Lynne Featherstone speech to Fitness Industry Association

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This speech was given by equalities minister Lynne Featherstone on 25 October 2011 at the Vanguard Council. This version of the speech is as written, not spoken.

Thank you for inviting me here today and to the Fitness Industry Association for hosting this event. It’s a real pleasure to come and speak to you all about the work government is doing on body confidence and talk about ways we can work together to move the campaign forwards.

Some of you will already know a lot about the government’s body confidence campaign. Others may not have heard of it at all. So I’ll start by telling you a bit about what we’re doing.

Body confidence is an issue I am deeply passionate about. I have been concerned for a long time about the growing numbers of people, in particular young people, who feel negatively about the way they look.

A survey carried out by Girlguiding last year showed that:

  • 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
  • 75 per cent said that they went on strict diets to be attractive to others

And it’s not restricted to just girls. YMCA research shows that:

  • 18 per cent of boys have taken protein supplements to make themselves more muscular
  • 11 per cent of boys would take steroids to build muscle if they were unhappy with the way they looked

And remember that this is children we are talking about. These feelings of inadequacy and lack of self worth can have a devastating effect on their physical and mental health. Eating and anxiety disorders, depression, self harm and social isolation are just come of the very serious health consequences of negative body image. 

Damaging effect of size zero

The reality is that body image affects a variety of people, sometimes with serious consequences. This includes women and girls dieting in a desperate attempt to try and look like size zero models and celebrities. It’s about boys and men feeling the pressure to look like the aesthetic of the perfectly muscled and toned male. It’s about people being so convinced their bodies are inadequate they are resorting to extraordinary lengths to transform them.

But we’re not just talking about extreme behaviour here.  There are many people who feel inadequate because of the way they look and, even though they don’t resort to cosmetic surgery or steroid use, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. Low self-esteem has significant impacts on people’s health and well-being and can manifest itself in a variety of ways. We all know that one of the biggest barriers to girls participating in sport is because of negative body image. Body confidence is not just an issue that needs to be tackled in extreme cases only.

And while these issues may start at a young age, they often continue right through to adulthood.

Body Confidence campaign

Today we are faced with pressures that were never experienced before. We are bombarded with media images every day of our lives: we face the explosion of incoming messages from 24 hour advertisements, an ever expanding cosmetic surgery industry, extreme digital manipulation of images and a growing sense of normality being associated with eating disorders.The pressue to look perfect is becoming part of our human condition. It’s everywhere. And it affects so many of us.

So what do I mean when I say body confidence? This is not about launching a war on skinny people or saying it’s ok to be obese as long as you’re body confident. As you know, the Department of Health launched its obesity strategy a few weeks ago which includes body confidence as part of its message. It’s about looking for healthy and sustainable ways to achieve realistic body shapes.

There is no question that this is a challenging issue - one that is further complicated by the fact that it is not the fault of any one group or industry. But it is an issue that we can and must take seriously, because it is affecting the health and happiness of substantial sections of our community.

Fitness industry role

And this is where the health and fitness industry has such an important role to play. I know the FIA is already undertaking some work in this area and has guidance about how to deal with customers that diet and exercise excessively. But you are all in such a perfect position to galvanise the industry to achieve real change.

This is about showing people that exercise has so many other benefits besides getting that perfect body. The recent UK Chief Medical Officers’ Report ‘Start Active, Stay Active’ sets out the important health benefits of physical activity. It can also be sociable and it can be fun. It boosts self-esteem and emotional well-being.  Exercising makes you feel good and shouldn’t just be done to achieve a perfect body - it’s not just a means to an end.

And this is where you come in. We need to make sure that gyms and health centres are promoting realistic and achievable goals. There are no quick-fix solutions. So there’s no point selling people the idea that they’ll have that perfect bikini body or rippling six-pack after a handful of exercise sessions.

We also need to make sure staff at all levels of an organisation are aware of body confidence issues and respond appropriately. The way individuals are treated by personal trainers and class instructors, right through to receptionists, can have a big impact on the way people view themselves and feelings of belonging. Advertisers and marketers of gyms and health centres and equipment manufacturers also have a huge role to play when setting out what vision they are selling to people and whether this is realistic.

So l lay down this challenge for you. To change attitudes and encourage a more inclusive atmosphere in your gyms and health centres. Ensure your customers know what they can achieve. Encourage people to join up because they want to have fun and feel good about themselves - rather than solely because they want that perfect body. Tear down the barriers that put so many people off exercise - negative body image being one of the main barriers - and think about how to foster a more inclusive environment. After all, ultimately, it makes good business sense to appeal to a broader market and it will benefit your business if you have a wider customer base.

And the government wants to support you with this. We are planning to launch a voluntary pledge in the New Year in which organisations commit to tackling this issue. This will build on the work already taking place by the Department of Health and its Public Health Responsibility Deal which has the scope to make a significant impact.  We will highlight best practice by publishing the pledge signatories on the Home Office website, along with some of the actions organisations are undertaking.

We have also spoken with the Fitness Industry Association about creating a body confidence award as part of the annual Flame Awards which I’m sure you are all familiar with. I think that this would be a great opportunity to recognise best practice and celebrate success and I really hope this is something you will support.

I am really looking forward to working with the health and fitness industry on this issue because you are so crucial to the solution. There is no doubt in my mind that if each sector takes responsibility for tackling body confidence issues, and we work together on this, we will start to see change.