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False beauty in advertising and the pressure to look 'good'

By Jo Swinson, Special to CNN
  • Jo Swinson: Studies link negative body image to viewing photoshopped "perfection"
  • Pressure to meet false ideals of flawlessness, thinness, is overwhelming, she says
  • Swinson: Images in banned L'Oreal ads amount to false advertising that preys on fears
  • Children should grow up in culture valuing health and confidence, she writes

Editor's note: Jo Swinson is a British member of parliament for East Dunbartonshire in Scotland and co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence.

(CNN) -- From smoothing skin and erasing wrinkles to enlarging muscles and slimming waists, airbrushing, or "photoshopping," men and women to so-called perfection is the norm in advertising. These images don't reflect reality, yet from a younger and younger age, people are aspiring to these biologically impossible ideals.

For some, the desire to look as perfect as these models can become all-consuming, and a wealth of evidence suggests that people in the UK are experiencing serious body image problems -- a trend undoubtedly replicated around the globe. People unhappy about their bodies can develop eating disorders, turn to diet pills or steroids, or try cosmetic surgery and Botox injections.

One study found that one in four people is depressed about their body, another found that almost a third of women say they would sacrifice a year of life to achieve the ideal body weight and shape, and almost half of girls in a recent survey think the pressure to look good is the worst part of being female.

These very real and serious issues are not helped by the impossible visions of perfection everywhere in our visual culture. A growing body of scientific evidence reinforces the link between negative body image and exposure to idealized images.

From children's toys to TV programs, images of the idealized body have permeated every level of our visual culture.
--Jo Swinson

Last year, I presented a portfolio of 172 studies to the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry watchdog in the UK. Many of these studies show that over the long term, viewing pictures of these "perfect" bodies leads to severe pressures in adults and, increasingly, children. One study reported on girls aged 5 to 7 who, when exposed to images of thin dolls like Barbie, said they wanted to look thinner compared with those who saw dolls with a healthier body shape.

From children's toys to TV programs, images of the idealized body have permeated every level of our visual culture.

This is why I brought the Lancôme ads for foundation makeup featuring Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority, which banned them for being misleading. They are prime examples of how the advertising media have distorted our perception of beauty.

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From children's toys to TV programs, images of the "ideal" body have permeated every level of our visual culture. Both Turlington and Roberts are naturally beautiful, and neither of the two women needs digital retouching to look great. Yet both images were manipulated to the extent that L'Oreal, which owns Lancome, could not prove the makeup's ability to replicate such flawlessness.

Of course, people aren't blind to this issue -- but while the vast majority of people know that advertising images are enhanced and are an impossible dream, it still hurts. The pressure to conform to such narrow ideals is overwhelming. Among the industry, there is a real fear of confronting reality: Even the Advertising Standards Authority wasn't allowed to see a pre-production photo of Roberts because of contractual arrangements.

The ban on these two advertisements sent a strong message to the industry to reflect on their practices, but of course more honesty and transparency in advertising is just one part of the wider battle to change our culture of perfection. Having recognized the urgent need to address growing body dissatisfaction in the UK, now-government Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone and I launched the Campaign for Body Confidence in March 2010.

Since then, we have been raising the profile of the body confidence agenda and furthering our belief that everyone has the right, whatever their size, shape or form, to feel happy about themselves. A diversity of body shapes and sizes needs to be included in magazines, advertising and broadcasts and on the catwalk -- something our campaign partners All Walks Beyond the Catwalk have successfully been promoting.

Equally a priority is the move away from our appearance-obsessed culture toward giving children positive examples of using their bodies, as well as bolstering their resilience and self-esteem with media literacy and body confidence lessons in schools.

Though some people dismiss this issue as trivial, they are ignoring what is, in fact, a growing public health problem. It's vital that we take steps now so that members of the next generation will grow up learning to accept their bodies in a culture that celebrates health and confidence over a false ideal.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jo Swinson.