Lynne Featherstone, the British equalities minister, has begun a campaign against what she sees as unrealistic body images in the media. She will soon convene a series of hearings to address the use of thin fashion models and photographic retouching, and has declared “Mad Men” actress Christina Hendricks a physical role model for young girls.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Lynne Featherstone will convene a series of discussions this autumn with the fashion industry, including magazine editors and advertising executives, to discuss how to promote body confidence among young people.

The first will focus on airbrushing, which Featherstone argues is contributing to “the dreadful pressure that young people, girls and women come under to conform to completely unachievable body stereotypes.”

She will push for a health warning on airbrushed photographs, warning viewers that they are not real. “I am very keen that children and young women should be informed about airbrushing, so they don’t fall victim to looking at an image and thinking that anyone can have a 12 inch waist. It is so not possible,” she told the Sunday Times.

Featherstone’s efforts, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, are based on flawed assumptions. You might think that a British minister would do some research on the subject before forging ahead with campaigns and official proclamations, but apparently that was not the case.

Had Featherstone checked her facts, she would have found that most of the scientific research and studies contradict her assumptions about girls’ self esteem and the influence of fashion models.

For example a Girl Scouts of America survey of 1,002 teen girls released earlier this year found that girls’ friends and peers have much more influence over how they feel about their bodies than do fashion models.

Eighty-two percent said that their peers and friends influenced how they felt about their bodies; thin fashion models ranked last by a wide margin. Perhaps most importantly, most teen girls dislike and reject the thin body image often seen in the fashion industry: When girls were asked what they thought about the typical fashion model’s body, 65 percent stated it was “too skinny.”

Nearly as many said it was unrealistic, 47 percent said “unhealthy,” and nearly a third said the body shape was “sick.”

A 2004 study conducted for Dove’s “Real Truth About Beauty” campaign found that most women reject the thin fashion model body type: “findings affirmed that women around the world are able and willing to embrace a conception of beauty that defies the narrow, physically-focused standards set for them by popular culture” (p. 34). That study also found that 90 percent of women were satisfied with their physical attractiveness and beauty.

According to a 1999 survey (“Pressure to be Perfect? Young Women’s Research Report”) of 901 British women between the ages of 18 and 24, almost 90 percent of the young women said they would not want to look thin like Kate Moss.

If surveys show that most teen girls already know that the images they see in fashion magazines are unrealistic, unhealthy, and undesirable, then Featherstone’s campaign to “warn” them about unrealistic, airbrushed images is a largely pointless and misguided waste of public funds. She’s fighting a war that was won years ago, and she hasn’t done the research to know it.

That a high-profile British minister would have such a low opinion of girls’ intelligence and media savvy is truly sad.

But Featherstone went further. According to the Guardian, she “declared that the physical role model for girls and young women should be a curvy, hourglass shape.” Indeed, instead of telling young women that they can be attractive at any size, Featherstone singled out one television actress in particular as a physical role model for young girls.

The fact that a public official would dictate to the public what an “ideal” woman’s body should look like is troubling. Instead of recognizing that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, Featherstone is doing exactly what she criticizes the fashion industry for doing: telling women how they should look.

It’s not the first time that a powerful elected official said something inaccurate, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last. But Featherstone’s misunderstandings are all the more egregious because they deal with serious issues of body image, mental health, and eating disorders. Young women deserve effective, evidence-based medical interventions, not political grandstanding.
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