Health and Body Image in the Media

Green appleHaving recently completed an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in bariatric surgery for children, I am intrigued to watch media coverage flick between one extreme and another – from our obesity crisis and the diets of the average school child to the models that fill the fashion industry. A sensitive subject for many, particularly teenage girls, but undisputedly one that we can’t ignore. It sometimes seems as though we’re stuck in a paradoxical situation – the press won’t stop covering our population’s weight, whilst few dare discuss the topic for fear of upsetting someone, knocking their self-esteem or triggering mental health problems.

What initiated this blog was an article on the BBC (which you can read here). It reported that two French companies who own Dior, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and multiple other big names will stop using ‘super-skinny models’ in their catwalk shows. It sounds like a brilliant initiative that could reduce unrealistic body image expectations, and it is, but behind it are some surprising facts.

Firstly, we cannot hail the model industry for a heroic effort, as the companies have no choice in the matter under new French legislation. Models must have a doctor’s certificate confirming sufficient health based on their BMI (a measurement that takes into account weight and height) and photoshopped images have to be labelled. Spain, Italy and Israel have taken similar measures against underweight models. The ban on models UK size 6 and smaller (US 0 and EU 32) makes you wonder how we got here in the first place. Why are models getting smaller when our average clothing size is getting larger? The obvious answer is to say that the media portrays the norm as something unachievable, creating a vicious cycle of spiralling expectations.

The article quotes the eating disorder charity ‘Beat’ saying that blaming the fashion industry ‘oversimplifies the issue’ of body image problems. On their website, the charity explains, ‘The media doesn’t cause eating disorders, but the media can strongly influence attitudes, beliefs and actions’. The press frequently cover sugar tax, the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ and what we should or shouldn’t be eating. This is designed to reduce obesity and its comorbidities such as diabetes and heart disease, but the statistics don’t prove it’s helping: in 2015, 58% of women, 68% of men and 1 in 3 Year 6 children were obese or overweight (National Statistics, March 2017).

In conclusion, we must be doing something wrong – despite all the medical advances, our population is becoming increasingly unhealthy. It would be naïve to solely blame the media but we need to question how much it is helping either end of the spectrum.

Jessica (UVI)