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Campaign takes on women’s body image and the media

By Signy Gerrard

When Canadian designer Mark Fast decided to include three models size twelve and above wearing his clothes at London fashion week in 2009, at least one stylist abruptly quit. But Fast pushed forward and put the models down the runway. The sight of women closer to the average North American woman’s size strolling down the runway was so unusual it gained coverage in worldwide media outlets and applause from audiences around the world.

Fast’s determination and the enthusiastic public reaction is the sort of attitude that gives encouragement to Merryl Bear, Director of the National Eating Disorders Information Centre. “There is a different sensibility emerging among the public,” she says “a backlash against the grotesque images in the media now.”

The ultra thin ideal that permeates today’s media negatively impacts women’s sense of self, Bear says, increasing their sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies and their likelihood of disordered eating. It links their physical appearance to their worth, suggesting that being thin means being desirable and successful in every area of life.


Addressing the media

Riding what they see as a wave of growing public dissatisfaction with ultra-thin images, NEDIC has launched a new public service campaign with Toronto agency Zulu Alpha Kilo. Based around the simple slogan “Cast responsibly. Retouch minimally” they aim to put pressure on the industries that create and distribute these unrealistic images.

With an arresting hot-pink theme reminiscent of the beauty magazines it’s taking on, the campaign has been literally bringing the message to the door of fashion leaders and marketers. A flowery greeting card mailed out to fashion editors and brand marketing directors across the country opens to read “Thanks for helping to make me such a successful anorexic” in elegant script. In a slightly more light-hearted touch, custom t-shirts were also delivered to the offices of major magazines. Reading “I’m a size negative 8,” they taper down to an impossible 10 centimetre waist, inviting the recipient to try them on and experience how their product makes the average woman feel about her body. Attached to both is the campaign message, ending with a request that the recipient pledge to present images that are more responsible, attainable and representative of the women who read their magazines.

Despite the campaign’s in-your-face approaches, Director Merryl Bear is clear that this is not about ‘blaming’ the media. They’re not the cause of eating disorders, she says, which have a wide range of factors, but they do send the message that you should be thin. And when we believe that there is a real link between being thin, over-controlled about food and weight and being happy and successful, we are more likely to develop disordered eating. This problem then resonates in the broader community – girls and women who are dissatisfied with their bodies are significantly less likely to engage in physical, social and academic activities, causing loss to their personal happiness, as well as to the social and economic fabric of their communities.

Many of the images currently in use, according to NEDIC, have a long way to go before they can be considered responsible. By focusing on such a narrow ideal of beauty, they are making a highly unusual – or nonexistent – body type seem like the norm.

Current advertisements encourage preoccupation with weight, leading readers to believe that if they just eat right, exercise right, and think right, they will be thin. The fact is that genetic factors contribute to the variety of body types Canadian women have. A more important emphasis should be on health, at whatever size the person naturally falls – and the current image is not encouraging health. A 2008 study of grade nine Canadian girls revealed that nearly one in five students in the normal weight range (based on BMI) believed that they were too fat, and a 2002 survey showed more than one in four tried in some way to lose weight.

While many advertisers argue that models need to be aspirational – and hence thin – in order to sell, evidence seems to be against them. According to research by Helga Dittmar published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, exposure to thin models resulted in greater body-focused anxiety among women, but the ad was no more effective. Women were affected by how attractive they felt the model was, regardless of the size. This implies that advertisers could, if they chose, use more diverse and larger models and succeed without increasing body image problems.

Designers, marketers, and media, feels Bear, “need to understand the broader context and implications of the work they’re doing. None of the fashion councils contest that their industry standard is damaging.” But while the issue has now at least drawn the attention of fashion leaders, what action they are taking is still unclear. In an interview on the campaign with the National Post, acting editor-in-chief of Canada’s Fashion magazine Bernadette Morra, said “The person you really should be asking [about using healthier models] is [ Vogue editor] Anna Wintour...She is the most powerful person in fashion. If she were to put her foot down about this issue, then designers would respond. But I highly doubt that’s going to happen.” Vogue has trumpeted their recent profile of “curvy” model Lara Stone; however she is still only a size 4, while more than 30% of Canadian women are now size 14 and up.

Wintour passes the responsibility back on to the designers, describing the “tyranny of clothes that fit, just barely, 13-year-olds on the brink of puberty” when discussing the issue at a panel at Harvard. Designers have publicly blamed agencies for providing only models of a certain size. Few of the groups responsible for creating the current standard of beauty seem to be willing to take ownership of its problems or accept the challenge of making change.

There are campaigns that Bear feels are moving in the right direction. As well as designer Fast, who has continued to show larger models in his spring runway show, she cites the well-known Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Dove is a sponsor of NEDIC, and she is careful to emphasize how choosy the organization is when accepting corporate sponsorship. To date, Dove is the only company in the beauty and self-care industry who has made the cut. These forward-thinking marketers and fashion leaders are still only a beginning, she says, but should be commended and encouraged to continue.

Bringing the campaign to the public

The campaign also aims help encourage the women and girls to think about the images they’re surrounded with. To help raise awareness, a transit shelter ad was put up at a prominent Toronto corner. The interactive ad doubled as a trash bin, showing piles of glossy women’s magazines through plexiglass, and inviting other women to “shed your weight problem here” by dumping their copies.

The campaign techniques all draw people to the NEDIC website, where they can find out more information, as well as sign a petition in support. The petition states that “I agree that fashion leaders and marketers should broaden their definition of beauty and inspire us with looks that are beautiful and attainable.” They ask marketers and others behind the creation of beauty image ideals to sign a pledge to show looks that are “beautiful and attainable by casting responsibly and retouching minimally.”

In the end, Bear hopes that women will help NEDIC bring the message to fashion leaders and marketers in a way they can’t ignore. “If they don’t consider the harm they’re doing, people will, and people vote with their pocketbooks.”

Signy Gerrard is the Director of Communications at the Canadian Women’s Health Network.

Visit to see more of the campaign and sign the petition