5/16/2012: Vogue Vows To Ban Unhealthily Thin Models In Its Pages, But Will This Lead To Lasting Changes?

On May 3, the editors of the American, British, French, Chinese, and Japanese editions of the fashion magazine Vogue announced plans to implement a new policy to "not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder," over the coming months. Jonathan Newhouse, the international chairman of Condé Nast, the company that publishes Vogue, issued a statement on the decision which said that "Vogue believes that good health is beautiful. Vogue editors around the world want the magazines to reflect their commitment to the health of the models who appear on the pages and the well-being of their readers." None of Condé Nast's other publications, which include Glamour, Allure, and many others, will adopt the policy.

Already, skeptics are questioning whether this announced policy change will truly make a difference, or whether this was a calculated PR move on the part of Vogue, a publication that has been under fire for some time, not only for hiring very young and unhealthily thin models, but for their heavy use of airbrushing and other digital manipulation techniques, something the new policy does not address. Critics of the move include Susan Linn of the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood. She points to the lack of concrete guidelines in the new plan for assessing models' health and worries that without more specifics, the new policy does not go far enough in curtailing the unhealthy standards of beauty often represented in Vogue and other magazines.

Former teen model and teen magazine editor, Audrey Brashich, also believes that Vogue's new policy does not go far enough, calling it, at most, "a tiny baby step of progress." Instead, she says, "The cynic in me feels like they are simply grandstanding while really just throwing a bone to an audience that is getting ever more savvy and tired of the tricks of the trade."

Vogue's vague language around their new guidelines is reminiscent of Seventeen magazine's recent statement addressing a campaign launched by 14-year-old Julia Bluhm, who collected over 25,000 signatures on a petition asking the magazine to curb its use of airbrushing by including just one un-Photoshopped spread per issue. Seventeen's response lauded Julia "for being so passionate about an issue," and stated that "Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that's how we present them." No mention was made of any plans for specific editorial changes, or plans to incorporate any non-airbrushed images into future magazines.

While it is nice to see magazines like Vogue and Seventeen becoming more publicly engaged with dialogues about model health and the unrealistic and unhealthy messages proliferated by eating disordered (or Photoshopped) models, it's hard not to see these efforts as attempts to deflect criticism rather than to actually address the deeper, underlying issues suggested by these problems. Clearly, though, magazines like these are beginning to hear the voices of readers who are pushing back against the dangerous and unrealistic messages about beauty these magazines have long been flagrantly proliferating. If all of us that find these images and the messages they send troubling continue to make our voices heard, to write letters, to make calls, and even to cancel our subscriptions if things do not begin to change, magazines will begin to realize that their readership will not be appeased by paltry gestures like these--that the changes we want to see are more meaningful and more substantive.

3/16/2012: Georgia Non-Profit Steps Back From Fat-Shaming Anti-Obesity Campaign Under Pressure

In January, I wrote about a campaign of fat shaming childhood obesity ads created and disseminated by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta in conjunction with Strong4Life which was targeting Georgia residents. Now thanks to public outcry and an organized call to action against the ad campaign by fitness blogger Leah Segedie, the billboards are coming down. Strong4Life has also made positive changes to their other public outreach efforts, including their website, Facebook page, and Twitter account to reflect a more sensitive approach to educating about childhood obesity.

Segedie's campaign against the ads, called "Ashamed," sought to draw attention to the fact that fat shaming is not an effective or appropriate strategy for raising awareness of the very real issue of childhood obesity. She drew on her own experiences with Binge Eating Disorder as a child to drive home her point, saying "I was that child years ago. Every time someone drew attention to my weight, I spent my time eating more. Why? Because food was how I made myself feel better. If you were going to make me feel bad about myself, I was going to run to food again."

In addition to blogging about her thoughts on the ad campaign, Segedie reached out to Strong4Life to try to convince them to take a different tactic in their fight against obesity. She also utilized social media, organizing protest chats on Twitter and getting the word out online. She and others reached out to Strong4Life's corporate funders to ask them if they supported these tactics as well and to ask them to consider withdrawing their financial backing if they did not. Under pressure, Strong4Life finally seems to be relenting and has already begun scaling back the ad campaign, beginning with the elimination of the billboards, and with replacing the fat-shaming images on their website with more positive images of children looking healthy and confident.

This is a great example of why it is so important to let companies, non-profits and others disseminating negative or harmful body image messages know what we think. Companies do not exist without consumers, and non-profits do not exist without funders and without a general public receptive to their services and messaging. This means that we as members of the public and consumers wield power, individually and collectively. Even a small grassroots campaign like Segadie's "Ashamed" can achieve success and promote alternative, more positive dialogues and messages about body image. Congratulations to all those who made their voices heard and played a part in shifting Strong4Life's messaging in a more positive direction.

2/17/2012: Positive Body Image Role Model--Adele

At this weekend's Grammy Awards, British soul-pop singer and songwriter, Adele was among the night's biggest winners, taking home six Grammys including Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. In an interview aired on CBS's 60 Minutes shortly before the ceremony, Adele sat down with Anderson Cooper to discuss her music, her life, and the enormous fame and success that she has achieved in a relatively short period of time.

During the interview, Cooper brought up the topic of body image with the singer, asking her what it feels like to be in the public eye as someone who "doesn't really fit the mold of other stars out there right now performing," specifically in terms of her body and appearance. Their exchange on the topic, which can be seen in full in the video clip above, is a refreshing change from so many of the dialogues so often perpetuated about body, weight and appearance in mainstream media and celebrity culture. Throughout the conversation, Adele expressed such unreserved body confidence and unconcern for what others may think of her appearance that at moments Cooper appeared almost caught off guard.

