The British Youth Council is the national youth council of the United Kingdom. We exist to empower young people aged 25 and under to influence and inform the decisions that affect their lives. We support young people to get involved in their communities and democracy locally, nationally and internationally, making a difference as volunteers, campaigners, decision-makers and leaders.
One of the ways in which the British Youth Council does this is through the Youth Select Committee. The 2017 Youth Select Committee was composed of eleven members aged between 13 and 18 and focussed on issues of body image. They wrote a report called A Body Confident Future. The members included two Members of the Youth Parliament, two youth councillors, one Young Mayor, one elected representative from each of the devolved nations, and three reserved seats.
Who is particularly at risk of poor body image? (groups protected by the Equality Act)
Our 2017 Youth Select Committee report, A Body Confident Future, demonstrated differences in body dissatisfaction amongst different demographic groups.
Bullying of young people, often along the lines of protected characteristics, was highlighted as an issue. Changing Faces provided evidence to the Youth Select Committee which highlighted that half of all children with a disfigurement experienced bullying at school. Further to this, Cameron Wood, a young person who uses a wheelchair, reported that “…there is not a lot of disability stuff out there in the media. That may be why young people bully people like me—because they have not been exposed to it.”
Young people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, or who are trans, non-binary, gender fluid, or non-conforming, may find it difficult to meet gendered expectations, but equally may be discriminated against if they do conform to a particular image outside of straight, cis-gender expectations. For instance, young people who took part in a series of discussions hosted by an organisation that supports LGBT+ young people in Dorset reported a “Catch 22 – judged for not fitting societies ideal body type, e.g. fat shamed, yet still being judged for fitting into it, e.g. thin shaming”. The Youth Select Committee received written evidence from Chandler Wilson, a transgender, non-binary person who showed immense courage in writing to the Committee about their mental health issues associated with body image problems. Their evidence highlighted that healthcare professionals are often not trained in supporting gender variant people which can exacerbate body image issues in an already vulnerable group.
The Committee received evidence from Stephanie Yeboah, a plus-size fashion blogger and social media influencer, who highlighter that racialized standards impact even the body positivity movement: “...…body positivity seems to only serve those who fit the “acceptably fat” description: white, beautiful by Westernised standards, and small/hourglass shaped fat. The movement does not help those who fall outside of what is considered to be beautiful, even within the plus-size community.” Professor Jessica Ringrose of UCL highlighted that this culture can lead to those from ethnic minorities manipulating photos on social media to make themselves appear “whiter” or to emphasise fair skin and straight hair.
The Youth Select Committee highlighted concerns that there is a narrative that body image is an issue which only effects young women. There is a danger that the distinctive challenged faced by young men, LGBT+ youth, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities and serious illnesses are overlooked.
What are the long-term effects of poor body image on people?
The long-term effects of poor body image are wide-ranging. A Body Confident Future found that there are long-term consequences for education, health, relationships and young people’s sense of agency. However, the report concluded that there was a gap in the evidence base surrounding long term impacts and called for the Government Equalities Office to commission research into the long term impact of poor body image.
What is the relationship between poor body image and mental health conditions including eating disorders?
Witnesses stressed that poor body image is not on its own a mental health problem. However, a number of studies cited by witnesses from the Centre for Appearance Research have found that poor body image predicts depression, anxiety and some eating disorders. The Committee heard evidence from young people linking poor body image with mental health issues. This is particularly concerning in a context where mental ill-health amongst children and young people is on the rise, including in relation to those disorders associated with poor body image.
What are the responsibilities of companies and the media in ensuring diversity in the images we see?
Social media can have both negative and positive impacts on body image. Whilst social media companies have taken some steps to mitigate the negative effects of their platforms, they are still not taking their responsibilities seriously enough. Government must now introduce enforceable minimum standards on these companies. In doing so, it must take into account the voices of young people, who have been ignored by Government and industry on the issue of social media regulation for too long. Companies and the media currently do not have significant legal responsibility to ensure diversity.
Given the demonstrable negative impact of a lack of diversity on body image, the Committee suggested that as new standards are considered, the diversity of representation should be taken into consideration.
Which adverts or campaigns stand out in promoting a positive body image?
The Youth Select Committee recognised the good work of the Be Real campaign and the Body Image pledge. The Committee called for the Government Equalities Office to facilitate workshops with the Be Real campaign and major brands in order to advocate for greater uptake of the Body Image Pledge amongst brands. The goal of this was to encourage genuine diversity in advertising and to link up work and best practice across companies.
Has Government policy had an impact on improving body image?
Whilst the Government Equalities Office has taken steps in recent years to support initiatives aimed at tacking poor body confidence, the dual responsibilities of relevant ministers means government action on body image is too often characterised by an abdication of responsibility. The Youth Select Committee advocated for creating a minister with sole responsibility for Equalities. All 3 Ministers in the GEO currently have responsibility across different departments. The Committee agrees that it is important to have a cross-departmental body with clear responsibility for equalities. However, unless the minister has a well-defined portfolio, it will be difficult to deliver leadership on body image. The Equalities brief is already broad, and while both Liz Truss MP and Kemi Badenoch MP have responsibility elsewhere they will be unable to make significant progress on body image in an already crowded Equalities portfolio.
How successful is the ASA at protecting the public from adverts that have a negative impact on body image?
The Committee welcomes the Advertising Standards Agency project in relation to harmful gender stereotypes, which we know can contribute to poor body image, and its commitment to formulate stricter rules in this respect. We agree that the rules on inappropriate sexualisation and adverts which suggest that it is acceptable to be unhealthily thin need clarification. However, regulation is only part of the answer - we also need to see a culture change across industry. This involves brands committing to using more diverse models and paying more than lip service to this commitment. The ASA could play a role in advertising campaigns such as Be Real, mentioned above, as an example of good practice to be encouraged across the industry.
 http://www.byc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/BYC007-Sadie-McGrane.pdf, http://www.byc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/BYC021-Tasnia-Chowdhury.pdf, http://www.byc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/BYC025-Greshams-School.pdf