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Senator Penny Wright Delivers Speech in the Senate: Photoshop, Body Image & Mental Health

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (22:07): Tonight I am going to speak about an issue which has troubled me for some time. I know it is of concern to many people in this place and throughout Australia. Poor body image is becoming an increasingly common mental health issue all around this country.

I want to begin by telling Sarah’s story. Sarah started having body-image and weight issues at the age of nine, when she began to think of herself as being overweight. She started having trouble at school which led her to become preoccupied with controlling her weight. These tremendously overwhelming feelings left Sarah depressed and she finally tried to take her own life. Going to hospital ultimately saved Sarah’s life. She was so underweight her heart, liver and kidneys were shutting down; doctors gave her 24 to 48 hours to live if she did not accept help. Sarah spent three months in hospital and put on nine kilograms, and fortunately she is now living a happy and healthy life. What her story shows us is that the impacts of poor body image are life-altering and can stay with people throughout life.

In thinking about what I wanted to explore tonight I am indebted to one of the foremost organisations working in the field of body-image disorders and eating disorders in Australia, the Butterfly Foundation. Regrettably, various surveys and data indicate that body dissatisfaction has become a cultural norm in Australia and body-image problems have increased worldwide over the last 30 years. Negative body image is caused by an individual having low self-esteem, anxiety and feelings of withdrawal from social groups and family due to feelings about their body. Devastatingly, these feelings are now affecting children as young as four years old in Australia. Body dissatisfaction is one of the top three concerns of young people and the top concern for young women.

Given that negative body image is also a precursor to eating disorders, this is something all of us here in the parliament should be informed about and engage with our communities about. Approximately half of all adolescent girls are trying to lose weight and practice extreme weight loss through fasting, self-induced vomiting and smoking. However, this is not only an issue among young girls and women. The number of males who are beginning to obsess about their body shape and size is also increasing significantly. In fact, a South Australian Office for Youth survey about body image found that among male and female respondents, about 83 per cent had concerns about their body image. The survey asked them what would help them feel more positive. Fascinatingly, the idea of realistic bodies being depicted in the media was more important than any other influence by more than half. This is a startling statistic, and the idea deserves careful consideration about how we could implement it.

I acknowledge that poor body image and eating disorders are the result of a combination of factors. They are complex, multifactorial conditions. But it is clear that one particular and insidious influence is that of the media and the marketing of fashion and beauty. The constant public manipulation of images is, these days, prolific, and leads to the idealisation of unrealistic and unattainable beauty and body shape. It has ever been thus; but the advent of new technology and new techniques makes falsifying images as easy as the click of a mouse and basically undetectable. This has certainly contributed to the problem.

Recently, Meaghan Kausman, an Australian model, made international headlines for publishing a ‘before and after’ photograph of a swimwear campaign she was featured in. She was honest: the company had Photoshopped her torso, making her slimmer, and shaved shape from her arms and legs. That made strong waves at the time but unfortunately her strong advocacy about the issue of photomanipulation apparently had little lasting impact and has been quickly passed over. The impact of photomanipulation is troubling, and what is especially concerning is the number of Australians who compare themselves to these images without having any idea about the degree of change which has been made. Through my engagement with the Butterfly Foundation I have personally become much more aware of this as an issue.

ReachOut is another effective and lifesaving organisation assisting young people with mental ill health. They shared Jessica’s story with me. Jessica cannot remember a time she was not self-conscious about her body. She even remembers hiding in the bathroom crying to herself when she was young, thinking she was fat and ugly. At the age of 11 Jessica started skipping meals and a few years later she taught herself to purge. She isolated herself from everyone, not attending school and hiding away in her bedroom. Ultimately she felt so much pain she began self-harming. By the time she was 16, Jessica’s condition had started to spiral out of control. Thankfully one of her friends knew the signs, as she had also suffered from the condition of anorexia nervosa. Jessica’s doctor organised an assessment with an eating disorder clinic. Initially Jessica refused to go; she was adamant there was no problem because she was a size 12. Like many others, Jessica wrongly believed you have to be underweight to have issues with food. However, with the help of her family, her friends and ReachOut Jessica is now on her way to recovery. Jessica was one of the lucky ones. Treatment and services for people experiencing eating disorders in Australia are grossly underprovided and there are often long waiting lists, affecting people’s ability to get the evidence based treatment they need for recovery.

Like many other countries, Australia has tried voluntary regulation of photomanipulation. A voluntary industry code of conduct on body image was released in 2009 by the Australian government in response to the National Body Image Advisory Group. A key recommendation made by the group was to establish a code to provide fashion, media and advertising industries with guidelines for the endorsement of healthy body image. The code advocated diversity in the selection of models, a wider range of clothing sizes in retail fashion and disclosure when images have been digitally manipulated; however, the Chair of the Body Image Advisory Group, Mia Freedman, stated in an ABC broadcast in January this year that the code, unfortunately, has not worked. The Eating Issues Centre conducted a study to see whether magazines were adhering to the voluntary code. They found that only three of the 10 magazines included in the study were upholding the code.

This poses the question of whether we should go further. Regulating photomanipulation is difficult.

Where do you draw the line between general image correcting and harmful body manipulation or distortion? Photo editing can be a legitimate part of the artistry of photography. This makes any form of regulation difficult and definitions are challenging.

Israel is the only country, I am aware of, which has adopted laws to regulate photo manipulation and which has enforced health standards for the modelling industry. However, these laws have not yet been enforced. Although this may be problematic, it is important that we recognise the substantial impact a negative body image can have-and think about the role of the media in portraying what is unrealistic body image as a reality to impressionable, particularly young, people. Organisations such as the Butterfly Foundation are doing excellent work with high-profile Australian media and fashion industry members to achieve cultural change by calling out misuses of Photoshop by the media.

Warning labels may be one answer. In 2012 the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology published an experimental investigation into the addition of warning labels in fashion magazines. It focused on women’s moods and body dissatisfaction. The results revealed that participants who viewed images with a warning reported lower levels of body dissatisfaction. These findings were the first to show that warning labels eliminated some of the negative effects of digitally manipulated images.

The Butterfly Foundation has also recognised the impact of individuals manipulating their own images for social media. I was very pleased to be part of their launch of the LoveYourBody campaign earlier this year. I believe it is vitally important that we acknowledge the effects of photo manipulation and continue to encourage both greater awareness around manipulated images and promote positive body image and people being proud of who they are whenever we can.

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