Girl Talk: Mixed news on the body image front
Today The Guardian Media reports that beauty giant L'Oréal – which posted a 25% profit gain for 2010 giving it a net income of $3.05 billion – has been "forced to pull ad campaigns featuring Pretty Woman star Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington, after the advertising watchdog upheld complaints by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson that the images were overly airbrushed".
This action by the UK's Advertising Standards Bureau, of monolithic and far-reaching proportions given the beauty company's sheer size and influence, has come about after years of campaigning by Swinson against the use of "overly perfected and unrealistic images" of women in advertising.
This particular case was won on the grounds that the advertisements misled the public on the grounds that their products cannot magically create the flawless skin depicted in the digitally manipulated images.
"Pictures of flawless skin and super-slim bodies are all around, but they don't reflect reality," Swinson told The Guardian. "Excessive airbrushing and digital manipulation techniques have become the norm, but both Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts are naturally beautiful women who don't need retouching to look great. This ban sends a powerful message to advertisers – let's get back to reality."
Swinson has been supported in her endeavours – which includes campaigning for the implementation of cigarette-style health warnings by advertisers on digitally retouched images – by Girlguiding UK, the National Centre for Eating Disorders and leading academics, as well as research that shows increasing numbers of women are having cosmetic surgery and suffering from eating disorders.
The win cuts to the heart of the ideological battle for women presented in Naomi Wolf's seminal 90s text, The Beauty Myth: the systematic and economic undermining of women's self-image and the trivialising of their position in society. This goes beyond Photoshopping to representations of women on TV, in films and the media at large.
But while the landmark case has implications across the spectrum – marketing, consumption and production – it presently means more for publishers of glossy magazines funded by the likes of L'Oréal who also use Photoshop.
One such publisher, Pacific Magazines, has today released sobering results from a body image survey conducted by Girlfriend magazine that shows the present world of girls, as far as their bodies are concerned, is very bleak. Of 1609 girls surveyed by the magazine aged between 13 and 19, only 15% are happy with the way they look, while 52% have tried a diet, 47% know someone who has an eating disorder or have one themselves, 50% say their ideal body type is slim or skinny and 81% believe pretty girls "have it easier" (getting boys, getting jobs, making friends, being successful).
While the magazine itself – which hosts the annual Model Search competition and has a highly airbrushed image of Lady Gaga on its August cover – plays a part in how girls view themselves, shown by its support of last year's introduction of the Body Image Code of Conduct, it is representative of a commercial media that is financially reliant on advertising. Rimmel London, Clearasil and Garnier (also owned by L'Oreal) all advertise in its pages.
Publishers, editors and art directors find themselves in a truly vexing position where positive messages are often negated by advertisers, or standard industry practises, in the very same issue. This is more so in Australia where cover images are often bought pre-retouched from overseas agencies, whose own images come pre-approved by celebrities (as noted by The Guardian, L'Oreal's contract with Julia Roberts means it cannot give the Advertising Standards Bureau the original, pre-Photoshopped shot of the star). Meanwhile, one of Roberts' contemporaries, Geena Davis, is leading the way in America with her Institute on Gender in Media and "Women and Girls Lead" campaign.
The publishing industry is not alone. It's Hollywood, beauty companies, the music industry, the fashion industry, the media, the food and diet industries, the plastic surgery business, the porn industry, the historical legacy of the patriarchy... there are few institutions, very few industries, that are not responsible for perpetuating the idea that women and girls are to be valued according to their appearance (and how they feel about their appearance) and ability to adapt to the status quo and attract the opposite sex.
With all these interests conspiring to keep girls from thriving in the world, in all their multifacted capabilities, what hope? This is why the Swinson/Ad Bureau v L'Oreal case is important, but also why now, more than ever, girls need the support of their families, schools, communities and other organisations, such as the Girl Guides, to be equipped to fight the onslaught.
What can be done by publishers in light of the fact that the Voluntary Code of Conduct has not been widely accepted? Go easy on the Photoshop, embrace what's real, and complement fashion and beauty with a greater proportion of content that gives credit to women and girls' other attributes. Devote sections to cultivating their minds, creativity, social conscience, resilience and knowledge of the world, as well as playing on their capacity to empathise, laugh, have fun and contribute something positive.
The frustrating thing? Many magazines are already doing this but are let down by their celebrity covers and diehard commitment to airbrushing and the world of fashion. Let's not undersell ourselves, nor insult readers' intelligence while, of course, acknowledging women will discern which titles to buy and media literacy levels are on the rise. While the best inoculation a woman can have against the world is the belief that she is valuable, capable and unique, like Geena Davis, we can all make an effort to help her feel that way.
*Note: Girlfriend editor Sarah Cornish has left her post as she sets about recovering her health. She was diagnosed with cancer last year and has penned a farewell to readers in the August issue explaining her difficult position. GWAS wishes her well while expressing deep regret that this site may have caused her, in any way, undue stress.
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