Release type: Speech


Speech at the launch of the Australian Government's response to the Body Image Advisory Group


The Hon Kate Ellis MP
Minister for Early Childhood Education, Child Care and Youth

Thank you all for being here today to show your support for the Government’s efforts to tackle the very serious problem of negative body image – a problem that affects far too many Australians and most particularly young Australians.

The number of young Australian men and women who feel negatively about the way they look is reaching epidemic levels.

  • Body image is consistently ranked in the top three concerns for 15 to 19 year olds in Australia’s largest survey of young people.
  • Research shows us that more than 75 per cent of teenage girls and 50 percent of boys report being dissatisfied with their bodies.
  • And about half of the girls and a third of the boys who are in a healthy weight range believe they are overweight.

And these feelings of inadequacy can have a devastating effect on our young people. Eating and anxiety disorders, depressions, self harm and social isolation are just come of the very serious health consequences of negative body image.

Body image is not about what clothes someone wears, it is not even about how they look – it is about how people see themselves.

And the reality is that body image is about more than a group of friends going out shopping and one of them complaining about the size of her thighs.

This is about reports that kids as young as six are worrying about how many calories are in their play lunch. It is about teenage girls who are literally starving themselves to try and look like pictures of already thin models in magazines – pictures which have been digitally altered to make the model appear ever thinner than she could actually ever be.

Today we are faced with pressures that were never experienced before. We are bombarded with media images every day of our lives: we face the explosion of incoming messages from 24 hour advertisements, an ever expanding cosmetic surgery industry, extreme digital manipulation of images and a growing sense of normality being associated with eating disorders.

There is no question that this is a challenging issue - one that is further complicated by the fact that it is not the fault of any one group or industry. But it is an issue that we can and must take seriously, because it is affecting the health and happiness of substantial sections of our community.

That is why in 2009 I established the National Advisory Group on Body Image to advice the Government on the best way to tackle negative body image. That group - which consisted of representatives from the health sector, the media and fashion industries, academia and young people - reported back to the Government late last year. I want to thank them for their contribution and recognise those members of the Advisory Group who have been kind enough to join us today.

In a nutshell the Advisory Group’s report recommended that the Australian Government should take action in two key areas – firstly in education, to support individuals within their immediate social environment and secondly in industry and popular culture.

Today I am delighted to announce that the Australian Government will be working with schools, the community and industry to take forward some of the key recommendations in the Advisory Group’s report.

The Australian Government will be providing significant funding for The Butterfly Foundation, who as Australia’s leading national charity on eating disorders and negative body image issues, is ideally placed to undertake this critical educational work.

Funding will assist the Butterfly Foundation to significantly expand their body image education services for students. The Butterfly Foundation will be supported to develop training and workshop materials that cover areas including media literacy. We cannot change the world that we live in today – we can’t wind back the clock on technology, but what we can do is build resilience and confidence in our young people. These resources will help make sure that when a young person is watching an advertisement, they are media literate and understand what they are seeing and how to cope with it.

These resources will be piloted and evaluated by education and health experts prior to being rolled out to school teachers and counsellors across the country. Australian Government funding will mean that these resources will be distributed to around 2 500 educators who, through a ‘train the trainer’ approach will be able to reach over 100 000 young Australians.

The Australian Government will also be taking forward the Advisory Group’s recommendation that we create and distribute a ‘body image friendly checklist’ for schools. We want schools to be safe places, where students feel comfortable and confident to be themselves.

We will be commissioning Education Services Australia to further develop the checklist and produce a poster for school leaders, teachers, students and parents that promotes the importance of school environments being body image friendly. The Australian Government will provide these resources to every primary and secondary school in the country.

Education Services Australia will also create supporting materials for teachers and school leaders to make sure positive body image policies and practices become embedded in school culture.

Perhaps the most prominent recommendation of the Body Image Advisory Group was to draft a Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on body image. The Code of Conduct provides a focal point that supports and encourages the positive moves already taking place within the fashion, beauty, media and modelling industries.

Now I know there will be naysayers who think that this Code won’t achieve any real change. But the reality is that there is already momentum in the industry on the issue of body image:

  • Sportsgirl fashion retailers have committed to training staff about using positive body language amongst themselves and with customers so that girls with bodies of all shapes and sizes feel comfortable to shop at their stores.
  • Dove beauty products are leading the way with the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign that dispels the myths around advertising and digital manipulation of images.
  • Late last year Women’s Weekly magazine ran a photograph on their cover of Body Image Advisory Group member and model Sarah Murdoch that had not been digitally enhanced and Dolly magazine have published an ‘air brush free’ issue; and
  • Magazines like Girlfriend, Cleo, Grazia and Cosmopolitan run special issues where they use ‘real models’ and encourage readers to love the bodies they have.

