Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Pound of Flesh

"A strange equation, and an altogether too-common belief: One's worth is exponentially increased with one's incremental disappearance." -Marya Hornbacher, Wasted

"It was horrific seeing those beautiful women reduced to sticks. [...] It's like we're killing these women in public. We watch while you die." -Russel T. Davies

My first "real job" was as a copy writer/copy editor in the in-house advertising department of a locally-based department store called Gottschalks that has since gone out of business. It was a good job. I proof-read ads, wrote copy and worked with graphic designers to make sure the copy we wrote matched the graphics/photos they created. The photo studio was also in-house and I soon got used to beautiful people walking in and out of the office for photo shoots.

I was shocked, however, while standing in one of the graphic designers' cubicles, to find that photos of the already-thin, beautiful fashion models were being altered dramatically. Generous "slices" were taken off of all parts of their bodies right before my eyes. Small waists, hips, legs, arms and even faces were trimmed generously. It was not just this graphic designer; it was standard practice. Today I can still look at photos in ads and see the tell-tale signs of the chopping block: any outside lines that are blurry and not crisp have been altered. Try noticing this the next time you look at a magazine or newspaper ad. You'll see that the blurred lines are in all the places that normal, and even thin, women have curves.

I got mad all over again. You see, I had had an eating disorder that I'd gotten under control a mere two years prior, and truth be told, still did in my head (always will). Those women in those fucking ads had haunted me as I was growing up, taunted me and told me how much of a failure I was. To find out it was a lie, that they had had pounds of flesh removed with the drag of a mouse and a "click" while I spent days, weeks, months and years starving myself, running 3 miles even when I only consumed 600 calories a day, pinching pieces of myself between my fingers while I stood in front of the mirror, hating that I couldn't cut those pieces off. I remembered the A+ grades that were twice as hard to achieve because my brain was dulled and my head pounded. All those times I hung my head over a toilet, vomiting until there was nothing left in my stomach so that I could have a moment of feeling thin came back to me.

I'm not that unusual. 

The National Institute of Mental Health reports statistics that in real life mean:

-If you know 25 women, 5 of them have eating disorders
-4 of those are women between the ages of 12 and 25
-Of those 5, 1 will die of eating-disorder-related health complications
-Half of those 5 will never fully recover from their eating disordered behavior
-All 5 of those women are 12 times more likely to die than the other 15

And don't miss that these statistics are among women. That means if you are in a crowd of men and women, double the stats above.

It's no wonder. Every depiction of the female body in the media tells girls growing up that if they want to be beautiful, desirable, sexy, pretty, attractive and valuable they will be thin. These mind-boggling videos bring tears to my eyes when I think about my daughters and the other young women in my life.

An article which pictures Britney Spears in both "before" and "after" photos that she intentionally released makes the point that women have too much pressure put upon them to look not-natural. You'll see the arrows pointing to where the flesh was trimmed, cellulite removed and an already-beautiful shape morphed into what we would, without thinking, accept as an accurate-portrayal if we saw it in a magazine. Here is another pretty dramatic depiction of the "before" and "after" differences. Roll the mouse over each image to observe the differences.

Is there any hope? For years I didn't think so but in today's newspaper I found an article about some ground-breaking moves by the British government to curb the way the media's portrayal of women affects young women's view of themselves and their bodies in destructive ways. British government officials will be sitting down with members of the fashion industry next month and discussing ways to minimize the practice of airbrushing photos of women's bodies.

Fashion retailer Joseph of Montreal, Canada, will no longer be digitally altering body shapes in their advertisements. Read more of the story here.

These moves are not just important as they relate to the self-esteem of young girls who view magazines/advertisements/fashion shows. In November of 2006 a Brazilian fashion model died of infections caused by out-of-control anorexia and her family said she also struggled with bulimia. She was 5'8" and 88 pounds when she died. 

People are paying attention, it seems. Super-thin models were banned from Montreal's fashion week and encouraged to seek medical treatment. That story is here. A British study by fashion industry officials estimates that about 40% of models in the industry have an eating disorder, as compared to 3% of the general public (American stats are higher, it seems) and urge those with eating disorders be banned from London's fashion week. They are also calling for children under 16 to be banned from the catwalk. That story is here.

What can we do?

One of the things that is happening in the UK effort is advertisers are being urged to include a "disclaimer" similar to those that advertisers have to place on products like alcohol or cigarettes. This may be legalized, which would be fantastic, and will perhaps set a precedent the U.S. could be urged to follow. 

I called the FTC and the woman I spoke to clearly thought I was crazy to consider filing a claim against advertisers who airbrush photos. :)  She said she did not know of any such claims having already been filed but sent me to the website to type "airbrushing" into the search field. Nothing.

So I kept digging and found that, in fact, the FTC doesn't resolve individual consumer complaints. The upshot is that if they get enough complaints, they take notice.

Here's the list of things the FTC suggests if the consumer thinks a company is running an ad that is deceptive:
  • Explore your legal options under federal and state statutes that protect businesses from unfair competition. For example, the Lanham Act gives companies the right to sue their competitors for making deceptive claims in ads.
  • File a complaint with the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, if your competitor's ad is running nationally or regionally. The NAD is a private, self-regulatory group affiliated with the BBB. It investigates allegations of deceptive advertising and gives advertisers a mechanism for resolving disputes voluntarily.
  • Call your local BBB or file an online complaint with the Better Business Bureau if the ad is local. Many BBBs have procedures for resolving disputes between businesses.
  • Contact the radio station, television station, or publication where the ad ran. Let them know that they're running an ad you think may be deceptive.
  • Contact your state Attorney General's Office or your city, county, or state Office of Consumer Affairs. To get their phone numbers, check your telephone directory.
  • Contact the FTC. By mail: Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580; by telephone: toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP.

So far, I've filed a complaint with the FTC, which was easy and quick. Here's the consumer complaint form: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/FTC_Wizard.aspx?Lang=en

I don't think dealing with the FTC is going to be the most effective method of combating this, but it's a start. Ultimately, the changes that are being made in the UK are changes that require people thinking beyond "what sells" to "what's right." I believe human beings are very capable of making such choices, even when they are physically or fiscally difficult. This action in the UK is beautiful proof of this.

I'm going to continue to try to figure out the best way to go about this. I'm hoping to stumble upon an already-existent effort/group/cause to this effect.  If you know of anything like that please email me at cherylensomdack@gmail.com.

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