I am absolutely delighted to be here at CSW 2012 to co-host, with our Thai and Danish allies, this exciting event on body image and the media. This is such an important topic and today is the first time it’s been discussed at CSW.
The increasing focus on body image is an issue I feel very passionately about and judging from the numbers in this room there are a lot of people who care too. This is an issue that affects every household in the UK. We received overwhelming interest and enthusiasm about this event. And the fact that we’re talking about it at the global level is evidence of its relevance to women and girls around the world.
So why are we here today?
Combating poverty, starvation, violence against women and girls, female genital mutilation, forced and early marriage and maternal mortality are, of course, at the top of the international agenda. And rightly so.
But we are also faced with a crisis where surprisingly high levels of women in the global south as well as the north feel compelled to conform to a distorted vision of beauty. This results in low levels of self esteem, lack of self worth, anxiety, depression and in extreme cases, high levels of eating disorders and greater demand for cosmetic surgery, which as we know, can go horribly wrong.
There is a clear need for governments, the private sector and civil society, to come together to challenge the concept of a singular body image for women and girls - and increasingly for boys - that everyone is bombarded with through the media. The idea that a women’s physical appearance is the prime indicator of a woman’s worth, is something that desperately needs addressing.
We are all too familiar with that ‘perfect image’. You know the one - young, white, skinny, with a perfect air-brushed face and a perfect photo-shopped body. We need to ask ourselves: How has this unrealistic notion of perfection become so normalised? And how can we take action so people have the tools to push back.
Popular culture is multi-faceted and it would be naive to assume that it is purely the media driving this. But we are focusing on the media today because it is so relevant to all our lives and it is such a powerful medium to solidify cultural norms and practices.
The media constantly bombards people, but women and girls especially, with unrealistic images. They set an impossible standard, and place immense pressure on everyone, but women and girls in particular, to try and conform to a body type, shape, and even colour, that are completely unobtainable. These images have the potential to hugely damage self esteem, crush confidence, and adversely affect health.
We need to challenge this culture of conformity and widen the definition of beauty to include all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities. And to help people to recognise that their value goes beyond just their physical appearance.
As the UK minister for equalities, I have launched a national government campaign to tackle these issues. The body confidence campaign aims to achieve three things.
Firstly we want to see a wider spectrum of body shapes represented in popular culture, including all ages, shapes, sizes and colours. We are working collaboratively with industry and have formed productive partnerships with a range of sectors including beauty, advertising, fashion, fitness, sport and the media.
Secondly, we want to make sure people, particularly children, have a better understanding of what they are seeing because what they are seeing isn’t reality. To do that, we must give individuals the tools to critically assess what they see.
And thirdly, we want people to recognise that qualities such as intelligence, personality, character and individuality, are equally expressive of a different sort of beauty.
I have brought together a team of experts from a range of industries to advise the UK government on the body confidence campaign. We have adopted a partnership approach, and work to identify voluntary solutions in order to overcome these challenges together. For example, a group of three experts from fashion have set up a centre of excellence at Edinburgh fashion school to cut clothes for different shapes and sizes.
Building resilience in people, especially children, is crucial to challenge these images. So we worked with media smart, a not-for-profit media literacy organisation, funded by the advertising industry. They have developed a teaching pack for primary schools specifically on body image and the media. Kids look at images of celebrities before and after photoshopping and they are asked to bring photos of people they admire. They all bring photos of their parents, who are all shapes and sizes. Through this teaching pack, children understand they don’t need to conform to try and look a certain way, just because of the media messaging they receive.
When we launched the teaching pack in September last year, it received huge coverage in the media not only in the UK, it went right across the world to Columbia, Australia, and Taiwan. We are also planning to launch a similar pack for parents in a few weeks time. These are free resources and available globally so I encourage you to download these from the Home Office website and spread the word when you get home. Alternatively, think about how you can develop a similar resource in your own countries.
This is an issue that affects girls at a younger and younger age, with children of five worrying about dieting and it is paramount that we work together to take action and support each other in every way we can. Boys are also increasingly on the agenda, taking steroids to conform to an impossible body image. The global is now the local, and I am opening the door to any country that would like to share resources and ideas on this issue to get in touch with my officials. We have to push back for the sake of our children.