A deeply worrying new report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image has revealed the desperately serious situation regarding body confidence amongst young people in the UK. Group Chair Jo Swinson reveals the worrying extent of the problem in the foreword to the report, saying, “Body image dissatisfaction in the UK has never been higher, particularly among young people. The pressure to conform to the impossible body “ideals” we are bombarded with in advertising, magazines and on the catwalk is overwhelming and damaging. Low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders are all increasing, along with unhealthy behaviour and thoughts: girls as young as 5 now worry about their size and appearance, and 38 per cent of men say they would give up a year of their life for the perfect body.”

We are so used to reading shocking numbers and statistics in the media on a day-to-day basis that it may take a few moments for these fact to truly sink in. 5 year old girls are worrying about their weight. That means that in their very first year of school, before even learning how to write or add up, society is teaching our daughters to feel anxious about their bodies. And, implicitly, therefore teaching them that their value as women will be determined largely from their image and how thin they manage to be. At the age of five. Five.

From November 2011 until February 2012, the group ran an enquiry to determine the causes and consequences of body image dissatisfaction, hearing from a wide range of individuals, charities and experts. It concluded that body image was irrevocably tied to a wide range of other vital social issues, revealing that dissatisfaction with one’s looks is linked to depression, a lack of engagement and participation in school and “a range of physical, emotional and societal problems”. Our increasing social obsession with body image and the need to conform to an incredibly narrow media aesthetic ideal, particularly for women, was also revealed, with the sad discovery that over half of bullying experienced by young people was appearance-related.

Unsurprisingly, 75% of respondents cited advertising, celebrity culture and unrealistic media images as the major causes of the crisis. But whilst advertising and media representatives told the enquiry “there was a genuine desire to use more diverse, authentic and relatable imagery”, little evidence of this seems to be transpiring in practice. Indeed, while Vogue magazine recently made a song and dance about its ‘pact’ to use only healthy models in its images, the article was printed in an issue still crammed with glossy, airbrushed photographs of incredibly slim, beautiful women sending messages of objectification and sexual valuation to young female readers.

In a similar way, weekly magazines like Heat and Closer and online publications like the Daily Mail’s ‘Femail’ have recently adopted a faux ‘concerned’ stance on the issue. Unfortunately, in most cases, this has merely resulted in ironic and overplayed criticism of celebrities deemed “too skinny” or “bony”, complete with reams of scantily clad photographs, whilst features elsewhere in the same magazines continue to promote weight loss and laud slim celebrities regardless. Three adjacent articles on the Femail website recently, for example, featured photographs of young women in revealing clothing with extremely slender frames, yet whilst one was praised for her “toned torso” and another for exhibiting the “ultimate bikini body”, a third was lambasted for “waist-ing away” and criticized for her “razor sharp collar bones”.

All this suggests that whilst the media may be keen to spin good publicity by appearing to jump on the body image bandwagon, much stricter requirements and regulations will be required in reality if any actual change is to come from that quarter. Whilst this is something politicians and law makers will hopefully work towards, in the meantime, it is clear that the barrage of unattainable and unrealistic images will continue to bombard our children, teaching them from an impressionable age that looks are enormously important and that one particular type of appearance must be pursued and conformed to at all costs, even if the price is their own health and wellbeing. The report revealed that one quarter of seven year old girls have tried to lose weight at least once.

In light of this situation, it is vital that the All Party Parliamentary Group’s recommendation of introducing body image lessons in schools should be implemented as soon as possible. We are aware of the media storm our children are bombarded by every day, on the street, in magazines, on billboards and the sides of buses, at the movies, on television and even in children’s toy and clothes stores. We are now aware of the enormous and devastating impact it is having on their confidence, their happiness and their health. So we must take every step possible to arm them with the weapons that will help them to protect themselves from the onslaught – weapons like knowledge of biology and the reality of different natural body shapes; like information about airbrushing and its manipulation of real images into entirely fabricated ideals; like understanding of the effect the media can have on the way we think. And, most importantly, we must instill in them a belief in their own capacity to achieve more, be more and believe in more than the valuation of their worth as a human being on the basis of their shape and size.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr: niomi niomi