On a late-night scroll through Twitter last night I saw a tweet about an airbrushing option being offered for one school’s photos. I was shocked, but after a bit of a read back over the tweeter’s timeline (the broadcaster Sam Walker), I saw she lives in America. So I shrugged my shoulders and assumed it was a US thing, hoping the trend wouldn’t make it to UK soil any time soon. We’re far too sensible for that… aren’t we?
Well no, as it happens, we’re not. Because, after sharing the tweet and talking about it on Instagram, I had lots of messages back from parents in the UK, saying their kids’ school photos had been airbrushed too. And I’m not just talking about removing stains from tops or tidying up a wonky tie. I’m talking about the full works: changing nose sizes, smoothing skin, removing eczema patches, changing ginger hair to brown, darkening skin tone, whitening teeth… the lot.
Don’t believe me? Here are some of the messages I’ve had in the last few hours:
I could go on, but you get the idea.
And you might be reading this and thinking, what’s the big deal? So a few school photos got retouched, whatever. But we’re naive to think something “little” like retouching a kids’ photo – or, while we’re on the subject, hanging a banner for a diet company on their school railings – has no impact on the way our children feel in their bodies and in their skin.
Just last week a study was released showing the rate of pre-teen children with anorexia has doubled. The week before, Plan International released findings that one in four girls have avoided leaving the house due to worries about their appearance. We already know that body insecurities are affecting children as young as three years old, that one in five girls aren’t raising their hand in class for fear of being judged over their appearance and that 52% of 11 – 16 year olds regularly worry about the way they look.
There are many more studies showing similarly scary findings – head here to see some of them – but the headline is: we’re facing a body image crisis and it’s affecting not only our physical and mental health, our quality of life, our relationships and performance at work, but that of our kids too. Children aren’t just missing PE because of body image issues – they’re skipping school altogether.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no beef with you if you want to go on a diet or photoshop your face. Your body, your choice. BUT I do have beef with kids as young as 4 years old being exposed to diet culture, body ideals and potentially harmful ideas around restricting food.
We’re living in a society deeply affected by weight stigma and toxic beauty ideals – and we’re naive to think airbrushing school photos and handing out leaflets for a diet club at the school gates doesn’t directly feed into harmful narratives promoting one body type over another.
It’s not just about making kids’ feel good enough as they are though. It’s about promoting the idea that people deserve to be treated with respect and kindness REGARDLESS of what their body looks like, or what it can do.
Airbrushing photos and promoting dieting around schools all feeds into the idea that one type of body is better, healthier and, therefore, more valuable than another. And that if your body doesn’t look like this, you are somehow less of a person. That doesn’t just affect children in higher weight bodies (although they are the ones having to put up with bullying, discrimination and abuse on a daily basis), it affects ALL children in ALL bodies.
And until we recognise this, fight for it and continue to challenge the “little” things we don’t really think are a problem, it’s just going to get worse.