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Government approach to negative body image ‘dangerous’

9 April 2021

As the country prepares for the reopening of gyms and beauty salons, a new report into body image has branded the Government's approach to eating disorders and tackling poor body image, and a key health indicator, potentially harmful.

Report overview

The use of the Body Mass Index (BMI) in determining if an individual's weight is healthy should be scrapped immediately, according to a new report on body image published by the Women and Equalities Committee.

The report also found that lockdown had a 'devastating' impact on those with or at high risk of developing eating disorders and intensified body image anxieties, arguing for improved protection from appearance-based discrimination and more diversity in advertising.

Originally introduced as a means of measuring characteristics of entire populations, in recent years BMI has increasingly been used as a health risk indicator in individual patients who are then put on weight loss or weight gain programmes for scoring too high or too low.

However, the Committee concluded that BMI actually contributes to health issues such as eating disorders and people's mental health by disrupting body image and inviting social stigmas.

Instead, the Committee calls for the use of BMI to be stopped and for the adoption of a 'Health at Every Size' approach which prioritises health lifestyle choices over correcting weight.

The report branded the Government's Obesity Strategy as 'dangerous' for people with negative body image, potentially triggering eating disorders in the people it is designed to help.

A programme to measure and record the weights of primary school children, the National Child Measurement Programme, was similarly singled out for being counterproductive and even 'likely to cause harm'.

The Committee called for an independent review of the Obesity Strategy and for the Government to look again at how it collects data on childhood obesity.

The Committee concluded that doctored photos promoting unobtainable or unrepresentative body images was having a 'detrimental' impact on mental health and contributing to poor body image.

The report urges the Government to restrict and even ban the use of altered images in ads and encourage more diversity and representation in advertising.

The Committee heard during evidence that the annual cost of dealing with eating disorders is £15bn, but just 96p is spent on research into eating disorders per person experiencing them.

Funding for research into eating disorders should match the £9 per person research funding for people with mental health issues, according to the report.

Chair's comments

Committee Chair, Caroline Nokes said:

"Anyone can suffer with body dissatisfaction. Over the past 10 years, there has been a wealth of research and recommendations on how to tackle negative body image but Government action in this area is limited – we need to see urgent action.

"The use of BMI as a measure of healthy weight has become a kind of proxy or justification for weight shaming. This has to stop.

"We are particularly alarmed by the rise in eating disorders and concerned that the Obesity Strategy and data collection of obesity levels in kids make things worse by failing to promote healthy behaviours.

"The Government must ensure its policies are not contributing to body image pressures.

"Advertising and social media can cause negative body image if users are bombarded by ads which lack diverse representation.

"It's paramount that people are protected from viewing consistently pressurising content online and that companies advertise their products responsibly.

"The pressure will intensify as gyms and beauty salons reopen on Monday. This may be exciting for some but it will be difficult for people who experience body image anxieties.

"It's critical that Government action works towards improving body image."

Key findings and recommendations

Appearance-based Discrimination 

  • The EHRC should produce guidance for individuals seeking to use the existing Equality Act legislation to challenge appearance-based discrimination within three months.

Body image and health 

  • Review why eating disorder rates are rising for men, women, children, ethnic minorities and older people and develop policy interventions to reduce these rises. 
  • Research the extent and impact of weight-based discrimination for people accessing NHS services. 
  • Stop using BMI as a measure of individual health. 

Obesity

  • Immediately scrap its plans for calorie labels on food in restaurants, cafes, and takeaways. 
  • Urgently commission an independent review of its Obesity Strategy and ensure its policies are evidence-based. 

Young people 

Body dissatisfaction is affecting children as young as 5 and adolescents are at particular risk of it developing. 70% of children hadn't learnt about body image at school.

  • Regular reviews of the new RSHE curriculum to ensure that it is having a positive impact on wellbeing and decreases levels of body dissatisfaction. 
  • Review the National Child Measurement Programme to ensure it is not creating undue body image pressures in children. The Government should urgently assess the need for the programme and seek other ways to collect this data. 

Advertising 

  • Further encourage the use of diverse and representative images of people in advertising. 
  • Work closely with the ASA to ensure its future work on body image is inclusive and that substantial changes are implemented after its consultation into online advertising 
  • Consider what impact banning adverts has on protecting people from developing negative body image.   
  • Bring forward legislation to restrict or ban the use of altered images in commercial advertising and promotion.   

Online harms 

  • Ensure harms related to body image and appearance-related bullying are included within the scope of the Online Harms legislation.
  • Ensure that social media companies enforce their advertising rules and community guidelines and introduce strong sanctions for failing to do so, including but not limited to, significant fines. 
  • Work closely with social media companies and academics to ensure that research on social media use and body image are up-to-date, evidence-based and sufficiently funded. 
  • Work closely with the UKRI and Ofcom to ensure that online harms legislation sufficiently encompasses protections from harms caused by body image pressures and well as engaging with social media companies on developing innovative solutions to protect users from body image harms encountered online. 
  • Ensure that any age verification or assurance processes used by online companies are effective and protect young people from harmful content. 

Further information

Image: Sarah Allam