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Digitally Altered Body Images

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 15 September 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require advertisers, broadcasters and publishers to display a logo in cases where an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered in its proportions; and for connected purposes.

When I was 15 years old, I saved up all my pocket money to buy a multi-gym, with two goals in mind: the first, to improve my rugby; the second, to aspire to the physiques that I saw in the media—the likes of the Hoff in “Baywatch”. I spent hours working out. It definitely helped my rugby. I do not think that I ever made the grade, though, as a beach body Adonis. But the point is simply this: if my studies had not got in the way, if I had not had outside interests that caught my eye, perhaps, with the right diet and a perfect training regime and if I had been paid to do so, I might—just might—have been able to emulate them. At least it was physically possible.

However, here today, 20 years on, things have changed. With a click of a mouse. you can have bigger biceps. With a swipe of a thumb, you can have a slimmer waist. We are therefore creating a digitally warped reality, striving for bodies that can never be achieved. That is what I want to draw the House’s attention to today. Over the next few minutes I will set out the scale of the problem, what the Bill is intended to do, and why the Government and the House should support it.

Before entering the House I was a GP. I saw many patients suffering from low self-esteem, concerns over their body image. Patients would come in, desperate for diet solutions or a prescription for build-up drinks to make them get bigger. That was often tied up with anxiety and depression, and at worst, anorexia, bulimia or steroid abuse.

It is estimated that currently, there are about 1.25 million people suffering with anorexia and bulimia in the UK, and 1 million people using steroids or image-enhancing drugs. A survey of over 6,000 people, carried out last year by the Health Foundation, found that one in five adults and one in three teenagers felt shame about their body. Lauren Goodger, a celebrity, has spoken out about her anxiety when it comes to posting pictures of her body in social media. Spencer Matthews, of “Made in Chelsea” fame, has spoken candidly about his concerns about needing to bulk up, and turning to steroids to do so.

It is only human to want to compare ourselves with one another—our house, our car, our clothes and—possibly the oldest of them all—what we look like. Research carried out by the Florida House Experience showed that 87% of women and 65% of men compared themselves with pictures in the media. But what if what is shown in the media is not actually present in reality? Here lies the problem. We, society, are creating unrealistic and unachievable aspiration.

This very specific Bill is a small step to try and address that problem. Requiring advertisers, broadcasters and publishers to have a logo is a way of drawing viewers’ attention to the fact that all is not as it seems. It is not a call to ban; it is a call to inform. I do not want to stop people from removing red-eye on wedding photos or using filters to enhance lighting, but where the body proportions have been fundamentally changed, the viewer should know. This is a call for honest advertising, and we have a precedent for it already—we have the “P” showing product placement, disclaimers on political adverts and the, “Not actual game footage” notice on adverts for video games. This proposal is simply a translation of current practice into the digital world of body image.

Some detractors will argue, “This is the nanny state in action.” However, this Bill does not ban changes. It empowers the individual, giving them choice. Free marketeers will know that a perfect market needs perfect information, and this Bill is a step towards it. We do this in respect of physical health, with labelling on tobacco and food, and it gives people choice. Those who believe in parity of esteem between mental and physical health will see that this draws the two into line. The second set of detractors say, “That is all very well, but how can it be applied practically?” First, some countries already have similar laws in place, most notably Israel and France. Israel has the Photoshop law, which explicitly states that any airbrushing or editing on adverts must be labelled or people will face a fine. Similarly, France has legislation requiring the display of “photographic retouched” on edited images or people will face a fine.

The UK has the Advertising Standards Authority to regulate and enforce. It covers not only traditional media, but online media. In meetings with the ASA, the likes of Facebook and Instagram are all keen to stress how they proactively adhere to the ASA guidelines and, indeed, the law. Facebook already differentiates between content added organically—by a member of the public—and content added for commercial use. The latter is actively monitored and is held to a higher set of rules when it is published. Platforms such as Facebook for advertisers have algorithms to search for accounts using the platform for commercial activity. Therefore, if the law changes, the enforcement and adherence remains the same.

The big question is: what about social influencers? It is a grey area. I have already mentioned that the likes of Facebook automatically search for signs of commercial activity, and the industry is actively trying to determine how to define “social influencers”. Clearly, there is a distinct and tangible difference between having 100 followers and having 100,000 followers. This Bill will not answer that question, but neither does it have to. That is beyond the scope of this legislation and it is already being worked on by the industry, the ASA and the Competition and Markets Authority. In short, the industry draws a distinction between commercial and organic—the only question is: at what level? In conjunction, one further solution, building on what I have already set out, is to have a click-button declaration upon the uploading of the photo, whereby the user is asked whether the image has had its body proportions changed. If it has, a logo will automatically be applied. We already have a similar process when people are asked to declare the copyright when they upload an image, so why can the same thing not apply in this regard?

The UK has a strong and proven track record of self-regulation under the ASA, working within a legal framework. I see no reason why that would change under this Bill, so why should the Government and the House support it? I am glad to see the Minister, whom I thank for being here today. Ironically, my post about this subject has, organically, reached almost half a million people; there have been multiple stories in the national media about this topic and a big debate has been started since the mention of this law. Charities such as Girlguiding have come out in support of the cause. After all, research shows that 88% of girls between the ages of 11 and 21 want images to be labelled. The Bill commands support from across the House, and I am hugely grateful to the Chairs of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Select Committee on Women and Equalities for all seeing the value in this Bill and for supporting it.

Finally, what do I hope to gain from this Bill? I actually hope I will never see this logo, as advertisers, broadcasters and publishers do not feel the need to fundamentally alter the proportions, but if they do, I hope they are honest about it. I hope that those who are social influencers will not feel the need to change their images and, anecdotally, there are already reports in the press that the Bill would change habits. However, as someone who got married last year, I hope to be a father in the next year or two, so if this Bill is a small step that means my daughter is less likely to worry about her diet or my son is less concerned about building muscle in an aspiration that simply cannot be possible, I will rest a little bit easier. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Dr Luke Evans, Jeremy Hunt, Caroline Nokes, Julian Knight, Dean Russell, Simon Jupp, Neale Hanvey, Sarah Owen, Chris Elmore, Dr Lisa Cameron, Jim Shannon and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.

Dr Luke Evans accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 180).