These are fantastic examples of what can be achieved when industry decides to take a stand.

But this is still not enough. We can and we must do better.

Today I am calling on industry professionals to move beyond the ‘business as usual’ approach and the occasional nod to promoting positive body image. I am asking industry to embrace this voluntary code of conduct and to be open and innovative in how to integrate the goals of the Code into their business practices. I am asking on behalf of all the teenagers who have suffered as a result of body image pressures, including those whose long term health and wellbeing has been forever damaged.

I said earlier that negative body image is a problem that is complicated because it is not the fault of any one group or industry – it is also a problem that cannot be solved by any one group or industry. It is only through working together and in partnership: Government, health professionals, fashion, beauty and media industry and the community to drive long term cultural change.

I have said all along that the Government does not want to work against industry on this issue – we want to work in partnership. We are not implementing a Code of Conduct that is compulsory and we are not taking legislative action to punish those who do not comply. That is not what we are trying to achieve.

Instead the Government is encouraging industry leadership, genuine commitment and real action to support positive body image. Today I am announcing that the Australian Government will be establishing a new national body image friendly awards scheme to support the principles of the Voluntary Code of Conduct and encourage positive action from the industry.

Criteria for these awards will be developed in consultation with the industry and with health experts over the coming months. Organisations will be able to apply for the awards each year and I will be appointing an expert panel to judge the awards. This panel will include representatives from the health sector, industry and youth representatives. I am delighted that Mia Freedman, previously the Chair of the Body Image Advisory Group, online blogger and columnist and former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine has agreed to Chair this new panel.

There will be two categories of awards. The first category will recognise specific body image friendly initiatives or products, such as an industry campaign to increase young people’s media literacy or a magazine special that includes no airbrushing. The second category of awards, which will be uncapped, will recognise those in the industry who demonstrate meaningful and ongoing integration of the principles contained in the Voluntary Code of Conduct into their business practices and policies.

Significantly those organisations who are recognised with these awards will earn the right to carry a ‘Body Image Friendly’ symbol. Winners will be able to display this symbol for the year following their recognition and use it in their advertising and promotion. This symbol will be a message to consumers that the organisation or product is a leader when it comes to positive body image.

I have great pleasure in unveiling this new symbol today.

I believe this symbol has great potential to become a point of differentiation for products being sold in the market. I hope that the industry embraces this new Voluntary Code of Conduct and the supporting awards scheme so that this symbol becomes a lucrative marketing tool – a signal to consumers about what your product or brand stands for.

This symbol is a win for consumers. It will give them the opportunity to tell the fashion, beauty, media and modelling industries what they want – that they no longer want to see already thin models who have great chunks digitally cut out of their thighs to appear even thinner, that they no longer want to buy products advertised by male models who have had extra muscles photoshopped onto their bodies.

In 2011 when the symbol is first awarded, I hope to be able to go to a newsagent and watch a teenage girl deciding between two magazines. She likes the actress on the cover of Magazine A better, but she prefers the headline story in Magazine B. It’s a touch choice – but she’s going with Magazine A because that magazine carries the body image friendly symbol.

Importantly, this symbol will also highlight to young people all over the country that the images they see in magazines are not real and that healthy bodies are what is beautiful.

Negative body image is one of those issues that tends to excite a whole lot of strong opinions. And those opinions are usually delivered with a level of ferocity otherwise reserved for footy grand final week.

I have no doubt that in the coming days there will be critics who think this new awards scheme and symbol will amount to nothing. That is possible.

But I do not think it is probable.

I am heartened by the presence here today of leading Australian women’s magazines, the presence of a commercial modelling agency, the presence of beauty retailers – industry organisations who are already standing up for real action on this important issue. And I believe we are going to hear the announcement of some exciting new actions from the magazine industry today.

I would like to take this opportunity to once again express my appreciation to the members of the Advisory Group. The thoughtful and highly professional approach you brought to crafting your report and advising the Government made it a pleasure to work with you.

I would also like to pay tribute to the many other young people, community organisations, teachers, youth workers and parents who are promoting positive body image in Australia - some of whom are here today.

I know that all of us, by working together, will be able to make genuine progress to overcome this insidious problem that is blighting the lives of too many young Australians.