UK Government Weighing In on Body Image Issue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whippet-thin, with silky hair, ebony eyes and soldier-straight teeth, and still 15-year-old Priya Makwana is dissatisfied with her classic good looks. How can that be?

That is the point, Makwana and other teenagers told a government-sponsored Body Image Summit on Wednesday. The modern ideals of beauty and, above all, thinness--set by fashion designers, modeling agencies, advertisers and the media--are impossible to meet.

"We feel we're not up to their standards," Makwana said.

Curly blond hair and blue eyes aside, Tracey Rhodes added that at 15 she has all but given up her dream of becoming an actress because of her appearance. "I don't think I'll get there because I don't have the right image, which is slim, trim and absolutely gorgeous," Rhodes said. "I really can't stand the way I look."

That so many young women lack confidence and experience self-loathing will not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time around teenagers and university students. That a government is taking an interest in this growing problem probably will.

The conference follows a report by the British Medical Assn. published this month charging that the fashion industry's use of "abnormally thin" models is at least partly to blame for the epidemic of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia among women. It said that catwalk queens tend to have 10% to 15% body fat compared with 22% to 26% for the average, healthy woman.

Needless to say, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is not taking a position against popular women's magazines or the profitable fashion industry in a preelection year. But it is trying to foster debate about an issue close to the hearts of many women.

"Our role is to act on what we hear to stimulate debate, rather than to offer a prescription for the perfect size or to regulate industries," said Tessa Jowell, the government's minister for women, trying to preempt any attacks on what some call Blair's "nanny state," for its perceived intrusion into the home, schools and workplace with health and safety regulations.

The list of participants included an impressive array of fashion editors, photographers and agents who heard the plea for what the young Makwana called "natural models--not models who don't exist, whose pictures have been airbrushed in the computer."

And some were even listening.

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Liz Jones, editor of the British edition of Marie Claire, said the fashion magazine industry plans talks on the topic with an eye to adopting a code of self-regulation that would ban unhealthily thin images and promote a wider range of shapes and sizes in their pages.

"The stylists, editors, people who make pictures want to do something practical," Jones said. "The fashion world is a rarefied world and I think it has become a bit divorced from reality. We are powerful institutions and we can have huge effects all the way down the line."

Already attuned to the body image problem, Marie Claire published two versions of its June issue: one with the skinny and surgically enhanced actress Pamela Anderson Lee on the cover and another with the more voluptuous model Sophie Dahl. The Dahl cover outsold Anderson by nearly 2-1.

Jones complained that the magazine had difficulty finding a diverse range of designer clothes to fit the larger Dahl for her photo shoot.

But even Jones would not go so far as to say that she would ban advertising with "super waif" or "heroin chic" models. Or to quit accepting ads for fat removal and breast reshaping that the magazine now runs.

Psychologist and author Susie Orbach, who was Princess Diana's guru in her battle against bulimia, welcomed the British government's acknowledgment of the problem of body image for young women.

"I don't think most people recognize how serious a problem this is for the majority of young women," Orbach said. "On a daily basis, girls and women feel tremendous anguish over their bodies and want them to be different. They manipulate their appetites, they ignore their hunger, they override all sorts of bodily functions which are entirely natural because they feel their bodies have to be a particular way--a way they cannot be."

Professionals such as Orbach recognize that the underlying causes of eating disorders are varied and complex, including low self-esteem, depression, childhood trauma and possibly genetic predisposition. But they feel that half-starved models exacerbate the common problem of a poor self-image, particularly among adolescents and young women.

Orbach said she wants "to extend the diversity of imagery so that young women can find themselves in the images" in advertising, the arts and media instead of feeling like outsiders and freaks because they do not.

Orbach and Jones both noted that the problem is being exported to developing nations suffering extreme poverty and malnutrition. An international conference of Marie Claire editors last month highlighted the rising rates of eating disorders among poor women in the likes of India, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil.

"We are exporting the fact that women should feel bad about themselves," Jones said.

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The BMA estimates conservatively that at any one time there are 60,000 people with eating disorders in Britain. But others have put the estimate at those suffering from the often-secret diseases at 1 million--that compares to about 5 million women and 1 million men in the United States, according to Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention Inc., a nonprofit organization.

Fashion and media experts all seemed to agree on the problem at the government summit. As for the solution, Jowell said, "No one pretends it is going to be easy."

To 15-year-old Rhodes, the answer seems obvious: "I want them to stop draining our self-confidence and to get some more normal people in the magazines so we can feel more normal ourselves."

Does she think they will?

"They say they will. We'll have to see the outcome," she said.

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