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Propagation of digitally enhanced body images is harming young people

News item

Monday 18 Nov 2013

Speech by Nessa Childers MEP to a Seminar on ‘Airbrushing – A Touchy Subject’; Hosted by Nessa Childers in conjunction with Bodywhys – the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland

Published 18 November, 2013

Often when people hear references to ‘eating disorders’ they tend to think of a stereotypical image of an emaciated young girl or young woman affected by anorexia or bulimia. However, it is important to be clear at the outset that eating disorders do not respect age or gender. Old as well as young may suffer from them, male as well as female. Indeed, it is important for those of us concerned about this issue to maintain our focus across the full spectrum of people affected.

On the specific aspect of young people, we are all aware of the tremendous pressures they face today – particularly the economic pressures. For example, the spiralling cost of third level education, then the unemployment and emigration that faces so many of them at the end of their formal education, as well as the completely cynical cutbacks – despite all the fine rhetoric – in social protection and other supports for unemployed young people. These issues they share with people of older generations as well as, of course, the vulnerability to eating disorders.

But there are additional challenges that young people face growing up and in adolescence that are specific to their situation whether in prosperity or poverty and no matter what culture they live in. These include the pressures on young people – boys and girls – to conform to particular cultural or social expectations in terms of their behaviour, dress or appearance. This pressure comes from peers and from the wider society.

The pressures are there at a time when our young people are at their most vulnerable psychologically and when they are trying to establish an identity and a space for themselves as individual people. There is a lot of research now that confirms that young people feel additional pressure from the body images they see and read about in newspapers, magazines or in the electronic media. That is why the issue of airbrushed images in our magazines and newspapers is so important and why I have been highlighting it for some time now at European level. Airbrushed and photo shopped images of models, pop stars or celebrities hold out an impossible ideal to young people of how they should look. The subliminal message to them is ‘Conform or else…’

Failure to conform to these exaggerated images can result in depression, anger, under performance at school or college and, of course, eating disorders. We know that the causes of eating disorders are multifaceted but the pressures wrought by manipulated imagery in the media must be among them for some young people.

Obviously, in line with the Bodywhys vision, we need to ensure that people of any age or gender affected by eating disorders will have their needs met through the provision of appropriate, integrated, quality services delivered by a range of statutory, private and voluntary agencies. But also, as a society, we need to stake out a position which recognises that the propagation of digitally enhanced body images is harming young people – male and female. That is why I have been advocating for some time that there should be mandatory labelling of airbrushed photographs in magazines aimed at young people because of their harmful effects on self-esteem and in giving people a negative image of their bodies.

Media owners and editors need to reflect on what they could do to respond, and governments and the European Union need to come up with solutions to this serious health management issue.

Further information:


Manipulated by illusion: Video: From shoot to spread – the effects of Photoshop on a model shar.es/8T2CX