LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)-- Four years ago Hollywood marketing exec Seth Matlins had a rude awakening that prompted him to scrutinize the industry to which he'd devoted most of his career.
"When my daughter was 4, I began to look at the world through the eyes of a girl, and I was horrified," said the former executive for the Creative Artists Agency and Live Nation. "All I saw were the human-made obstacles to her happiness . . . so I left these fairly high-powered lucrative jobs. (Addressing) sexualization and objectification of girls and women is where I first started."
In 2010 Matlins founded FeelMoreBetter.com, his company to promote girls' self-esteem through an online forum, lobbying industry and media to change "the beauty culture" and selling T-shirts with the slogans "Not Photoshopped" and "Suck it Barbie," among others.
Matlins' organization, which carries the tagline "leading the fight against whatever hates on your happy," was instrumental in crafting the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014. Introduced in March, it calls for Federal Trade Commission regulation and reduction of the use of substantially altered images in advertising, as well as comprehensive independent study of the effects of these images on body image, and mental and physical health.
"These ads are weapons of mass perfection and their casualties are stark," Matlins posted in a Change.org petition asking the public to write their representatives in support of the bill. "Fifty-three percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies; by the time they are 17, 78 percent will be. In fact, the three most common mental health issues amongst girls--eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem--can be linked to the images they see of themselves in the media."
"If you want to remove a tattoo, go ahead," Matlins said in a recent interview, referring to the kind of appearance alteration in ads that the bill does not concern. "We're only concerned with shape, size, proportion, color or the enhancement or removal of characteristics . . . When you show Julia Roberts at almost 50 with skin of a 20-year-old, that's not real."
Tools to Separate Fact, Fiction
"We need to give young people the tools they need to distinguish fact from fiction," said U.S. Rep. Lois Capps of California, a Democrat, who is cosponsoring the bill with Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Rep. Ted Deutch, both of Florida. "This bill is a first step."
The bill, which doesn't currently have a scheduled date for review, is supported by advocates for women and girls, health professionals and eating disorder support organizations.
Opponents argue the bill raises First Amendment concerns and demonizes advertising.
The Association of National Advertisers and the American Advertising Federation also say making such policy law is unnecessary. Federal Trade Commission policy already prohibits deceptive advertising practices and legislating the creative content of ads is a slippery slope, these critics say.
"The FTC has the authority to stop (advertisers') false, deceptive or unfair acts or practices," said Daniel Jaffe in a phone interview. He is executive vice president for government relations of The Association of National Advertisers, based in Washington, D.C.,
If, for example, an advertiser were to edit before and after photos to exaggerate a weight-loss product's effectiveness, the Federal Trade Commission could intervene, Jaffe said. But the proposed law "sweeps way too broadly.
"When is somebody . . . too beautiful or too tall?" Jaffe asked, adding that while he appreciates body image concerns, "this legislation is not going to solve the problems they're concerned about."
Supporters, however, point to the evolution of technology and its effect on advertising culture as one reason to reboot regulation.
"There is more advertising now than ever before – on the Internet, in schools, on the train and airplane, it's inescapable," said Jean Kilbourne, creator of the "Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women" documentary series.
Frenetic Media More Shocking
The frenetic nature of today's multiple media sources has driven advertisers to be more shocking, Kilbourne said.
Kilbourne has studied ads for nearly 40 years and said that the content of today's advertising is also more troubling than it was 10 or 20 years ago; with thinner ideal body images, increased sexualization of children and "the mainstreaming of porn" in advertising, thanks to the pervasiveness of Internet porn.
Today's sophisticated photo technology also allows advertisers to easily make a model's eyes bigger or waist tinier. They can seamlessly cut-and-paste body parts between models, creating anatomically impossible bodies, Kilbourne said.
Kilbourne and other media critics point to a 2009 Ralph Lauren ad in which the photo is edited so that the model's head appears to be bigger than her size-zero waist as a particularly troubling example. The actual model pictured was a size eight. The company subsequently apologized for the photo.
These images are powerful and confusing for young people, said Nancy Gruver, founder and publisher of New Moon Media for girls, based in Duluth, Minn. She is also a director at Brave Girls Alliance, an online think tank, advocacy and lobbying group for girls' empowerment.
"Kids believe what they see. That's the way their brains work. It's the way human brains work," Gruver said. "Bodies Photoshopped every day in ads, on Facebook . . . is extremely damaging to the sense of reality about their bodies children need as they are growing up. Their bodies are at the center of who they are in the world."
Ubiquitous altered images in advertising and media are also connected to a sharp increase in plastic surgery during the past decade, said Vivian Diller, a New York-based psychologist and author who writes on body image, in a phone interview.
"Many of the young media icons have their bodies altered by plastic surgery," Diller said. "Kids go to parents, 'I want my breasts to look like that.' The distinction between what is real and what's not real is (distorted), and plastic surgery is no longer the domain of the rich and famous."
Jump in Eating Disorders, Plastic Surgery
More than a decade of research studies and statistics support the detrimental effects of unrealistic body images in advertising and media. Among them: the average fashion model is 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 117 pounds, while women ages 18-34 have a 1 percent chance of being as slim as a supermodel. Sixty-nine percent of girls in one study reported that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders and Healthy Place mental health education forum.
Additionally, about 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from eating disorders, and the number of new cases of eating disorders has increased steadily since the 1950s, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
Since 1997, there has been an almost six-fold increase in the total number of surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures, with women accounting for 91 percent of all surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures; the top three cosmetic surgical procedures are liposuction, breast augmentation and eyelid surgery, according to About Face, a San Francisco-based media literacy organization.
Under the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, the Federal Trade Commission would be required to "submit a report to Congress that contains a strategy to reduce the use in advertising . . . of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted."
HR 4341, as the act is known, also calls for a review by "stakeholders and experts (from) the physical and mental health, business and consumer advocacy communities" to report on the effects of such altered images on consumers.
In 2011 the American Medical Association adopted a similar policy on "Body Image and Advertising to Youth" to "encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements."
Supporters of the bill, sensitive to free-speech concerns, say advertising is different from other media because it is designed to create anxiety in consumers.
"What motivates people to make buying decisions is fear, anxiety, need," New Moon Media's Gruver said. "Advertisers market products to relieve fear."
Some products, such as smoke alarms or fire ladders, are easier to market as real remedies for real fears, Gruver said.
But when the products are clothing, unhealthy food or luxury items, it is more likely that the advertisers will use Photoshop, Gruver said. Unattainable body images in these ads actually create anxiety, which is good for sales, she said.
"You can compare it to the selling of tobacco products," Gruver said. "We reached a point where we said we won't stand for (advertisers) telling children they should want to smoke. Similarly . . . we should not stand for unrealistic images telling them they're not good looking enough."
Elizabeth Zwerling is an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.
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