Responding to Cooper's initial assertion that she doesn't fit the typical mold of celebrity body type, Adele told him that she simply never thinks of herself in terms of labels such as "plus sized" or compares herself physically to others, going on to say that "I've never seen magazine covers and seen music videos and been like, 'I need to look like that if I want to be a success," a position that, she noted jokingly, seems to have been vindicated by her commercial success thus far.

Later in their conversation, Cooper suggested that, in focusing on doing what she loves-making music-and refusing to buy into negative cultural messages about size and beauty (topics that by her own assessments "everyone else makes a bigger deal out of"), she is sending a positive message to her young female fans. Adele's response, so different from the seemingly perpetual drone of starlets and singers detailing their workout routines, diet plans and fad cleanses, bemoaning their "baby weight" and analyzing their favorite and least favorite body parts before a national audience, was a breath of fresh air. She said simply, "I think no matter what you look like, the key is to first be happy with yourself." Here's hoping that the future holds many more public figures who, like Adele, not only come in many different shapes and sizes, but proudly own that fact.

1/17/2012: Georgia Anti-Obesity Campaign Employs Weight Stigmatizing Tactics

A new campaign of television and print ads created by the non-profit Strong4Life in conjunction with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is being condemned by many, including organizations and experts in the fields of medicine, public health and eating disorders. Objections to the ads center largely around the campaign's perceived encouragement of weight stigmatization and its use of shaming and scare tactics to promote its anti-obesity message. The Georgia-based campaign, called "Stop Sugarcoating," features five overweight children and highlights the supposed negative repercussions of their weight on their health and happiness. In the print campaign, stark black and white photos of each unsmiling child (all of whom are, in fact, paid actors) are accompanied by phrases like "It's hard to be a little girl when you're not," and "Big bones don't make me this way. Big meals do." The television ads, also in stark black and white, feature such things as a child talking about the social repercussions of her weight and a young man asking his also-overweight mother, "Mom, why am I fat?", juxtaposed with statistics about the high numbers of obese children in the state of Georgia.

In a petition created in response to the ads, Chevese Turner of the Binge Eating Disorder Association sums up some of the major objections to the campaign, writing that "It shames children who are larger, reinforcing social prejudices around size by encouraging weight stigma, and rather than focusing on healthy behaviors it uses bullying style advertising to encourage kids to diet and exercise." Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy at Yale University also finds the ads troubling. She believes that Strong4Life's campaign points the finger at children and their families, rather than offering useful information, and she worries that as a result, "this campaign has the potential to harm the very individuals it aims to help."

Linda Matzigkeit, the senior vice president at Children's Health Care of Atlanta, the organization behind the campaign, maintains that the tactics used are necessary, saying "we felt like we needed a very arresting, abrupt campaign that said: 'hey, Georgia! Wake up. This is a problem.'" However, numerous experts have pointed to the lack of effectiveness of scare tactics and shaming techniques in public health campaigns. As childhood obesity prevention researcher Marsha Davis sums up the controversy, "we need to fight obesity, not obese people."

No child should ever be made for feel ashamed about their body. Sign the petition protesting the "Stop Sugarcoating" campaign to let Strong4Life and Children's Health Care of Atlanta know you disagree with the bullying and weight stigmatizing tactics employed in these ads.

12/19/2011: H&M Exposed For Using Computer Generated Bodies

Airbrushing has been common practice in media and advertising for some time, but as a recently uncovered practice by clothing retailer H&M shows, techniques of digital manipulation and visual trickery have reached a new low. Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet last week brought attention to H&M's practice of using completely computer generated bodies in place of some of the models on its website. After Aftonbladet pointed to photos from the website that appeared to feature the same body with different models' heads attached, H&M press officer Hacan Andersson admitted to the practice, saying of the images in question, "it's not a real body; it's completely virtual and made by the computer. We take pictures of the clothes on a doll that stands in the shop, and then create the human appearance with a program on [a] computer."

H&M defended their choice to use these computer generated bodies, with another spokesperson, Nicole Christie, stating that "This technique can be found in use throughout the industry." She went on to claim that, "This is not to be seen as conveying a specific ideal or body type, but merely a technique to show our garments."

Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism found this response disturbing, countering that "What's so extraordinary about the H&M models is that everybody would just accept it. That says something about how normal it has become to use artificial images of women. We just brush past them. The worrying thing is it gets into your head, particularly the heads of young women."

Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to show that these images and the messages they send do get into peoples' heads. In one study conducted by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 69% of girls reported that magazine images influenced their idea of the perfect body shape. Numerous other studies have corroborated and expanded upon this finding, showing that the images we see, whether in magazines, on TV, or on the internet, profoundly influence our ideas about what is normal, expected, and attractive when it comes to physical appearance.

Given the documented negative impact that advertising and other media images can have on body image and self esteem, H&M's disavowal of blame and insistence that their use of computer generated bodies without disclaimer does not have an influence or send a message seems not only disingenuous but highly irresponsible. Psychotherapist and writer, Susie Orbach, sees a potential positive impact to the uncovering of this technique, however. She says, "Perhaps this will expose the constructed nature of the images more graphically than all the critiques of Photoshopping. Perhaps it will be easier to say: this body does not exist, it is a fiction."

Certainly this serves as a glaring example of media manipulation, and proves once again the need for continued vigilance on the part of each of us as media consumers. Not only must we be aware of the false and manufactured nature of the images advertisers and other media makers so often present us, but we must call out and expose these manipulations when we encounter them. Knowing that an image represents a fiction rather than a reality helps to strip it of it's intended purpose--to make viewers feel bad enough about themselves that they will be compelled to buy the product that is being sold.