Apparently, negative body image is one of the great problems of our age. If news media are to be believed, it ranks right up there with income inequality, climate change and the inalienable right “to follow my food dream” on MasterChef.
Between you, me and the mystery box, though, I’m not buying it as a significant concern. Certainly not so significant it merits action by the Mayor of London.
Sadiq Khan has been praised by feminists, parents and others for his decision to ban what he calls “body shaming” advertisements on London Transport.
This is a peculiar action, and one we might think about for a minute before celebrating. Particularly in view of the fact that it’s so very rare for public officials to regulate advertisements.
They’ll occasionally say no to certain unhealthy products, such as tobacco or the Al-Nusra Front but yes to alcohol, low-nutrient food and gambling.
Personally, I’d like to see the lot gone. If I were queen, I’d replace them all with my own compelling instructions on how not to be a dick. But, as (a) I am not yet queen and (b) many ads for things with poor health outcomes remain, we all must ask if Khan’s decision is not a bit deluded.
Well, we can’t blame him entirely. Let’s blame a news media that consistently tells enormous porkies about the health impact of “body shaming”.
For some time, media have been agitating to have other media regulated. Acting largely on the advice of media providers, a former government actually funded an official “body image” nanny. Fortunately, that waste of dosh was ended but we still read headlines like “body image is the top concern for young Australians.”
Hating your body as a teenager is a human right!
Yeah but nah. This is one of those Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics statements which may actually describe a true thing, but presents it in a misleading way. It’s good that we live in a nation where teenagers are more worried about their bodies than other things. If “being killed by extremist militia or drone strike on the way to school” was among the top three concerns in such surveys, we’d have something to worry about.
I can bet you if Malala Yousafzai hadn’t had to worry about sectarian violence and US drone attack, she’d have spent a nice puberty worrying about her bum instead of her death. Hating your body as a teenager is a human right!
Another way news media “prove” that body image is a problem is by invoking mental illness. They say, “eating disorders kill more people than any other mental illness”. Again with the Lies, Damn Lies. It’s kind of true, but very misleading.
First, it is misleading to say “eating disorders” when what is exclusively meant is anorexia nervosa, the most potentially life-threatening but also the least prevalent form. The ED with the highest prevalence is Binge Eating Disorder, introduced amid much criticism to psychiatric manuals very recently whose symptoms may lead to physical discomfort but do not, unlike anorexia, come with a significant risk of death.
Second, there is an emerging scholarship that suggests that both bulimia nervosa and anorexia have a strong biological influence. The emphasis on the role of the media, it turns out, may be very misguided.
You may, like me, occasionally think “Gee, Porky. You’re disgusting.” This bears no relation to the extraordinary pain felt by those who suffer anorexia. Anorexia, historical accounts of which predate ads on the London tube by some centuries, must not be pressed into the service of we women who occasionally feel less than super-hot.
It is OK to feel less than super-hot. Of course, it’s not OK to feel so repulsed by your own flesh, you are paralysed. But most of us are not paralysed by this feeling — just a bit bummed out.
It is the work of advertisers to bum us out. If we don’t feel like we’re lacking something, we won’t fill it with chocolates or lottery tickets or bad dietary advice.
If we do feel like we’re lacking something, then perhaps the solution to this emptiness is not to say “ban those particular ads” but to revolt more forcefully against the lie that we are not enough.
You are not incomplete. You are not broken. You are not less worthy than anybody.
If those billboards aren’t selling you “body shame”, they will only sell you something else. A cocktail in a can or a new frock or, perhaps, a terrible book about “self-esteem”. Until I am communist queen, billboards will never sell you anything but the falsehood that you are incomplete.
You are not incomplete. You are not broken. You are not less worthy than anybody. (Well. With the possible exception of Malala.) You are, in fact, so powerful, you can seize control of your response to advertising and say, “Stop selling me placebos!”
We can’t wait for “body positive” advertisers or mayors to do the pride on our behalf. Daddy won’t help us. He just wants us to remain little girls so helpless, we can’t even shrug off a picture of a model.
You’re better than that. You’re more beautiful. Baby, you’re dangerous and you’re super-hot.