Banning thin models is short sighted
Move would only sweep Anorexia nervosa under the rug

A new voluntary code, that would require Britain's women's magazines to ban overly thin models is short sighted, betrays a stunning ignorance of how media works and will probably do more harm than good.

The scheme that was agreed to by magazine editors at a British government sponsored summit on body image last week, would involve magazines "monitoring images," and "using models of varied in shapes and size." The arrangement, whose details have not yet been finalized, would likely be regulated by a body made up of editors, stylists and fashion magazine readers.

The agreement comes on the heels of a report by the British Medical Association that claims the media obsession with thin women is one of the main causes of eating disorders such as Anorexia nervosa which are at record levels among young women.

"Female models are becoming thinner at time when women are becoming heavier, and the gap between the ideal body shape and the reality is wider than ever," states the BMA report. "There is a need for more realistic body shapes to be shown (in the media)." The report was particularly tough on the fashion industry, knocking promoters for using models whose thinness "was biologically inappropriate," for most women.

According BMA figures, Anorexia nervosa affects between one and two per cent of the UK female population between the ages of 15 and 30.

Voluntary advertising guidelines are the new politically correct way that pressure groups impose their will on advertisers in countries with constitutional provisions protecting freedom of speech. Voluntary restraints, unlike laws, cannot be knocked down in a court challenge.

One such country is Canada where Advertising Standards Canada, a non-profit industry sponsored body has set up the "voluntary" Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. The code restricts advertising to children, as well as forbidding discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, sex or age. However there are currently no restrictions on using thin models.

The problem with these voluntary codes is not that they don't work, it's that they probably work too well. Advertisers and the media are now so worried about complaints, that they impose a huge amount of self-censorship upon themselves, which at best leads to boring content, and at worst may restrict public debate on certain issues.

The big problem with the British restrictions is that nobody is sure what role, if any, the media played in the proliferation of Anorexia nervosa, which is caused by a complex interplay between genetics, family history, psychological factors and the cultural environment.

It's true that ultra-thin personalities such as Calista Flockhart, Kate Moss, and Victoria Beckham may be role models for a lot of people, and intuitively we may conclude that many would want to imitate these glamorous stars. But the best the British Medical Association can come up with, when you cut through all their innuendo, is that these role models "...may be particularly influential on (young children)."

But the report leaves far more questions than it does answers. For one, if the media and advertisers are so powerful, shouldn't thirty years of increasingly thinner personalities in print and on the airwaves, have created a new generation of thinner North Americans? In fact obesity levels in all age groups have gone up in that time, and an estimated 48 per cent of Canadian adults are now overweight.

Obesity victims dwarf those suffering from Anorexia nervosa in all countries. To the extent that media promotes thinness, you would have to think that the benefits exceed the harm.

But it's a big mistake to talk about "the media," as though it were one big monolithic entity. In fact, it is gang of cutthroat competitors who have no interest in imposing their will on the public, and probably couldn't even do so if they wanted to.

The best way to look at advertising and programming is like a mirror held up to society, depicting how people want to see themselves. Advertisers use thin models because time and time again ads using them are more successful than those that don't.

Television shows as well. Every hit show conducts focus groups on their major characters to determine which ones will get more air time in upcoming episodes. The popular characters get more plot lines written around them, the unpopular ones get dropped from the show. Those focus groups have consistently shown that thinner actresses do better.

If "normal" every day people performed better in magazine ads and television shows, producers would do their casting calls at shopping centres and bingo halls.

Banning ultra-thin models would do far more harm than good. People read magazines and watch TV to get imagery different from their "normal" looking family and friends. Take that away from them, and they'll stop consuming. It's that simple.

Right now any average viewer can look at the starving waifs that crowd magazines and television shows, and can see that they are way too thin. The process puts the subject out in the open, and stimulates research and debate. And that's the only way Anorexia nervosa is going to be finally dealt with. Not by sweeping it under the rug.

 

Photo caption: If ads like this one featuring Kate Moss are causing people to starve themselves, why are obesity levels in North America at record levels?

 

E-mail can be sent to Peter Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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