January 9, 2013, by ICCSR

Still Avoiding Responsibility: Business and Body Image

A recent publication by Steve Biddulph, Raising Girls, has received plenty of press coverage this week, as he claims that girls are facing a barrage of toxic messages through advertisements, TV programs, and other media outlets. This comes at a time when  resurgent feminist groups are demanding that the ‘traditional’ topless models on Page 3 of The Sun newspaper be banned, and MPs such as Jo Swinson are pulling adverts that are deemed too photo-shopped, on the basis that they are misleading and create negative body image. Oh, and let’s not forget the debate around the gender stereotyping in Asda’s Christmas advert…

While the coverage of these news stories can all too quickly provoke the usual justifications of ‘sex sells’ and the old favourite ‘we’re only giving the customer what they want’, our culture of 24/7 perfection has serious consequences for all of us, but especially teenage girls and boys. It is foolish to lay the blame on media and advertising for every case of another death caused by anorexia, or 14-year-old restricting himself to 800 calories a day, or the dangerous use of sunbeds in under-18s, or jump in the number of cosmetic surgeries, or just a general, ever-present feeling of inferiority. No, these things are multidimensional and are influenced by other factors too. But that does not eradicate the fact that business, through marketing and media dissemination, is complicit in these desperately sad situations.

Biddulph explicitly raises some sticky points with regards to the responsibility of business for negative body image and low self-esteem. He says that girls especially need ‘protection’ from the ‘greedy corporate world’. Perhaps this could be achieved through stronger laws, enlightened parenting, and more positive image enforcement through schooling. This seems to me, however, to be only half of what is needed. Wouldn’t it be better if at the same time forward-thinking business, especially those with a young customer base, did more for consumer well-being in the spirit of ‘protect, respect & remedy’ as championed by John Ruggie?

 Business can avoid using stereotypes based on gender, ability, age or ethnicity just by trying harder to reflect the very diverse real world they are operating in. For example, Dove (part of mega-corp Unilever) ran a hugely successful campaign ‘for real beauty’, using women of all colours and sizes to advertise its products. The Body Shop has been committed to a similar approach for many years. On the other hand, Lynx, a brand also owned by Unilever, continue to use women in underwear in sexually suggestive poses in their deodorant adverts; Lego has disappointed parents by launching a ‘Friends range’ completely dominated by pink bricks, and the trend for Size-0 fashion totters onwards on its weary stilettos. There is a yawning gap between marketing and CSR departments which needs addressing, especially when it comes to consumer well-being. Away-day anyone?

As January kicks in and corporations make billions on diet-products and gym memberships, it is worth questioning the ‘consumer sovereignty’ argument once more. Businesses exist in society and influence culture to such an extent that it is taken for granted. It is very difficult to challenge ingrained norms about what we consider beautiful and perfect, but not impossible. Business has a responsibility whether or not they like it, or are ready for it.

For more information, see this interesting, if depressing, blog: http://improvingbodyimageinthemedia.blogspot.co.uk

By Lauren McCarthy, Graduate Teaching Assistant & Doctoral Researcher at the ICCSR.

Image by: jamielondonboy Reproduced under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0  Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaimelondonboy/3194718509

Posted in THEMES in Better Business