Friday, 1 June 2012

How the media affects us all

Earlier this week the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image published the results of its inquiry, Reflections on Body Image. 

Many commentators expressed surprise at the existence of such a group but its report (which you can access here) made compelling reading. 

The inquiry heard that more than half of the public has a negative body image and that body dissatisfaction in the UK was on the rise.  Girls as young as five are worrying about how they look and cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% in the past four years.

According to the group’s report, pressure to achieve an unrealistic body ideal is now an underlying cause of serious health and relationship problems, damaging society by wreaking havoc with self esteem and affecting progress at school and work. 

The inquiry concluded that unrealistic media images were largely to blame finding that a toxic combination of the media, advertising and celebrity culture amount for almost three-quarters of the influence on body image in society.

The chair of the APPG, Jo Swinson MP, told the BBC’s Today programme that "it's something which has existed for a long time... but in terms of the scale of it, that is what is new, and it is being driven by the proliferation of media imagery portraying a so-called 'perfected ideal' that is entirely unattainable for the vast majority of people,"

Speaking at the launch of the report the CEO of Central YMCA said: "It's clear there's something seriously wrong in society when children as a young as five are worrying about their appearance, based on the messages they are seeing all around them.”

The report made a series of recommendations which include:
  • A requirement for advertisers to run long-term campaigns that reflect consumer desire for "authenticity and diversity"
  • A review of  broadcast and editorial guidelines on reporting on body-image issues
  • The creation of a new set of regulations controlling cosmetic surgery advertising
We have long held that the media we consume affects our attitudes, outlook and behaviour for good or for ill.  This report bears that out and shows how tragic the consequences can be; one in three men would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body.

Neither is this influence related solely to body image.  Highly sexual media imagery, which is almost impossible to avoid, is leading to a generation of prematurely sexualised children; forced to grow up too soon and being led to believe that their value comes only from their sexual appeal or activities and behaving accordingly.  Similarly media which portrays violence as normal and ignores the humanity of victims is leading to an increased acceptance of violence in our society.

The measures recommended in this report are welcome but they must be seen as part of the ‘bigger picture’.  As a society we are shaped by the media which surrounds us; it is time for a wider debate about whether we are happy with the direction in which this has led us.

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