Which comes first, a problem or its definition
I’m not sure what we called “body image” as an issue before it was called “body image.”
It’s certainly not a new thing. When I was a teenager it was everywhere, we just didn’t have a name for it, so I don’t think we thought of it as an “issue”, just part of being an adolescent.
Now it’s not just an issue, it’s the biggest issue, according to the latest Mission Australia national Survey of Young Australians. Asked to rank a whole list of issues of personal concern, 31.1 per cent of the 50,240 people aged 11 to 24 years named body image a “major concern”. In the 20-24-year-old cohort the figure was 40.3 per cent.
Body image topped the list ahead of family conflict, coping with stress, school or study, personal safety, bullying, alcohol, drugs, suicide, depression, the environment, physical/sexual abuse, self harm, sexuality and discrimination.
Before 2007 body image wasn’t even included on the list as an option, but once it was it went straight to number one with a bullet.
Mission Australia head of research Anne Hampshire says the topic was included after kids kept raising it in their comments. Today’s teenagers are a self-aware bunch who clearly know how to articulate what they’re facing.
It could be interpreted as excellent news that what seems like a pretty standard teenage condition outranked darker concerns like drugs, suicide and depression.
Indeed the survey found body image to be a highly personal topic for the people surveyed - not an entirely surprising outcome for an age group most of us consider to be highly self-absorbed. In the list of “important issues in Australia today”, about national challenges, it came last with 2.2 per cent.
Hampshire says the respondents indicated three levels of concern about the topic, the way it directly affect them (their own self-esteem), worry about their peers who might be suffering, and then the more macro issue of how it plays out in the media and advertising.
Some of the responses to the survey included:
Although I have grown up in an environment where I’ve been told I’m perfect the way I am, & I have been quite happy with my appearance throughout my entire life, it is still difficult to feel truly happy about body image in a society so motivated by beauty. Everyday I am presented with pictures of women who are physically superior to me, even if they’re not smart or kind or generous.
I want to look fit and strong.
I am becoming seriously concerned with the amount of female friends around me who have incredibly negative opinions about their weight, & who persist in unhealthy ways to achieve the ‘ideal’ skinny body, such as by starving themselves. I believe the media has a huge amount of responsibility for this problem & do not seem to care about the millions of people they effect, & are not trying hard enough to stop the obsession almost all young women have about being thin. Today’s perception of a ‘healthy’ or ‘attractive’ body is now so distorted, and yet nobody is approaching this issue head-on with enough success. I think fashion magazines need to stop using underweight models & stop using digital enhancements in their images. Enough is enough. People’s mental and physical health is more important than a creative licence to promote unattainable beauty. … the whole world needs to slow down and take a step back and see what they have done to the minds of its young population.
And the media and its impact on young people is where much of the public debate about body image now sits.
The most recent catalyst is the release of a book by Australian-born actor Portia Degeneres about her long battle with an eating disorder.
I haven’t yet read the book but she recently told her wife Ellen Degeneres in an interview her issues started when as a 12-year-old model she faced intense scrutiny of her body, and peaked during her years on the 90s hit show Ally McBeal. Degeneres’s was by no means a typical experience of young adulthood - she was right at the epicenter of fashion and entertainment.
It’s a bit like how when I was in about Year 9 we were shown the movie about gymnast Nadia Comaneci, in a good natured attempt to warn us of the dangers of anorexia. The problem was none of us were record-breaking Olympic Gymnasts so the message wasn’t entirely clear.
It’s been just more than a year since the Federal Government’s Body Image Advisory Group reported its findings and recommended a voluntary code of conduct for the Australian media to encourage the use of healthy weight models and “realistic” images.
The BIAG also proposed “a focus on peer interactions, parenting, and the role of schools and community groups.”
When the Group’s report was launched a large part of the focus was on the code of conduct for the media, and at the time it was all the rage in Australian magazines to publish un-retouched photos of (admittedly gorgeous) women.
But since then it’s dropped off the radar.
Carriage of the report and the implementation of its findings have shifted Ministerial offices from Kate Ellis, who originally drove it, to Peter Garrett.
Garrett’s office last night couldn’t even provide The Punch with an update on the issue. Clearly it’s low on the agenda.
But what we also learned from the Mission Australia survey, is that for young people the influence of their parents and friends far outweighs the external impacts of the fashion and media industries.
Asked where they turned for advice and support, friends ranked 85.9 per cent, parents 74.9 per cent and relative/family friend 60.9 per cent.
Magazines scraped in with 11.4 per cent, just ahead of school counselors on 9.1 per cent, who it appears need to lift their game.
My point is “body image” was a pretty hot topic for a pretty short period of time about 12 months ago, but has since somewhat fizzled out.
Meanwhile teenagers remain consistently worried about something I think they’ve probably always been worried about, and it’s their parents and friends who need to help them deal with it.
As Hampshire told The Punch: “Should we be worried that young people are worried?... We do need to know this stuff. And awareness is only one step, then we’ve got to teach them how to deal with it.”
And that’s really what parents and friends are for isn’t it.
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