Nearly thirty million Americans struggle with a diagnosed clinical eating disorder. While these illnesses have complex causes, the overwhelming social pressure to be thin begins unthinkably early in life. 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991). By the time they turn ten years old, 81% of girls say that they are afraid of being fat, and by adolescence nearly 60% of girls – and 35% of boys – will engage in disordered eating behaviors including crash diets, fasting, purging, and even smoking cigarettes and taking pills to suppress their appetites.
Why do eight in ten of these little girls fear being fat, rather than the dark or clowns or spiders? It has a lot to do with the heavily altered advertising they are bombarded with basically from birth. Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape and 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight (Martin, 2010). In 2011, the American Medical Association spoke out against the digital manipulation of images used in marketing, encouraging “ad agencies to work with agencies devoted to child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for ads…The goal would be to discourage the altering of photographs that promote impossible-to-achieve expectations of body image and proportions” (Goldwert 2011). Unfortunately, these recommendation s have yet to gain significant traction in the advertising industry, aside from an occasional specialty campaign, such as Dove’s Real Beauty.
The pressure doesn’t end in adolescence either. Eating disorders are found across all age groups and races, though they effect women significantly more than men (hence my focus on women in this writing). 13% of women over age 50 show symptoms of an eating disorder. Clearly, the unrealistic, digitally altered advertising we all see has effects across age groups.
In recent years, however, a grassroots body positivity movement has gained traction in online communities, with supporters advocating for the labeling of Photoshopped or otherwise filtered advertisements, especially those featuring altered bodies or faces.
Those of us who plan to pursue a career in marketing will face any number of ethical dilemmas, but this will perhaps be one of the biggest questions in the future of advertising and branding. Do we continue using unhealthily thin models and then altering them even thinner, or do we look to represent a more diverse, realistic section of Americans in our advertising messages? Do we go on Photoshopping out every freckle and contouring every cheekbone to cut glass, or do we use faces that actually look like people using our products? I hope that those of us who are in the positions to make these decisions that have such an influence over the health of Americans carefully consider the options, rather than falling back on the filtered status quo.
National Eating Disorder Association http://www.neda.org