Stop staring in the mirror, Ms Featherstone. This preening vanity is an affront to us all

The 'Body Confidence campaign', brainchild of Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, is frankly a poorly-timed, misguided and toothless waste of money that's bound to fail

The pressing issue is not 'body confidence' but obesity
Peter Smith
On 31 January 2012 11:21

I couldn’t believe my eyes when, surfing the Government Equalities Office website (as one does late on a Saturday night), I chanced upon the Body Confidence campaign. With the aim of ‘reducing the burdens that popular culture places on people’s wellbeing and self-esteem’, it is the brainchild of two Liberal Democrats: the Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone, and her sidekick, Jo Swinson, who chairs the allied All-Party Parliamentary Group on body image.

Apparently, when cuts are slicing deep into the body politic and forcing the dismembering of all sorts of public services that do real, tangible things, the Government has arranged for a group of ‘experts’ to examine the causes of ‘low levels’ of body confidence, and ‘identify non-legislative solutions’.

So who are these Einsteins? The brains convened include ‘representatives from health and fitness, fashion and retail, youth and education, media and advertising, and the beauty sectors’. Think of the casts from The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea having the ear of junior Home Office ministers and influencing Coalition policy.

Yes, Ms Featherstone has invited into her plush offices the very poachers who have spent over a century perfecting marketing techniques telling us we are too fat, too thin, too pale, too dark, ad nauseam, and who have made vast fortunes in developing fads in the rag trade, for instance, and concocting the various potions and lotions slapped on daily by the gallon.

We are told that ‘evidence suggests’ many people suffer ‘negative feelings’ about their body shape and that this can ‘influence their wellbeing and have a negative impact on different aspects of their lives’. No suggestive evidence is cited, of course; this trite boilerplate is just fluent bureaucratese for what we, in English, would call the bleedin’ obvious.

The campaign’s ‘Body Image Lesson’, including an oddly classy ‘Country Club worksheet’, is aimed at 10-11 year olds (although the children used in the online marketing guff look a lot younger than that, with one small child measuring her waist wearing a look of apparent angst; isn’t this the sort of image the Lib Dems want to see fewer of?)

The lesson aims, in only one hour (surely, if this campaign is that important, it deserves more), to ‘provide an introduction into the role of the media and advertising in influencing young people’s perception of body image’ by demonstrating some of the editing techniques advertisers use.

Ms Featherstone intends for children ‘to recognise from an early age that that their value is so much more than just their physical appearance’.

Now don’t get me wrong: I quite agree that pressures to conform are often extreme. No doubt a factor in adolescent anorexia is, for example, the bombardment of images of happy, stick-thin children in tweenage magazines, lining entrances to supermarkets and newsagents. Human dignity does not rest on body image alone, and children especially should not feel they have to sculpt their bodies into temples fit for popular worship.

That children should be comfortable in their skins is undoubtedly important, but playground dynamics and peer-group pressure won’t be changed in the lifetime of any government. As children spend the greatest and most influential proportion of their lives at home, not school, without changing the messages received from mummy and daddy, very little will be achieved.

Some of the sermons Ms Featherstone has been giving to adults have not been thought out either. For example, she instructed the Fitness Industry Association to tell its members to ‘take responsibility for tackling body confidence issues’ by not promoting ‘the perfect body’ in their posters, TV campaigns and magazine adverts, and to promote a more ‘inclusive atmosphere’.

Putting aside again the question of how industry members can possibly recommend solutions to problems they created and have a vested interest in maintaining, here’s an idea for the Lib Dems and others who want a naked interference in what society finds beautiful: let the economics of personal choice play out.

Given that gyms are pretty homogeneous on price and the equipment they offer - they’re all horrifyingly expensive, with never enough machines during peak hours - it stands to reason that those with advertising showing unrealistically-toned men and women will quickly discover disillusioned punters don’t bother returning when they realise the ads (and abs) are overstated and their portrayals of beauty and health are in fact betrayals.

As memberships are cancelled or not renewed, more truthful places will thrive, where gym-goers feel happier, surrounded by similarly-overweight, middle-aged women stuffed into leggings and crop tops.

I’d suggest that the advertising will still show a George Clooney look-alike over balding, middle-manager Mike, 42, from Hounslow, as that’s what we like and choose to aspire to.

In any case, by denying us images of the beautiful, Ms Featherstone seeks to deny us the social pressure that might make us feel guilty for being so fat and unfit – and thus do something about it. It is not good enough simply to state the health and personal benefits of exercise: her pronouncements omit completely the more complex psychological aspects, where habituation and compulsion force us into more-or-less steady programmes of sport, gym attendance and jogging.

The Government has already promised no legislation – the meaty, powerful tool that governments usually use to regulate these sorts of problems – in favour of the notion a la mode of the ‘nudge’. Tools deployed include an industry award recognising ‘best practice in the area of diverse body images in magazines’, ‘curvier models wearing bigger clothes, and a series of ‘Endangered Species: Women’ shows that ‘challenge the culture that encourages women to hate their bodies’.

It may be a hackneyed to take the libertarian attack line against government initiatives, but here’s a little tip on how to stop feeling bad about your body: when confronted by images of unrealistic beauty: switch over, turn the page, or move to the next aisle. It’s that simple.

The absence of medical professionals on this supposedly-expert committee is startling, given that the real problem is not body ‘confidence’ but obesity. Excessive fat is the factor that plays a predominant role in causing diabetes, which in turn cost the NHS around £5 bn this year, 5 percent of its total budget.

The Equality Office campaign is supposed to be run parallel to the Department of Health’s anti-obesity programme, but having two separate departments (the DoH and the Home Office, whose remit focuses on terrorism, immigration and policing) work in such a disjointed fashion is not conducive to good policy.

It is sometimes legitimate to steer us away from obvious harms to individual health, like the risks and dangers involved in road use, particularly when the tax-payer has to pick up the bill for our accidents and our actions pose a danger not only to ourselves but others too. My body image does not fall into these categories.

Frankly, it’s a waste of money, and beyond belief that this campaign can be started when hundreds of quangos were publicly ‘burnt’ by the Coalition in 2010. 

Peter Smith was formerly research assistant to Edward Leigh MP and now works as a lawyer in London

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