School children need body image lessons - MPs

Model MPs released the Reflections on Body Image report after a three-month inquiry

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All school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons, MPs have recommended.

It comes after an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image heard evidence that more than half of the public has a negative body image.

Girls as young as five now worry about how they look, the MPs' report said, while cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008.

Media images of unrealistic bodies were said to be largely to blame, they said.

The MPs released the Reflections on Body Image report after a three-month inquiry, involving an online consultation and oral evidence given to the cross-party group.

Appearance-related discrimination

Among other recommendations was a review into whether the Equality Act 2010 should be amended to include appearance-related discrimination, which would be put on the same legal basis as race and sexual discrimination.

Jo Swinson MP says 1.6m people in Britain are suffering from eating disorders

Under the current act, people can be prosecuted for verbal abuse if it is considered to be serious enough.

If this was amended it would be a offence to harass someone because of their appearance, for example by drawing attention to their weight.

APPG chairwoman, Jo Swinson MP, said there was a "definite problem" with body image and that has "serious consequences".

"It's something which has existed for a long time... but in terms of the scale of it, that is what is new, and it is being driven by the proliferation of media imagery portraying a so-called 'perfected ideal' that is entirely unattainable for the vast majority of people," she told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme.

'Major barrier'

The inquiry found evidence that suggested body dissatisfaction in the UK was on the rise.

It is a key factor in health and relationship problems and low-self esteem, the report, co-authored by health and education charity Central YMCA, said.

Start Quote

It is clear there is something seriously wrong in society when children as young as five are worrying about their appearance”

End Quote Rosi Prescott Chief executive, Central YMCA

The report suggested it is also a major block to progression at school and work.

Children often reflected their parents' own body-related anxieties, the evidence suggested, while appearance is the greatest cause of bullying in schools.

Body dissatisfaction, the report said, is a problem that affects people regardless of age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, body size or shape.

However, the evidence suggested young people and children were particularly vulnerable to anxiety over their bodies.

Parents were one of the main influences on children - but peer groups became a stronger influence by secondary school age.

About half of girls and up to a third of boys have dieted to lose weight, the report said.

More than half of British people have a negative body image, a study by the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, quoted by the report, found.

Eating disorders

The inquiry - which heard from academics, magazine editors, company chief executives, the public, and other experts - also heard that:

  • Wiping out dieting could stop 70% of eating disorders
  • More than 95% of people on diets regain the weight they lose
  • 1.6 million people in the UK have eating disorders
  • Up to one in five cosmetic surgery patients could suffer from body dysmorphic disorder
  • One in three men would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body
  • One in five people have been victimised because of their weight

The report made a series of recommendations, including:

  • The need for mandatory body image and self-esteem lessons for children at primary and secondary school
  • Requiring advertisers to run long-term campaigns that reflect consumer desire for "authenticity and diversity"
  • Using "weight-neutral" language for public health messages
  • Reviewing broadcast and editorial guidelines on reporting on body-image issues
  • Reviewing the evidence base that supports dieting
  • Creating a new set of regulations controlling cosmetic surgery advertising
  • Introducing screening for potential cosmetic surgery patients
  • The possible amending of the Equality Act to include appearance-related discrimination

Ms Swinson told the BBC the media and companies should take "positive steps to show a greater diversity and authenticity in the images we are bombarded with on a daily basis".

The Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire also said a form of kite-marking as a reward for organisations that take action would be welcome.

Central YMCA chief executive Rosi Prescott said: "It is clear there is something seriously wrong in society when children as young as five are worrying about their appearance."

The inquiry was conducted between 24 November 2011 and 24 February 2012.

It consisted of an online consultation and 10 evidence sessions where witnesses representing organisations with an interest or association with body image gave evidence at the House of Commons. In total, the online consultation had 601 submissions.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    "is it not dangerous to dumb down language regarding body image and therefore stray into making obesity acceptable?"

    Yes, but 68% of voting population overweight

    Its already acceptable and as for expecting Government to come out strongly in a democracy won't happen - unless opinion polls tell them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    Im so glad this is being addressed. Everyday we are blasted with images designed to make us feel bad about the way we look just so we feel the need to buy buy buy. Parents can try to instill confidence in their children but who are they to compete with the millions of adverts and pressure we encounter everyday. We need a culture change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    As a 17 year old still in education, I can understand the worry of body image issues. The problem however is not one to be resolved with neutralising language. The issue lies in children who don't understand that being a normal weight is right, but being over weight is dangerous. is it not dangerous to dumb down language regarding body image and therefore stray into making obesity acceptable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    at Nick Ebrell..It's the Problem-reaction-solution scenario are so right. If children are taught about body image, maybe they could change the face of advertising in the future? Although i wish something would be done now. Advertising is all about commercial/capital gain and the high prices for advertising space does little for the local retailer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    at Gort2012, thanks for saying 5ft isn't that short, i don't feel so short now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    We live in a commercial society and commerce works best when people feel bad about themselves, so they set about making us know we're less than perfect, then we fill that void with materialism. Kerching!
    Gok Wan etc don't help by saying everyone can be gorgeous. Most people aren't. I on though am and therefor get to date the beautiful. Good luck with your next purchase and your ugly kids folks!

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    @352 Adam - I wouldn't like to see this happen. Apart from the fact that removing smaller sizes would be hugely unfair to naturally thin women, a modern size 8 isn't actually that small. I'm 5'2" and a healthy weight, and take a 6 in some high street stores - but in 1950s sizes I'm a 10-12. It's just arbitrary vanity sizing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    359. milvusvestal
    It's not always the parents' fault. Kids see hundreds of adverts everyday promoting "ideal" images that they can't help comparing themselves with. The lessons in school would help them realise that people don't actually look like that and it's fine to be different

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    "i can't make myself taller. This has effected me in a lot of situations."

    5ft isn't that short.

    But you highlight a real issue of fixing the wider bullying issues.
    it's regarded as progress because a school bully ends up leading a normal life but they can still have a net -ve effect from their life.

    I don't think self-esteem lessons are a fix for lost opportunities from bullying

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    The faces and bodies of all models in advertising - whatever their diversity - are ridiculously airbrushed, to look like CG or plastic figures. Until pictures of real, natural people become the normal images that we see, there'll be no easy escape from body-image problems. But then, we could use all the money we waste on pointless 'beauty' products to give destitute 3rd world children some food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    At Adam, I was clothes shopping yesterday and saw size 6 clothing in the women's section. So if there is a standard code of conduct in clothes sizing it seems size 6 is now accepted as the lowest size. Either that or the clothes lines are breaking that rule.

  • Comment number 364.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    I thought austerity would have stopped all this.

    Do our MP's have so little to do that they spend 3 months considering to ban dieting?

    If we want thinner people then make fatty foods more expensive. Let's start with hot pasties perhaps. DOOOOH.

    Thanks to the media outcry we ALL now have to pay more tax to fund fat people's healthcare, instead of them paying on an "as you eat it" basis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    it's not just weight issues, i am 5ft 1 and i have been taunted for my height..i can't make myself taller. This has effected me in a lot of situations. Self esteem lessons can help on many levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    One would think that MP's have better things to do than discuss this non-issue. It is natural to compare oneself to others - that is how fashion works and is based on the human psych of (generally) not wishing to be different from the considered 'norm'. True the problem is exasperated by modern media, but if body size/looks were not the issue then perhaps left-handedness would be (historically).

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    Self esteem to be taught in schools !
    Just follow the example of the teachers. They never seem to be short of self esteem!

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    For heaven's sake - it is not the responsibility of school teachers to educate pupils about image unless, of course, the government has decided to add Body Presentation as another pointless subject for a university degree. Blame the parents for spoiling their children, and allowing them to acquire a distorted view of their physical appearance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    Using "weight-neutral" language for public health messages is stupid. how would you tackle obesity without using the "O" word and causing confusion?

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    Judging by the comments school is not the right place to teach children about body image. It is however time that parents realise that children are children and not minature clones of themselves. I saw a mother and daughter recently who werre dressed very alike and the daughter was wearing high heels and make up. I would estimate that the girl was about eight years old. Who is to blame for that

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    Sylvia D
    "this body image thing could be stopped in its tracks if the celebs and media , would show folk how they really are"

    Sadly, this is not the case since too many celebrities are there purely on the basis of looks or a realty TV program.

    There's a need to highlight more people for real talent. The problem is the only current example used is sport where even some athletes on drugs.


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