the Advertising Association and the industry. They have been doing great work, developing evidence and solutions to the representations of women, girls and BAME people in advertising. They understand that this is the right thing to do, but also that listening to what the public wants and engaging with consumers is good for business! This is win-win for those who care to listen.
But the undoubted benefits of success don’t mean that tackling the epidemic of poor body image is an easy task. The societal approbation of women’s bodies is so ingrained, so ubiquitous, that it can be hard to disentangle cause from effect and equally hard to build a realistic vision of what life could be like if women were simply allowed to be, celebrated for their contribution rather than their appearance, free to engage with fashion and beauty with creativity and self-expression but above all if they choose to do so, rather than because they are required to do so.
It’s an ambitious ask. We don’t want to just widen the definition of beauty a little, broaden the diversity of body types represented in the media, be a little kinder to those who don’t fit the norm – though those would all be a good start. But we need to go further. We need to question why it is that women are trained to see themselves through others’ eyes; why it is that whatever else they achieve in life, women are still judged and understood in relation to men and how they appeal to men. This is not just a self-esteem issue, it is an equalities issue and tackling it is vital to improving women’s lives.
So through this project we have been exploring the relationship of body image to gender roles and stereotypes, and to other policy priority areas such as violence against women, homophobic bullying, and women in the workplace. Body image is a symptom of the much wider and deeper problem of gender equality, but it is also a vehicle through which gender inequality is sustained and transmitted to the next generation.
We know that the causes of body image are complex and multi-factorial; there is no simple answer, no quick cure. But Government can play its part by adding its voice to the public debate, by bringing to the table a range of interested parties, by identifying the cross-cutting policy issues and by supporting those who work directly with those most affected.