Written evidence submitted by Natasha Devon (MISS0049)

I have been visiting an average of three schools or colleges per week throughout the UK for more than a decade. When visiting these schools and colleges I deliver talks and conduct focus groups with young people on mental health and related issues including body image, sexuality and gender.

I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the qualitative observations I have made which may be of relevance to your enquiry:

-          Learning about photoshop does not appear to have a meaningful impact on reducing body image concerns. Most young people tell me they are aware the images they see online and in the media have been digitally enhanced, but that doesn’t stop them aspiring to them anyway.


-          Whereas when I first started doing this job, beauty standards differed between geographical locations and as a result of family/cultural influences they are now much more unified. I believe this to be because of social media 1. Because it has created global beauty icons (e.g. the Kardashians) and 2. Because the filters/apps being used apply universal ‘enhancements’ which standardise the features being seen.


-          I believe ‘health influencers’ to be a troubling, negative influence on body image, not just in young people. By perpetuating unevidenced claims which hold that cutting out certain food groups, or following highly restrictive diets ‘cure’ ailments and (the implication is) will result in followers looking like them, unqualified dieticians promote regressive ideas about the relationship between health and beauty. (Suggestion for further expertise on this: Pixie Turner, Nutritionist and Science Communicator).


-          On this, the biggest impediment I have found to promoting diversity of shape and size in my work is British people’s ingrained belief that fat automatically equals unhealthy. As I am sure the Committee are aware, the relationship between health and size is much more nuanced than this and there are more than 100 unique contributory factors which determine a person’s weight. Furthermore, positive body image has been found to encourage healthy lifestyle choices (people who respect their bodies are more likely to look after them). Therefore it would be helpful if the messaging being given by NHS/Public Health England on this could be discussed and revisited.


-          Boys and young men need to be more comprehensively considered in body image messaging. Typically, body image issues tend to manifest in men around compulsive exercise/muscle building obsession then evolve into restrictive behaviours around food (typically in women it tends to be the other way around). (Suggest Committee contact the Men & Boys Coalition and/or the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too on this).


-          Similarly, trans and nonbinary people should be included and acknowledged in body image discussions. There are much narrower standards of beauty within trans and nonbinary communities and therefore beauty messaging/advertising is likely to affect this group disproportionately (suggestion for further expertise on this: Jamie Windust, nonbinary campaigner).


-          I do not feel qualified to comment upon this extensively, but think the Committee should seek evidence from individuals or groups on afro hair, the toxic perception that it is ‘unprofessional’ and how this affects body image (suggestion: Emma Dabiri, author of ‘Don’t Touch my Hair’)


July 2020