A new proposal by French lawmakers would require that airbrushed photos are labeled as such. Similar laws have been proposed in the UK (two news stories on the subject can be found here and here), on the grounds that these ads can be "very damaging." Eating disorders are usually cited as one of these damages, along with more general body image woes.
Rachel at The F Word blogged about the subject here, and compared the issue of labeling airbrushed ads with the warnings on cigarettes. And to some extent, I agree with this line of thinking. These ads are damaging. Younger and younger girls are dieting. People think that they can actually look like the models in the ads. Body dissatisfaction is eerily normal.
All of these things are very bad. Even without mentioning eating disorders, I think we need to take a long, hard look at what our ads are teaching. A label, even just to identify that these images have been digitally altered, is a place to start. More and more people find smoking distasteful, less associated with the virile Marlboro Man and more associated with stink and lung cancer.
What I object to is having this legislation linked directly to eating disorders. The French proposal is headed by an eating disorders expert and is part of an ongoing campaign against eating disorders. An Australian article on the subject said that
"[French Parliamentarian Valerie] Boyer said being confronted with unrealistic standards of female beauty could lead to various kinds of psychological problems, in particular eating disorders...
"These images can make people believe in a reality that often does not exist," Ms Boyer said, adding that the law should apply to press photographs, political campaigns, art photography and images on packaging as well as advertisements."
I agree that this false reality (that all so-called "beautiful" people are thin, etc.) is troublesome and plays right into eating disordered thinking. I mean, two days before I was admitted to the hospital, I had people asking me for diet tips! Plenty of people without eating disorders have similar delusions that I do.
However, these delusions are the result of an eating disorder, not a cause.
I'm not naive enough to think that Size Zero and airbrushed models have nothing to do with eating disorders. They're part of the cultural backdrop against which eating disorders are expressed. In the Middle Ages, the obsession was with fasting and holiness. This didn't cause eating disorders, either, though it did alter the meanings people ascribed to their symptoms. Learning how to live in this fundamentally effed-up environment is one of my major tasks in recovery. I try to participate as little as possible, but short of turning hermetic, there's going to be Cosmo on the newsstands and I'm going to see pictures of "scary skinny celebrities" and celebrity weight gain. I intend to fight it, but in the meantime, I have to live among it.
Our culture has a damaging obsession with food and weight and appearance. This needs to stop, even if it doesn't prevent a single eating disorder.