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Changing the perfect picture: what can be done about poor body image?

23 September 2020

Poor body image is a growing problem, and not just for teenage girls and young women – that’s the main message from the written evidence which the Women and Equalities Committee received for this new inquiry.

With a 50% increase in children accessing services for eating disorders since 2016/2017, 35% of adults saying that they feel depressed over body image concerns, and evidence that older and BAME women, trans people, gay men, and disabled people are particularly affected, the Committee believes that more effective action needs to be taken to tackle the issue.

But what should be done – and by whom? What contributes to poor body image? What’s the role of Government? Is there a case for stronger regulation of advertising? What’s the role of schools and education? How does poor body image affect people differently because of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability?

This new inquiry will explore all those questions, and more – taking evidence from researchers, campaigners, health specialists, Government, industry and regulators. The inquiry will report in early 2021, making evidence-based recommendations to Government to tackle the causes and impacts.

Chair's comments

WEC Chair Caroline Nokes said:

“Poor body image is a well-known problem among teenage girls and young women – and that is clearly where it is most severe. But it impacts a much wider range of people as well, damaging mental and physical health and contributing to discrimination. And it impacts some people more than others: teenagers – boys as well as girls; people who are considered under or over weight; women, especially those who are older or BAME, LGBT people – especially gay men and trans people, and people with disabilities or a visible difference.

Because it’s such a widespread problem, influenced by multiple factors, it’s easy to underestimate the real misery it causes – and to so many people. There has been plenty of commentary on the problem, but identifying proposals to tackle it is more challenging. Our inquiry aims to do exactly that: we will be hearing from a wide range of witnesses – both experts and individuals speaking from their own experience, and we will be making recommendations to Government early next year.”

Written evidence given to the committee suggests a range of possible causes of poor body image, including: colourism (discrimination affecting people of colour where lighter coloured skin is seen as more desirable); weight stigma; bullying and harassment; unrealistic/narrowly defined appearance ideals and the importance of image and beauty in society).

The range of impacts includes: low self-esteem; mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and BDD; disordered eating, and development of eating disorders; reluctance to visit the doctor or exercise; reluctance to progress academic and career aspirations; use of medication such as diet pills, laxatives and steroids.

For today’s opening evidence session, the discussion will focus on five areas:

A. Poor body image: an introduction. Which groups are most at risk? How does it impact people in different ways?
B. Appearance-related discrimination: how does this relate to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability and other characteristics protected by the 2010 Equality Act?
C. Impact on physical and mental health, including the possibly impact of the Government’s obesity strategy on eating disorders, weight discrimination in healthcare.
D. Schools and education: how to assess the role of education in the development of body image
E. Photo editing: how common is digital alteration? How harmful is it and what can be done?
F. Media and Advertising: how does advertising impact the body image of different groups? Are people sufficiently protected from ads that are damaging to body image?
G. Social Media: how does it impact body image? What can social media companies do to protect users?
H. Online Harms White Paper: what steps could the Government take to improve body image? How should it assess the potential impact of the proposals in the Online Harms White Paper?


Wednesday 23 September 2020, virtual meeting

At 2.30pm

  • Dr Francesca Solmi, UCL Psychiatry. Dr Solmi’s research focuses on risk factors for eating disorders across the life span
  • Professor Clare hambers, Nuffield Council for Bioethics, Reader in Political Philosophy, Jesus College Cambridge
  • Amy Slater, Centre for Appearance Research. Specialises in body image in adolescents and children, particularly sociocultural factors such as media.

Social media survey

As part of its work the Committee ran a survey to find out about how different groups of people feel about their body image and what influences those feelings. The survey was open between 6 and 19 July 2020 and was publicised on Twitter, Instagram and via influencers and stakeholders on their social media platforms. The survey had 7878 responses. Key themes are summarised here – the summary also includes numerous quotes from people who participated.

This was an informal social media survey; participants were self-selecting and the results should be understood in that context.

  • 61% of adults and 66% of children reported feeling negative or very negative about their body image most of the time. Over half – 53% and 58% respectively – had felt worse during lockdown, although some reported a positive experience, such as a break from street harassment.
  • Over two thirds (70%) of under 18s had not learned about positive body image in school, and nearly 4 out of 5 (78%) said they would like to.
  • Over half (57%) of adults reported never or rarely seeing people who look like them regularly reflected in images in media and advertising.
  • Six in ten women feel negatively about their bodies, along with 71% of people with a disability.

People who felt worse about their body image as a result of lockdown reported a range of reasons, including:

  • Consuming more media and seeing more adverts for products to change your appearance, especially weight loss products;
  • Widespread media discussion both of ‘lockdown weight gain’ and the Government’s obesity strategy;
  • Social media pressures on appearance improvement, and reduced support for mental health issues and eating disorders.

Further information

Image: Glenn Carstens Peters/unsplash