Anxiety about personal appearance is on the rise, with consequences damaging for health. Many women feel they must have a perfect, thin figure. Crash diets, smoking, eating disorders and depression are often the result. Men sometimes follow the same path in pursuit of the six pack belly but many also want to bulk up their arms and pecs. Does this striving to “look good ” make us happy? And who decides what looks good?
For the last six months I have been working with a small group of MPs, listening to evidence on body image. We heard from children and teachers, academics (especially from the Centre for Appearance Research, based at the University of the West of England in Bristol), magazine editors, cosmetics and supplements retailers, dieticians, cosmetic surgeons and many others. We were given valuable assistance by the Central YMCA. The picture that built up over many weeks was that millions of people feel unhappy about their appearance and are prepared to resort to drastic measures to conform with what society expects of them.
At the mild end this can be just a desire for trimming back the bulging belly. I fall into this category, since being an MP my diet has worsened, alcohol consumption rocketed and fitness plummeted. So I’ve periodically cut out the three course dinners, reduced the drink and gone to the gym more often than once a month! This year I’m doing rather well and am almost back to my 2005 fitness levels. Sensible behaviour, you might think. But I’ve never been tempted to go on a diet plan or join a slimming group. I’ve not taken any diet pills and certainly won’t be forking out for a personal trainer. I’ve not become obsessive about my muscles or taken any supplements. But attend any event with a large group of other gay men and it’s fairly clear that many of us are rather keen on the trim waist and bulging pecs, accentuated by that tight tee shirt.
I was the only male MP in the group and most of the evidence we took was about girls and women. Anxiety about their appearance can cause many women health and relationship problems, leading to lack of progression at school or work. The source of that anxiety comes mainly from the media image of the ideal woman. Adverts and our celebrity culture reinforce the image of the “ideal” waist, face and boob size. Women turn to diet clubs, supplements or more drastic surgical interventions. Unfortunately, our evidence was that 95% of diets end in failure. There are no more than 1.5 million people with some sort of eating disorder, putting it among the largest of mental illnesses and one most likely to lead to premature death.
So what should be done? Our report makes lots of suggestions. Some of them are for government, for instance by requiring schools to build body confidence into the curriculum and regulating cosmetic surgery. Broadcasters and magazine publishers should review their editorial policies. Shops should consider advertising clothes with models and dummies that aren’t “perfect”. We need a better understanding of our own weight and sizes – who really understands what the Body Mass Index is all about?
For me, body image is another public health issue, alongside how we cope with other compulsive and addictive behaviours that cause us physical and mental harm. But this issue is way behind where we are on tobacco control or awareness of the problems caused by alcohol and drugs. So I hope the main impact of our report will be to spark a much needed debate on how we see ourselves and how much we worry about how others perceive us. I know some people will wail about this being yet another intrusion by “nanny state” politicians. But it would be wrong to ignore a problem that is growing and causing misery for so many people.
You can read the first report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image here http://www.ymca.co.uk/bodyimage/report