Tackling negative body image: working with politicians and industry

Negative body image is a significant global health issue. Major initiatives to tackle it have been directly influenced by research at UWE Bristol. This has informed policy recommendations in a UK All-Party Parliamentary Group report and a worldwide social mission agenda of the multinational consumer brand Dove.

Research addresses real-world issues

50-70% of children and 60% of adults in the developed world say they are unhappy with the way they look. Such negative perceptions of body image have been implicated as contributors to multiple health problems such as depression, eating disorders and substance misuse.

But what is to be done? Policy makers and companies around the world have asked for answers: what interventions really help, especially for children in school settings?

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs and Dr Emma Halliwell of UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research have investigated these questions as part of an international collaboration. Their research has uncovered evidence addressing critical gaps in our understanding, yielding insights into the best ways of promoting positive body image among young people.

They identified what kinds of school-based interventions were most effective – and the ingredients in their success. For example, the most effective interventions were two to six sessions long. They also worked best if they included activities that developed media literacy with skills to resist social and cultural pressures.

UWE Bristol research also shed light on how best to adapt existing interventions to suit the needs of early and pre-adolescents. This addressed an important gap: this age-group had been overlooked, even though there was evidence that worries about body image often develop in childhood. The resulting interventions improved children’s body image for at least three months after they were delivered.

Influence on policy

In 2011, the Campaign for Body Confidence invited Diedrichs to join its steering group as its only academic member. This UK-based advocacy group was formed to influence the fashion, beauty, diet, media industries and government to counter pressures to conform to impossible stereotypes for body shapes and sizes. It was led by Jo Swinson MP, who went on to become Minister for Women and Equalities. The group’s deliberations and priorities were informed by evidence from UWE Bristol research findings.

Swinson referred explicitly in Parliament to UWE Bristol’s research findings on school-based interventions. Diedrichs was then invited to co-author (again as the only academic) the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, published in 2012.

This report summarised the results of the Group’s inquiry into the causes and consequences of body dissatisfaction. It recommended that evidence-based body-image interventions should become mandatory in UK schools – and said it based this on UWE Bristol research.

Influence on industry

What can be done to ensure the next generation of women grow up to be happy and content, free from misconstrued beauty stereotypes and the burden of self-doubt? Dove, the well-known consumer personal-care brand of the global company Unilever, has a major social mission to address exactly this.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project, established in 2004, has committed itself to reaching 15 million girls by 2015. It delivers body image and self-esteem interventions to young people in educational settings, such as schools and youth organisations, and also via online resources for parents. It has so far reached over 13 million young people.

In preparation for the Dove Self-Esteem Project’s ambitious relaunch in 2012, Dove turned to Diedrichs and her colleagues for the most up-to-date evidence on body-confidence education.

They commissioned the UWE Bristol team to review the research literature on body image and adolescent girls. This, together with other research from the team, informed the Dove Self-Esteem Project’s new evidence-based educational content.

“Dr Diedrichs’ research has been instrumental in formulating our approach,” says Meaghan Ramsey, the Dove Self-Esteem Project’s Global Director. It helped them identify an effective body image programme for secondary schools and ways to strengthen it further. The programme is now delivered in over 20 countries around the world, reaching millions of young people.

In 2013, the Dove Self-Esteem Project went on to announce a global partnership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the largest voluntary organisation in the world dedicated to women and girls. They are working together to deliver a new evidence-based body image education programme around the world. Ramsey says that UWE Bristol research “has been key to the development” of this programme, with which they plan to reach 3.5 million girls by the end of 2016.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project has subsequently entered into an academic partnership with UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research in 2014. The goal of this partnership is to further validate and optimise Dove’s body confidence programs in schools and online. UWE Bristol will be conducting research to help ensure that Dove’s programmes have the strongest impact on young people around the world.

“Dr Diedrichs’ research has been invaluable to us in recent years,” says Ramsey, “and we hope this continues.”