Australia is Schooling Everyone in Promoting a Positive Body Image

ByDanielle Paradis

Vogue is celebrating its first anniversary of international Vogue editors signing a health initiative to promote positive body images within their magazine. The June edition of Vogue Australia has been dubbed “The Body Issue” and is focusing on exercise, nutrition, and body diversity. This month features Lauren Burnett, the second plus-sized model ever featured in Vogue Australia. Burnett has been interviewed describing her former days as a New York model where at her smallest she was 6'0" and 130 lbs, a very unhealthy size for a young woman. In Australia, more than 2 million people will suffer an eating disorder in their lifetime. Negative body image is a precursor to serious social, medical and mental heath issues. Australia has been working towards body diversity in magazines since 2009, when the former Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, established a National Advisory Group on Body Image to provide advice on the challenging issue of body image.

Ellis said, “It is vital that we recognize the serious implications of negative body image and take action to promote positive body perception among young Australians.” Since then, the Australian initiative has been in place dealing with body image, and seeking to balance the limited portrayal of body types in the media. A few of the initiatives are the Positive Body Image Awards, which will recognise the positive steps taken by the media, fashion, and advertising industries to adopt the principles outlined in the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct.

Is negative body image a big deal?

A study in the Journal of Youth Adolescentfound that in general women were less satisfied by their appearance and wanted to lose weight while men were more likely to adopt practices to gain weight and muscle mass. There has been a tendency in the examination of male body issues to study them in the same way that women’s issues have been studied which indicated that instances of bulimia nervosa, and anorexia were low among men. In reality, since dieting takes men further away from their ideal body type there is a tendency among males, according to the study, to binge eat, exercise excessively, and abuse steroids. In the same study media influence was perceived to be a greater influence on girls than boys. Which doesn’t detract from the reality that men too are striving at an unrealistic body type and these insecurities are felt by men too. Ultimately young men may experience a societal pressure to achieve a body which is hard, muscular, and masculine. Says Hugo Schwyzer, in an interview with Bitch magazine, “It gets re-framed as a masculine ritual — the dedication, the pressure. It’s almost like you’re going through your own personal Marine boot camp where you become a man. So it becomes a ritualized way of becoming more of a man, rather than just a guy, just a boy.”

But isn’t the body type portrayed just what we all find attractive?

It's not just a lack of body types, the fashion industry lacks ethnic diversity as well. Numéro magazine in their February issue last year featured a fashion spread "African Queen" with a tall blond hair blue eyes model being used in place of a black model. The outrage that this sparked indicates that there are requests for the fashion industry to diversify, but they are often being ignored. 

As for the issues of size, while some psychologists and biologists some say that thinness is valued because of health concerns and the body preferences are based on biology, theorists have noted that cultural perceptions of fat and beauty differ greatly. The flapper fashion often inspired by Coco Chanel, in the 1920s favored very thin bodies and women would bind their breasts to help achieve this look. The 1930s-40s saw the rise of more shapely figures like Mae West and Jean Harlow. The beauty standard then changes depending on time period and location. In Africa, a voluminous figure is considered more desirable.

While the standard narrative posits that overweight people are perceived to be lazy, and less intelligent and hardworking than their thinner counterparts this negative stereotype may be getting in the way of people pursuing healthy lifestyles. In the U.S., plastic surgery is on the rise while at the same time obesity has become  an epidemic. There is significant difference between obesity and overweight categories, and some experts have argued there is no significant evidence that being overweight is a health risk. Tom Sanders, a British nutritionist has argued that there may be health benefits to being slightly overweight (according to the BMI index) including a reduced chance of osteoporosis and an increased likelihood of surviving a heart attach which are ignored because of the cultural prejudice against fat.

What is being done to help the lack of diversity in body types?

Australia has also funded the Butterfly Foundation, the leading national charity focused on eating disorders and negative body image, to expand their body image education services. Over 2,500 educators will receive new resources through this initiative, with an expected reach of over 100,000 young people. Childhood and adolescent development involves different patterns for boys and girls in the areas of emotional expression.

Australia has also Commissioned Education Services Australia to develop body image posters and supporting materials for school communities. The intent is to embed positive body practices in their social environment. The situation won’t change overnight, but an ongoing conversation between media and fashion industries can help. Sarah Spence, national communications manager for the Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders wants this conversation to help, "overcome the very ingrained thoughts and culture that says if you're not one body shape, size or ethnicity you're not valued."