Canberra’s body image ‘tick of approval’ a small first step

Published in The Age on 5 July 2010

Last year, a survey of nearly 48,000 young Australians revealed that a quarter of them identified body image as a major concern. Therefore, the federal government’s latest initiative to stop the airbrushed, unrealistic or ultra-thin depiction of women in fashion and advertising is a good first step.

Its idea of a symbol that denotes that a publication is ”body image friendly”, similar to the Heart Foundation tick, could be an incentive to promote more realistic images of men and women.

Youth Minister Kate Ellis says the symbol will ”empower consumers to tell the fashion, beauty, media and modelling industries what they want and provide greater choice”. The criteria that will allow the awarding of the symbol will be determined over the next six months by a panel of experts.

If we truly want to tackle body image, it will require more than the empowering of consumers. It requires a recalibration of how we view the world, and our place within it. Within the space of just a few generations, we have undergone a quite radical reorientation of value. In a compelling and illuminating comparison, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, in her 1998 book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, shows us two extracts from the diaries of young women, with a century of social change separating them.

In the extract from 1882, we read: “Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.”

The contemporary extract reads: “I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good make-up, new clothes and accessories.”

Two girls, living a century apart, with two very different ideas of what it is that matters.

While realism in fashion, media and advertising is helpful, we must tackle the deeper issue that is plaguing our young people.

We have devalued the importance of a person’s character. We are less concerned with a person’s fidelity, honesty, and selflessness than we are with their ability to look good, or dazzle us with wit and flattery.

The ”chk-chk boom” girl, Clare Werbeloff, who recently posed naked for Ralph magazine, has now taught young women that deceit is profitable. You can completely fabricate a story, but if you make it sound good and exploit your moment in the spotlight, then wealth and infamy can be yours.

We care less about character than we do about cool. While Carl Williams was a convicted murderer and a central figure in the Melbourne gangland killings, we were, nonetheless, quite entranced by him. This no doubt informed the use of the phrase ”bent cops, straight cops, cool criminals and colourful characters” in the promotions for the most recent series of Underbelly.

It seems we may even be choosing our Facebook friends based on the cool factor now. US President Barack Obama has enjoyed significant popularity, but it seems he has been eclipsed. In news just in, Lady Gaga now has more Facebook friends and Twitter followers than the leader of the free world.

Our young people are growing up in a society where all that really matters is how they appear. Add to this the fact that we are fast stripping away the notion that life has intrinsic value, and it’s little wonder that their sense of worth lies in their appearance.

If the way you look determines your value, is it little wonder then that body image creates such angst?

The acquisition of character is obtainable by all, and requires integrity, courage, generosity, self-sacrifice, compassion and joy. It places demands on the heart, as opposed to just the hip-pocket.

The things that are worth pursuing, above all else, can rarely be photographed but they can be noticed. It is a person’s integrity, courage, generosity, self-sacrifice, and compassion that leave a lasting impression, and it is this that we need to learn to celebrate.

That’s a little harder to create a symbol for, and yet it is ultimately what really matters.



~ Ruth Limkin