Written evidence submitted by Julia Saville-Hippely (MISS0040)


Negative body image is an increasing problem especially for young women, in a media-driven age of photoshop, ubiquitous advertising and porn culture. 


The impact of poor body image


Long term effects can include unhealthy eating patterns, obsession with body parts, a feeling that the bodies of others are somehow more valid than our own and a wish to escape from, or change, ones own body. This has been the case for many years: my own adolescence in the 80s was peppered with mild bouts of bulimia brought on by feelings of inadequacy due to being being short-legged and wide-hipped. Due to the rise of the internet there is now even more pressure on young women to perform femininity, from the ubiquitous sculpted eyebrows and long dyed hair to internet forums established to celebrate greater and greater amounts of weight loss and to portray eating disorders as glamorous and part of the contemporary cult of ‘beautiful suffering’.


Young women who are especially vulnerable to the pressure to be seen as a sex object may starve themselves either to attain a ‘sexless’ body in order to escape, or to mimic the body types seen in most television shows in order to conform. This does not just affect younger women: I have several friends in their 40s who barely eat but who have undergone breast augmentation surgery to better attain the ‘perfect’ figure.


The idea that there is a right or a wrong way for a body to look (for young women, large-breasted, skinny-waisted, long-legged) seems to have led to large numbers of young women attempting to  identify out of such expectations. The rise of identity politics also plays into the idea that if your body does not conform to media stereotypes it is somehow wrong or in need of modification.


The 4000% rise in referrals to the Tavistock gender clinic seems to reflect this preoccupation with how we are ‘supposed’ to look: girls who don’t wish to be perceived as pornified sex objects convincing themselves that this is because they are actually not supposed to be female at all.


Long term effects


Long term effects of issues with body image can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, increased mental health issues, and unhealthy obsessions with both food and superficial personal image. The desire to escape the cultural stereotypes of femininity can lead to both physical and mental health issues due to unhealthy weight increase or loss. Young people may seek to deal with body issues by either seeking validation through excessive promiscuity and unsafe sexual practises, or by rejecting sexual relationships altogether. The latter can be seen to manifest itself in the rise in ‘asexual’ identities, the former in the mainstream normalisation of sites like Pornhub. Girls who are driven to believe that they are, or can become, boys often request cross-sex hormones (which can easily be purchased online) and in some cases elective mastectomies. Girls are frequently encouraged in this pursuit by clinicians, educators and other adults who affirm the idea of disassociation from the body by telling them it is possible to ‘change sex’ and that ‘woman’ is little more than an identity that can be picked up or put down by choice. Supporting diversity should not include telling young people that their sexed bodies are wrong and need fixing. Even our own politicians seem complicit in this deception with political parties renaming women as non-men (the Green Party) and allowing men to join all-woman shortlists and hold positions intended for females (the Labour party).




The government should introduce policies that support the idea that no body is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, our bodies just are. Sex is immutable, unchangeable, and there is no wrong or right way to be male or female. Contraception should be freely available and young people should be taught that physical relationships should always be consensual and egalitarian. The idea of sex and the body as something ‘dirty’, secret or rebellious should not be encouraged. Tighter restrictions should be imposed on the availability of pornography that perpetuates the ideal of the female as inferior, especially on social media sites frequented by young people (Twitter for example) and a zero tolerance policy on child pornography (frequently accessible on Twitter) should be imposed.




While obviously advertising is aspirational by nature, the ASA should take steps to ensure that advertisers use ‘normal’ people with diverse body types to sell their products, not airbrushed impossible automatons that lead to an ever-spiraling cycle of dissatisfaction and insecurity among viewers. People of all ages, races and abilities and of both sexes should be more equally represented in advertising and gendered stereotypes should be avoided. Misrepresentation should be more closely scrutinised - for example the use of teenage models to sell face cream to women in their 50s, and the use of blue liquids to represent menstrual flow in adverts for sanitary protection.



June 2020