On its website, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that its mission is to “help doctors help patients by uniting physicians nationwide to work on the most important professional and public health issues.” It speaks volumes then, that in their most recent press release, the AMA announced the adoption of a new policy to discourage the rampant use of photoshopping and photo editing by advertisers. In the policy, AMA cites the connection between unrealistic/altered images and adolescent health problems, particularly body image and eating disorders. A press release about the new policy included the following statement:
Advertisers commonly alter photographs to enhance the appearance of models’ bodies, and such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents. A large body of literature links exposure to media-propagated images of unrealistic body image to eating disorders and other child and adolescent health problems. The AMA adopted new policy to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those appearing in teen-oriented publications, that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.
Its important to note that eating disorders are biological illnesses with a myriad of genetic, hormonal and neurobiological factors. Just as parents do not cause eating disorders, nor do airbrushed magazine ads. (In fact, Carrie Arnold over at Psychology Today’s Body of Evidence does a great job of examining this aspect of the AMA’s statement). But our hope is that this new policy is not just focused on removing a risk factor for those who may be genetically more susceptible to the “thin ideal”. A society saturated with computer-generated images portrayed as real bodies is unhealthy and harmful whether it contributes to an eating disorder or not. Its harmful to females and males. Its harmful to kids and adults. Its harmful for anyone that struggles with negative self-esteem or body image. In this way, the issue of photoshop and media ethics is more than an eating disorder prevention issue but one that addresses self-esteem and body image on a societal level.
While some will say the policy doesn’t accomplish enough, its encouraging to see a well-respected, national organization like the AMA acknowledging the issue and prompting further attention to it. What’s most encouraging is that this recent action by the AMA, seems to be part of a larger momentum of change including the Girl Scouts’ announcement of its’ project, Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls which is being co-launched by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), and The Creative Coalition.
The new policy also arrives amidst several specific wins in the fight against harmful media practices surrounding weight, food, beauty ideals and sexualization. Most recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) won a settlement against Beiersdorf, Inc. (parent company of Nivea) Inc. that prohibits them from making continued false claims that its Nivea My Silhouette! skin cream can reduce consumers’ body size. In June, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) publicly applauded Yoplait for agreeing to pull a troubling ad campaign after being warned by NEDA that it normalized dangerously disordered thoughts around food and weight. And thanks to international body image advocates Sharon Haywood, Melinda Tankard Reist and more than 5,000 signatures on a petition at Change.org, major networks MTV and VH1 both agreed to ban a violent and misogynistic music video starring Kanye West and other high profile music stars.
Lots of individuals and organizations are pushing back against the tide of false bodies, diet myths, weight prejudice and general negativity in the media. They’re making great strides in the promotion of positive body image, self-esteem and overall health (vs. weight). In addition to those we mentioned above, here are just a few more organizations and individuals that are doing good and speaking out for change:
- Endangered Species
- Adios Barbie – The Body Image Site for Every Body
- The Health at Every Size (HAES) Community
- Pigtail Pals – Redefine Girly: Let’s Change the Way We Think About our Girls
- Jean Kilbourne (and her extensive list of media literacy resources)
- Center on Media & Child Health
When it comes to body image and media literacy, what other successful campaigns and positive social changes have you noticed lately?