Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image

So the Australian Federal Government, spearheaded by Minister for Youth Kate Ellis, has spent the last year or so reviewing the media impact on female body image, and released the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image.

Their Advisory Group, set up in March 2009, consisted of models, magazine editors and body image researchers.

What they’ve come up with is this code, my comments in blue

1. Positive content and messaging

Use positive content and messaging to support the development of a positive body image and realistic and healthy physical goals and aspirations among consumers.

First we have to agree on what healthy physical goals are – mostly media attention tends to focus on BMI and obesity, which are largely unproven and often just plain wrong, though popular. What really works are concepts like Health at Every Size(R), which is about respecting everying regardless of their size and shape, moving regularly and choosing health-giving real food.

Next, consumer aspirations are what the guidelines are trying to change! The diet and beauty industries through the media have been manipulating community aspirations for decades, to the extent that we now have record numbers of girls and women suffering from diagnosed eating disorders, and many many more undiagnosed. I think the death rates from eating disorders are a clear indication that letting these industries “support the development of … aspirations among consumers” is not working particularly well.

Let’s hope common sense prevails and we start to see more emphasis on principles that actually support our health, and don’t just lighten our wallets. The only way we’ll do that is to keep changing from the grass roots, and maybe the media will catch on and catch up.

2. Diversity

Use a diverse range of people that are appropriate to their target audience. When considering diversity, particular focus should be given to including a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities.

Many fashion editors, like Vogue UKs Andrea Shulman, say that fashion designers are to blame for the number of tiny undeveloped bodies we see in the mags. Designers supply their samples to the magazines six months before the new fashions hit the shops, and increasingly they’ve been supplying smaller and smaller samples – so small that the clothing doesn’t fit even the established models. Vogue has a seamstress on hand to open the seams of the clothing to make them fit. Many established models are very thin, but the designers are designing for even thinner models!

One of the big issues here, as I see it, is that many designers of women’s clothing are gay males – gay males who happen to like younger males. I have gay male friends, they’re a hoot to hang out with because they genuinely like women (even though they don’t want to have sex with them 🙂 ). But male fashion designers are not designing for curvy women, they’re designing for curveless women – and curveless women are pre-teens. In other words, they’re designing for women who look more like young males.

And we are going along with it! Hopefully the guidelines will help. But you can help too, by demanding that retailers stock clothing that fits women’s bodies, and let them know that you won’t shop there if they only sell size-ridiculous. In writing, to their head office.

3. Fair placement

Use advertising that supports positive and healthy body image behaviour. Advertising that contradicts positive body image messages will not be used.

So I guess this means the Calvin Klein skeletal waifs are out. I’ll rush to the newsagent and buy some mags to see all the healthy adult women ….. except I’ll be severely disappointed, because when push comes to shove, the big factor will be the advertising dollar – when the bottom line is under threat, how closely will your average editor stick to these toothless guidelines?

4. Realistic and natural images of people

Do not use digital technology in a way that alters images of people so that their body shape and features are unrealistic or unattainable through healthy practices.

I would love to think that editors will stop having images photoshopped. What do you reckon, will they??

Make consumers aware of the extent to which images of people have been manipulated.

I read this to mean we’ll be seeing warning labels: “This model’s curves have been digitally removed, and her skin has been digitally plasticised. Do not attempt this at home.”

Fat chance of that – did you see that some school photography studios are offering parents the chance to have their kids’ school photos digitally improved for a small fee? What the? Send granny a freckle-removed, taller thinner version of their grandchild? What does that say to the child about their parents’ opinion of them?

With that kind of transmission of the idea that digitally altering ourselves and our children is now “normal”,  it makes these watery guidelines look more like the lipservice they are.

5. Healthy weight models

Use models that are clearly of a healthy weight.

Again, how do we define that? There is no way for anyone to look at another person and know from the size of their body what the state of their health is, and to even publish this is a guideline is astonishing to me…. it reinforces the whole thin=healthy ideal that the guidelines are supposed to overcome!

6. Appropriate modelling age

Only use people aged 16 years or older to model adult clothes or to work or model in fashion shows targeting an adult audience.

Yes! And then in the newspaper this morning in the Courier Mail I read about a teen model that the Australian Vogue editor is in love with because of her unique look- age 17, still in highschool. The photo shows her sitting on a chair, in high fashion, perfeclty madeup, leaning forward on her boney little arms that look like they could barely pick up an icecream.This is ideal?

Do you know we don’t reach our full adult growth until we’re around 22 years old? How many diets had you done by the time you were 22? And we’re holding up a really thin 17 year old as the new image of perfect beauty, in a magazine showing clothing that only wealthy women can afford to buy? Wealthy women tend to be fully-grown adults earning a good wage, or married to a rich man, or the daughter of a rich man. Why does Vogue show these women girls?

Worse though is the fact that budget retailers follow Vogue’s lead – and so the skinny ideal rolls on ….

7. Fashion retailers supporting positive body image

Stock a wide variety of sizes that reflects demand from customers.

Firstly, customers are so busy trying to starve or slice-and-dice their bodies to fit size ridiculous, that they’re hardly going to demand anything!

Secondly, how will we know if retailers are complying? Argentina, a country with just about the highest incidence of death from eating disorders in the world, actually passed laws last year to make this happen – 12 months on spot checks were done and almost no retailers were complying. That was  LAW. This code of conduct is voluntary!

Do you think ANY retailer is losing sleep over it? Or ANY magazine editor? Or ANY ad executive?

I get that this post has sounded pretty negative. I truly do applaud Minister Kate Ellis for her initiative in developing the Voluntary Code of Conduct on Body Image – it’s a bit toothless though from a legal standpoint. I’m also very pro-personal choice and not so much pro-more government regulation, so it’s a tough line for the Minister and her advisers to walk.

The big plus in this code is that it’s added some oomph to the conversation – it’s up to us to keep it going – one person at a time is how we make this change, until we tip the balance. I just don’t trust governments to do what’s right for the people any more – but I do trust YOU to do what’s right for YOU.

What do you think?

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1 Comment

  1. britt1 on October 6, 2010 at 9:46 am

    So gay men dictate styles? I`ve heard that from another person.

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