The editing of images is not a new phenomenon, we know that the advertising industry have utilised editing software in adverts for many years, but the snowball effect of this has undoubtedly had a real effect on the health of a generation.
In the last decade, the growth of influencer collaborations and sponsored posts on social media has added to the ever-growing list of tools advertisers have at their disposal, often using images which appear to be organic and natural to mimic ‘real life’ situations. In reality, these images have been secretly edited and strategically placed to capture our attention.
This, combined with the amount of time we all spend endlessly scrolling through social media, has created a perfect storm for our physical and mental health.
To help tackle this problem, I’m proposing a new law in Parliament - the Body Image Bill - that calls for commercial images featuring digitally altered bodies to be labelled with a disclaimer.
To put it simply, if someone is being paid to post a picture on social media that they have edited, they will be legally obliged to be honest and upfront about having edited it. The same goes for advertisers, broadcasters or publishers that are making money from an edited photograph of a body proportion in any form.
I’m not suggesting that we ban putting a nice filter over our pictures of brunch with friends.
I’m not suggesting that we ban putting a nice filter over our pictures of brunch with friends, nor that we can’t get rid of those red eyes on our night out snaps – but if you are being paid to post these pictures, or if you are making money from them, I am suggesting that you be prepared to be transparent.
It won't be difficult to do, in fact there's already a framework for it. Right now, there are ways influencers and advertisers are encouraged to be more responsible with their posts - when posting a paid promotion on social media, influencers, for example, must feature the label ‘ad’ somewhere in the post.
If they fail to do so, these influencers or advertisers can be forced to remove their post, or face further action. The vast majority have complied with these new rules, and I am confident that my Body Image Bill could work in much the same way.
This is important for me, not only as an MP but as a GP. I’m deeply concerned about the detrimental effect this relentless desire to edit away natural appearance is having especially on young people, who are spending more and more time on social media gazing at influencers and role models - some of whom have been pinched, swiped and filtered to unrealistic proportions.
It’s only natural to aspire to have similar bodies to these images which are edited to ‘perfection’. But in some cases, no matter how hard you try, it is physically impossible to achieve the body you see on your screen – no matter which HIIT workout you try, or whatever protein shake you drink.
In an episode of my upcoming podcast, I discuss the reality of what these warped beauty standards are doing to our mental and physical health, with two Ms Great Britain finalists who also work with young people.
Elle Seline, the first woman to compete make-up free, spoke about her own experience with an eating disorder. Elle told me she thinks there is not enough to showcase the dangerous reality of social media.
'It warped my sense of self and made me believe that’s how I was supposed to look,' Elle explained. 'I used filters on all my photos and edited my pictures because social media had made me feel like I needed to do that to be accepted. I became obsessed with getting as many likes and comments on my posts as possible, craving that validation, and very quickly my sense of self-worth was based solely on social media.'
Now, through her work as a mental health worker, Elle believes some of the main issues affecting young people today are body dysmorphia and low self-esteem.
My hope is that we never actually see the disclaimer because advertisers no longer feel the need to alter body shapes.
Through my work as a doctor, I too have seen a rise in the number of people who are worried about their body image. It plays into other health conditions like anxiety and depression, and in the worst cases it can lead to serious eating disorders - 1.25 million people in the UK are estimated to have an eating disorder, and lockdowns have undoubtedly caused the problem to grow.
When the unrealistic and ultimately unachievable goals set by edited images are inevitably not met, body confidence naturally deteriorates and self-confidence can be shattered. Research shows that 1 in 5 adults feel shame about their bodies, with that proportion increasing to 1 in 3 amongst young people.
My hope is that eventually, we as consumers and social media users, never actually see the disclaimer I am proposing because advertisers, broadcasters and publishers will no longer feel the need to fundamentally alter proportions or body shapes.
No new law will automatically make us feel comfortable in our own skin, but my Body Image Bill would help to promote greater transparency and accountability on social media, with healthier and more realistic representations of the way we look. To not act on this issue now would undoubtedly be a missed opportunity for our physical, and mental, health.
Dr Luke Evans is the MP for Bosworth. You can follow him @drlukeevans on social media, and support his #RecogniseBodyImage campaign here.