Jo Swinson: Beauty and the economic beast

We must change our ideas about women's looks - starting with airbrushing

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Who would have imagined that the airbrushing of models in advertising would have become a political talking point in 2009? This week, in response to a campaign by the Liberal Democrats, the Advertising Standards Auth-ority ruled against an Olay Definity advert featuring Twiggy which used heavy airbrushing to sell beauty products. This is only the beginning.

Back in August, the Liberal Democrats launched the Real Women campaign, which addresses many different aspects of women's lives, one of which is the increasing pressure for women to aspire towards a totally unachievable ideal of perfect beauty. While some have denounced this as a trivial matter, it is telling that, of all the issues the campaign addresses, it is this one that has received so much attention. This is something that has a huge impact on people's lives – both men and women. This is something people care about.

Advertisers already adhere voluntarily to codes of conduct which tell them what is and is not acceptable to put in an advert. We are not saying that images should never be digitally altered, just that when manipulating images of people, advertisers should have to declare what they have done. In adverts aimed at children, they shouldn't be airbrushed at all.

When the ASA told me it couldn't take action unless it received complaints about airbrushing, the Real Women campaign machine went into action. Through the campaign's website, we got almost 1000 people to write in and complain about the Olay Definity advert featuring Twiggy.

The ASA has ruled that the ad misleads consumers by suggesting the product can give them a look which was actually achieved through digital retouching, but that it doesn't break the ASA's rules on social responsibility. But there is plenty to suggest that idealised media images can have a very real and harmful effect.

Last month, 44 of the world's leading experts on body image put together a review of the research evidence on the harmful effects media images can have on body image and behaviours, from low self-esteem to serious eating disorders. You can read that report at www.realwomen.org.uk.

Since the campaign started, many people have told me of their – or their children's – battles with anorexia and bulimia, and how pictures of stick-thin models in magazines made recovery that much more difficult. For others, it is simply about wanting to feel good about themselves, improving wellbeing which in turn benefits society.

No one is saying that the media is entirely to blame – indeed, I believe we need a cultural revolution when it comes to our ideas about beauty. We have come to define beauty in an extremely narrow way – the media is a part of this, but we all buy into it to some extent. Promoting the belief that we must achieve that perfect look is highly profitable – it gets us buying all manner of products in the hope that the next one will be the one that makes us who we want to be.

There must be something wrong with any mindset that tells us that a woman as stunning as Twiggy needs to be airbrushed before she can be considered beautiful. It is high time we realised that people can be beautiful in all different shapes and sizes. Changing the rules for advertisers would be a step forward on the way to achieving that cultural change.

Jo Swinson MP is leading the Liberal Democrats' Real Women campaign

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