“It’s not just that we see these images once, or twice, or even a hundred times. They stay with us and we process them mostly subconsciously… [They create] an environment that surround us with unhealthy images and that constantly sacrifices our heath and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be.” –Jean Kilbourne
Today’s diet culture is pervasive in nearly every aspect of a young person’s life. By the time a young woman reaches the age of 17, she has seen nearly 250,000 advertisements. While this fact is deeply saddening, it is hardly surprising. As Jean Kilbourne states, these images “sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy.” Advertisements perpetuate harmful beauty norms, creating a toxic culture of exclusivity.
As a grandmother, it truly breaks my heart to think that my granddaughters may become a part of the 78% of 17-year-old girls who are unsatisfied with the way they look, or that my grandsons may be a part of the 25% of men who participate in fad dieting on any given day. The idea that any young person should have to endure the suffering that comes with poor body image is troubling.
All hope is not lost though! In recent years, a few landmark companies, such as Aerie and their #AerieReal campaign, have been working to combat highly doctored advertisements and the toxic diet culture, which they breed. Additionally, many influential public figures are mobilizing in hope of fighting this same battle. For example, actress, activist, eating disorder survivor, and founder of I Weigh, Jameela Jamil has dedicated herself to taking these companies on through social media. Jameela recently compelled Facebook and Instagram to block minors from seeing advertisements selling surgical body enhancements and fad-diet products. Often marketed by proxy through popular celebrities and influencers who have likely spent millions of dollars on surgical body enhancements themselves, these advertisements peddle products that have been proven to be ineffective and that can actually cause serious physical harm. Jameela states that she had taken some of these products herself when she was suffering from an eating disorder, and that she will likely “never have [her] full health back.” Young people had previously been inundated with these advertisements anytime they logged into their accounts, so Jameela’s successful efforts to ban them are truly remarkable.
Check out more of Jameela’s advocacy:
Energized by this growing movement of body realism, and mobilized by the need for mental health to be at the forefront of legislation, I have committed myself to combating toxic diet culture via public policy. This is why, with the help of Harvard STRIPED and Dr. Bryn Austin I filed H.3892, An Act relative to mental health promotion through realistic advertising images. It is the first of its kind in the entire country and would provide a tax credit of up to $10,000 for cosmetic, personal care, and apparel companies that refrain from using digitally altered advertisements, which are defined as commercial images wherein a human model’s skin tone, skin texture including wrinkles, body size, or body shape are changed. Youth should not be subjected to photos of digitally altered models that set unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards. If we incentivize companies to make better decisions like using unedited photos of human models, we can accelerate the trend already set by companies like Aerie, Seventeen Magazine and CVS. This bill will hopefully spur companies to lean into the body confidence movement and realize that consumers would like to see themselves - their real selves - in the media.
Not only are we seeing unrealistic imagery of human bodies in the media daily, we are also sold products that are intended to help with diet and weight loss, but are instead weakly regulated and harmful. So in order to address this, I also work with STRIPED on H.1942, An Act protecting children from harmful diet pills and muscle-building supplements. If enacted, H.1942 would regulate the sale of dietary supplements that are marketed for weight loss and muscle building, banning the sale of these products to minors under the age of 18 years.
This bill would also move these products from open shelves to behind store counters, requiring consumers to request them directly from a pharmacist, manager or supervising personnel. Dietary supplements marketed for weight loss and muscle building have been associated with serious health risks, including organ failure, testicular cancer, heart attack, stroke and even death. Some supplements are tainted with illegal substances such as steroids, prescription pharmaceuticals and heavy metals. These ingredients can be detrimental to a person’s health - the exact opposite of what weight loss and muscle building products are marketed to do.
This issue directly corresponds to a third problem, which is insufficient oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Only after reports of a serious injury or death does the FDA take supplements off shelves. In that sense, the current FDA system supports a reactionary, rather than preventive regulatory framework, which fails to adequately protect consumers. Many people (particularly youth) are unaware of the risks associated with dietary supplements for weight-loss and muscle building. I am hopeful that, if passed, this bill would prevent our developing youth from gaining access to harmful substances and allow us to implement better regulations to offer effective guidance to the general public on the risks associated with these products.
I cannot bear to watch children continue to be bombarded with ads and products that are harmful to their physical and mental health. As Dr. Austin has pointed out, it is these societal and cultural trends that contribute to eating disorders. Both bills will ultimately help ensure the well-being of children. I urge you all to reach out to your state legislator and ask for their support on H.3892 and H.1942.
Being able to offer legislators and agencies your real-life stories is powerful. It provides the push to address this issue urgently -- which is just one among so many others vying for legislators’ attention as over 6,000 bills were filed this session.
Please testify when the bills go before committee hearings. Meet with the committee chairs and members and urge others to do the same. This cultural transformation certainly is not going to happen overnight, but it is my goal to take another step towards it. I hope you join the cause.
Sign up to advocate with Harvard STRIPED: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/striped/.