Society & Culture & Entertainment Education

Why Regulating Images of People in Advertising is a Good Idea

The Truth  in Advertising Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress by Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Florida) in March 2014. The bill, cosponsored by nine other representatives, would require the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create a strategy for reducing the use of images of altered bodies and faces in advertising, and to create a regulatory framework for the advertising industry.

Opponents of the bill claim that it infringes on advertisers' right to free speech, and that the FTC is already charged with regulating against "deceptive" advertising. Yet, it is now widely understood that altering bodies and faces through the use of photoshop and other software is commonplace in advertising. The bill's proponents draw on a wealth of sociological and psychological research findings to argue that regulation is necessary to curb the proven detrimental impacts that these altered images have on viewers' body image, and physical and emotional well-being.

The recent history of how ads depict bodies is catalogued in Jean Kilburn's documentary, Killing Us Softly, a popular teaching tool in university courses that address this issue. First released in 1979 and now on its fourth version with updated material (released in 2010), the film focuses on constructions of gender, but also makes clear how inundated society is with falsified images of ideal bodies and faces.

But is there really a connection between these images and our health and well being?

Many sociological studies have demonstrated that there is, and that the impact of such images is overwhelmingly negative. Many of them are compiled in psychologist Sarah Grogan's book Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children.

A key reason why this negative relationship exists is that when we see the ideal body type and beauty ideals portrayed in ads, we come to believe that these ideals are accepted by society at large as those we should all strive for. We then also come to believe that others measure our own bodies and looks against those ideals. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "reflected appraisal," or, the way we believe others see us. After viewing such images, we reflect onto ourselves what we believe the views of others are, and this thus shapes our self-image and our behavior.

In a doctoral thesis titled "Looking Good: A Study of Gendered Body Ideals Among Young People," sociologist Carita Bengs found that media images exert a strong influence in how both boys and girls view their bodies, and in behaviors they engage in to alter their bodies. This is based on self-reporting of boys and girls via a large-scale survey, which for some may raise questions about causality between variables (media representation of bodies and body-image). However, a startling study conducted in Fiji between 1995-98, after the introduction of television to the island nation, makes that causal relationship crystal clear.

The study, lead by Dr. Anne E. Becker, director of research at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center of Harvard Medical School, consisted of surveys of girls with an average age of 17 at one school conducted in 1995, just one month after television was introduced, and again in 1998. The researchers found a jump in the percentage of girls who had induced vomiting to lose weight, from three to fifteen percent. The also found that the girls in 1998 were fifty percent more likely to describe themselves as fat than the girls in 1995, and thirty percent more likely to diet.

Within the US, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reports that only five percent of women and girls have the ideal body type portrayed by models, which means that the ideal is unattainable for the vast majority. The organization also reports that 69 percent of girls between grades 5-12 say that images in magazines shape their view of a perfect body, 42 percent of girls in grades 1-3 want to be thinner, and 81 percent of 10 year olds fear being fat. The research shows a clear causal relationship between media images and body image.

Of course, the images themselves do not stand alone. They exist in a culture in which the ideals they portray are valued and validated, and they exist alongside discourses of fat-shaming, ugly-shaming, and praise for thinness and conventional beauty. Most of us contribute to the problem of negative body image by interacting with each other in a way that fosters it. But perhaps if we lived in a society in which we were not inundated with falsified images of unattainable bodies and beauty, we could stop doing that to each other.

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