A new bill pushes for regulation of digitally altered bodies in advertising – going up against constantly evolving online platforms, eating disorders and negative body image
On Wednesday (12 January), Luke Evans MP proposed the Digitally Altered Body Image Bill via the ten minute rule. Speaking about the need for such legislation, he described the hope that it would tackle eating disorders and body image issues across the UK.
What is the Digitally Altered Body Image Bill?
The Digitally Altered Body Image Bill calls for commercial images featuring digitally altered bodies to be labelled. If an image has been edited for commercial purposes, or an individual has edited an image that they are being paid to post, this fact must be clear. Since heavily-edited images are the overwhelming majority of what people see, they do not represent reality – but shape a drastic expectation of what the body can look like.
In a 2020 research review, Body Image Distortion, scientist Seyed Alireza Hosseini said: “Body image is a complex construct comprising thoughts, feelings, evaluations, and behaviours related to one’s body.”
Speaking about contemporary body image in the House of Commons, Dr Evans said that advertising is “therefore helping perpetuate a warped sense of how we appear, with real consequences for people suffering with body confidence issues.”
Clarifying what he wants the bill to do, he further said: “Quite simply, if someone is being paid to post a picture on social media which they have edited, or if advertisers, broadcasters or publishers are making money from an edited photograph in any form, they should be honest and upfront about having edited it.”
Is this bill necessary?
Body image is complex and constantly shifting, shadowing bodies that are considered fashionable by the media. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 3 teenagers feel shame about their body, with nearly 20% of adults feeling disgusted about their body image. Trends on social media can directly influence how people think about their own body, age, size and shape, skin colour, hair and so much more – the value of their existence.
Negative body image particularly in teenagers can result in a number of physically or emotionally unhealthy habits and attitudes such as mood disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, disordered eating, lower self-esteem, relationship problems, self-harm tendencies.
The Girlguiding Girls’ Attitude Survey 2020 found that 51% of 7-10 year old girls feel “very happy” with how they look. Unfortunately, by age 11-16 when most girls start to use social media, this percentage drops significantly to just 16%.
In 2017, 88% of girls aged 11-21 said they wanted adverts which had been airbrushed to be clearly marked.
According to Beat, an eating disorder organisation, 1.25 million people are suffering with anorexia or bulimia. Over one million people are using steroids or body enhancing drugs to chase an impossible version of their body. While body image has been occasionally simplified to be a feminine issue, 25% of people who suffer from eating disorders are men.
The influence that social media has on body image and self esteem cannot be overlooked. Numerous contemporary studies have illustrated the link, including damning data seen by Instagram parent company, Meta. It is widely believed that stricter regulations on photos uploaded to platforms such as Instagram would greatly help in reducing harmful body attitudes.
What could this bill change?
If this bill makes the arduous journey through all parliamentary stages, it will require a clear disclaimer to be published on any image edited for commercial purposes – before publication.
Currently, the specifics of the bill are not available to read. The exact definitions of both “edited” and “a commercial purpose” are not clear yet. However, if the bill passes, then a robust set of guidelines will be provided and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will be able to regulate with new clarity on digital alteration. This would then potentially prevent significant levels of eating disorders across the UK.
When could this legislation be ready?
While the intentions behind this legislation are poignant, when could this be implemented?
When we approached Luke Evans for a timeline, a constituency staffer said: “A bill can ping-pong between the houses. I can’t give definite timeline right now.”
While there are reports of cross-party support, there is currently no Government support. When asked about future Government support, the staffer said: “After the second reading on the 25th February or later, we will have more information on that.”
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, a UK eating disorder charity on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk