Five photos that sparked body image debates

By Lucy Wallis
BBC News

  • Published
Dove real beauty ad campaign from 2004

Body image is constantly being debated but there are some photographs that have caused intense discussion about the aesthetic ideals we impose on ourselves and others.

Ahead of the BBC's series on body image, here are five of those images that sparked discussion.

Dove real beauty ad campaign

It was hailed by some as a radical idea - use "real" women with real curves instead of models to advertise beauty products.

The Dove Real Beauty campaign was launched in 2004 and sales soared as women apparently identified with the variation in body shapes. The skincare brand's campaign had the stated aim of encouraging women to feel more confident about their bodies.

Teacher Emma Darwish (far right in the image above) appeared in the original campaign after responding to an advert in Time Out magazine. At the time of the launch she was lecturing at an FE college.

"I was about to teach 16-17-year-olds vocal technique in a studio and right outside was a picture of me grinning in my underwear. I got a number of second glances and remarks from fellow lecturers and students over the next few weeks, but it was always good humoured and positive."

Although she felt a little self-conscious on the day of the shoot, appearing in "unflattering" underwear, Darwish would like to see more real women represented in advertising campaigns and fashion magazines.

"We are constantly bombarded with media images that are simply unattainable to the majority of women," says Darwish. "Most worryingly is the effect these images are having on our youth."

Some pundits noted at the time that Dove could have been accused of being hypocritical, celebrating diverse beauty but at the same time marketing a "firming" cream to try to tackle cellulite.

But there were those who said the campaign served a useful purpose even though parent company Unilever also marketed products like Axe, and others, using much more stereotypical notions of beauty.

You may have come across the image of 28-year-old former Paralympic ski racer Josh Sundquist on Twitter. It's the ultimate before-and-after shot.

On the left you have a downcast looking man in an ill-lit room, while on the right you have a grinning man with an almost ludicrously chiselled physique.

The photograph has prompted much discussion over its provenance, with Photoshop "experts" suggesting it must be fake.

It's something that frustrates Sundquist.

Diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer when he was nine years old, Sundquist had his left leg amputated a year later. As a child he felt so self-conscious he was afraid to go to a public swimming pool in case other people stared at him.

After he retired from skiing, Sundquist wanted to lose a few pounds and entered the Body for Life challenge, a contest which requires entrants to take before and after photographs. He spent 12 weeks working out before posing for the "after" picture.

"Maybe what is interesting about my Body for Life picture is that in terms of fitness I have come close to the ideal of what people imagine a male physique should look like while at the same time missing one fourth of the limbs that you are supposed to have," says Sundquist.

"The comments you get most frequently are people saying, 'wow if this guy can do it with one leg, if he can get in that good a shape then I have no excuses with two legs," says Sundquist. "So I think it's really been a big inspiration to people."

Sundquist has responded to those in the online community who argue that the image must have been Photoshopped.

"Everyone says 'oh it's fake, he doesn't really have one leg, or there's no way someone can make that kind of physical transformation'," says Sundquist, who is now a motivational speaker.

"To be honest I kind of think that some people look at it and they are like, this is so unbelievable, it's too good to be true, and in some ways they don't want to admit that it is a possibility for a person to do that," says Sundquist, "because if it was then they might have a responsibility to get in really good shape themselves."

It was a photograph on page 194 of the US edition of Glamour magazine that propelled 24-year-old plus-size model Lizzie Miller to fame. Revealing her stomach and stretch marks, the image captured attention for showing a beautiful woman with a "real stomach".

"It was insane to me how quickly this picture spread, like wildfire," says Miller.

Miller had posed for the photo shoot in 2009 and although the picture was only featured towards the back of the magazine, accompanying an article about self-image, the messages Miller received from the public were overwhelming.

"The sweetest one that I actually got was from a girl's boyfriend... thanking me... saying that he had always told his girlfriend that she's beautiful but she never believed him," says Miller. "I just thought it was so sweet that this man saw the beauty in his girlfriend, but so many women don't see the beauty within themselves."

Even as a plus-size model Miller says she still faces sizeism in the fashion industry and was recently not chosen for a job because a client said her "legs were too big".

"If you're bigger honestly than a size six [US size six usually converts to a UK size 10] they'll put you on the plus-size board which is really sad," says Miller. "I feel like the fashion industry always goes to that extreme. Models who are size zero and two are actually modelling clothes for women that are actually size six to eight. So I feel like with us, we're size 12-14 but really we're modelling for girls that are 16-20."

Miller chose to ignore any negative comments from personal trainers suggesting more sit ups could help her get in shape.

"My body frame will never be smaller than a certain size," says Miller. "I just know that I'm big-boned and I'm athletic and I just don't feel like the media shows the different body types".

Reportedly weighing just five stone (32kg) and at 5ft 4in tall (1.65m), French model Isabelle Caro posed naked for a fashion label's anti-anorexia campaign in 2007.

Her gaunt face and emaciated body, ravaged by the eating disorder, appeared on billboards and in newspapers during Milan fashion week. At the time, concern was growing about the use of excessively thin models on the catwalk. It was reported that Caro wanted to focus attention on the problem of anorexia.

"My anorexia causes death," she said in an interview in 2007. "It is everything but beauty, the complete opposite. It is an unvarnished photo, without make-up. The message is clear - I have psoriasis, a pigeon chest, the body of an elderly person."

The image, shot by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani for fashion house Nolita, was banned by Italy's advertising watchdog, but provoked fierce debate online after going viral. Susan Ringwood, chief executive of eating disorders charity Beat, says images - like that of Caro's - can actually do more harm than good, as scare tactics do not work.

"The assumption is that people with eating disorders can be shocked into recognition of their condition and therefore into eating again," says Ringwood. "Eating disorders are more hardwired and biological than was known to be the case until research began to show genetic, brain-based and hormonal factors at play.

"People with anorexia can know that they are at risk of dying, and can find that less terrifying than the prospect of gaining a few pounds in weight.

"Most seriously, these images we find so shocking, don't shock someone with an eating disorder. They excite, encourage and motivate them to get as thin, if not thinner than the person depicted."

Caro died in 2010 aged just 28, but her haunting image remains contentious.

There was a time when a mum-to-be might conceal her figure in baggy clothes to try and disguise her ever expanding shape. Then along came Demi Moore.

The actress posed nude on the front cover of Vanity Fair magazine while seven months pregnant. The "Demi" effect was dramatic, and now you will find the walls of many High Street photographic studios festooned with images of expectant mothers in the "Demi" pose.

The Hollywood star gave birth to a series of copycat magazine photo shoots when she posed for her cover shot in 1991, while pregnant with daughter Scout.

Only decades earlier maternity dresses tended to sport large bows at the neck to direct attention away from the baby bump - and the mother's femininity - but here was a public statement on a glossy magazine about the beauty of the pregnant female form.

Any shoot involving a pregnant woman, and even paintings - like that of Sienna Miller - are compared to Moore's.

There are still some who are not convinced by the change in the perception of pregnancy. Writer Antonia Hoyle, who is eight months pregnant, has argued many women feel pregnancy is far from an "aesthetically appealing state of being"..

"My legs look like link sausages without the links, and my hands like inflated rubber gloves," Hoyle said.

In an interview for Vanity Fair, photographer Annie Leibovitz, who took the iconic portrait, claimed it was not a "good photograph per se," but admitted the image definitely "had a life of its own".

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