A Tory MP is proposing the new law to combat rising cases of body image issues – but is it enough to make a difference when mental health services remain underfunded?
It’s not groundbreaking to say that photoshopped, facetuned, and airbrushed pictures of influencers can potentially have a damaging effect on our mental health – particularly our body image.
What is new is that an MP is now calling for new legislation which would require influencers to display a logo on any pictures of people that have been digitally altered.
Dr Luke Evans, former GP turned Tory MP, presented the Body Image Bill in Parliament on Wednesday. Under the proposed legislation, anybody being paid to post on social media would have to be “honest and upfront” about editing their bodies.
An announcement on Dr Evans’ website reads: “Edited commercial images do not represent reality, and are helping to perpetuate a warped sense of how we appear, with real consequences for people suffering with body confidence issues, which I’ve seen first-hand in my role as a GP.”
“My Private Member’s Bill would require advertisers, broadcasters and publishers to display a disclaimer in cases where an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered in its proportions for commercial purposes. This disclaimer would be similar to the ‘P’ symbol for product placement, for example, seen on commercial television in the UK.”
“Quite simply, if someone is being paid to post a picture on social media which they have edited, or if advertisers, broadcasters or publishers are making money from an edited photograph in any form, they should be honest and upfront about having edited it.”
It’s news which has been welcomed by eating disorder charity Beat. Speaking to Dazed, Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs, said that it’s great to see Dr Evans raising awareness of unrealistic body ideals on social media. “We hope that introducing this bill will help to make social media a more transparent place and reduce the pressure to try and achieve the perfect body,” he says.
Social media is not the root cause of eating disorders, and many experts believe that online communities can actually be beneficial to people in recovery. But digitally-altered images have the potential to help fuel body dysmorphia, especially as these types of pictures can lead people to aspire – consciously or unconsciously – to emulate bodies that aren’t even real in the first place.
Research proves this beyond doubt: The Royal Society for Public Health reported in 2017 that young people who are heavy users of social media are more likely to report poor mental health, while a survey published by Girlguiding in 2020 found that 54 per cent of girls said they have seen online adverts that made them feel pressured to look different.
“Whilst somebody wouldn’t develop an eating disorder just by seeing an edited image online, we know that being exposed to unrealistic body images online can damage self-esteem and cause further distress about their body for those who are currently unwell,” Quinn explains further. “The people we support have also mentioned using social media images as 'motivation' to engage in eating disorder behaviours, to try and achieve a particular body type.”
This is a serious, large-scale issue – Beat estimate that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – and Dr Evans is right to bring it to Parliament’s attention. However, the fact remains that Dr Evans’ party has been historically detrimental to people with eating disorders.
By 2018, the Tories had axed 6,000 mental health nurse roles. In 2020, the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that those living with severe mental illness including eating disorders were waiting up to two years for treatment. Most recently, in 2021 they found that the number of children and young people waiting for eating disorder treatment had reached record levels. Ultimately, this is symptomatic of NHS mental health services facing chronic underfunding.
“Sadly, the number of people needing eating disorder support has continued to rise during the pandemic, and NHS waiting lists are getting longer,” Quinn adds. “Frontline healthcare staff have been working tirelessly to help people with eating disorders, but quality eating disorder training must be provided, so that every member of staff has the tools they need to identify eating disorders quickly.”
He continues: “We’d also urge the Government to invest in eating disorder services and staffing, so that quality treatment is available for every person with an eating disorder.”
Essentially, if the Tories are serious about tackling body image issues and eating disorders, they should start by properly funding mental health services.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk