News Special: Tackling Body Image Advertising

By Ellie Holden / 01 Sep 2022

Aesthetics explores MPs’ recent report on body image and mental health concerns, and what practitioners can do to navigate these issues

Social media can be a pivotal tool in your working lives to promote your business and communicate with patients. However, it can also contribute to body image concerns and increasing mental health issues. In a recent survey of 7,500 people conducted by Rare: Group, adults who suffer from depression and anxiety are 42% more likely than others to be considering aesthetic treatments in the next 12 months.1 Therefore, ensuring that patients are receiving aesthetic treatments for positive reasons is crucial during the consultation process. 

Last month, the Health and Social Care Committee published a report on the ‘Impact of Body Image on Mental and Physical Health’. It identifies a rise in body image dissatisfaction as the driver behind many people’s decision to seek aesthetic treatments.2 Within the report, respondents detail potential harm from online content that promotes an idealised, often doctored and unrealistic body image, which further links to low self-esteem and related mental health issues.2 

As a result, MPs on the committee believe that the Government, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and the industry itself should work together to discourage advertisers and influencers from doctoring images. 

We spoke to aesthetic practitioner Dr Martyn King and the new president of the British College of Aesthetic Medicine Dr Catherine Fairris about what this means for the industry, and how it could help patients’ mental health. 

Body positivity and diversity 

Within the MPs’ report, the British Psychological Society notes that there is an overwhelming pressure on women, and more recently men as well, to conform to a particular beauty ideal portrayed in the media and magazines.3 It is therefore suggested that the Government should work with advertisers to feature a wider variety of body aesthetics such as shapes and sizes, as well as introduce legislation that ensures commercial images are labelled with a logo where any part of the body, including its proportions and skin tone, are digitally altered.

Dr Fairris agrees with the committee’s suggestion to highlight whether images have been retouched. She says, “If marketing images are clearly labelled to show the extent to which they have been digitally altered, this can demonstrate, especially to impressionable minds, that the photos do not represent reality. This, coupled with more adverts featuring models with realistic body images, should have a positive impact. It’s important to note that practitioners should never be doctoring or altering patient’s before and after images. The ASA has published guidance on this, and practitioners should be obeying these rules.”

However, Dr King considers that the committee only refers to commercial images, not before and after photos posted on social media. He notes, “The committee reports on commercial imagery rather than the unrealistic images we see all over social media from both medical practitioners and non-medics, so personally, I would rather see this include all images that are posted online. This could mean that ethical and legitimate practitioners improve their photography to ensure it is more standardised and taken in the same lighting and positions.” Not having accurate before and after imagery, even when not done on purpose, is as bad as physically altering images, according to Dr King.

Body dysmorphic disorder 

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) was another issue raised in the report, with many MPs believing that the condition should be made a priority. It was recommended that Health Education England update the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) and Educational Mental Health Practitioner (EMHP) curriculum to make training in BDD compulsory for all mental health practitioners. As well as improved diagnosis rates, suitable care for those living with BDD must be available.

Dr King recommends that any practitioner working in aesthetics should have compulsory training in this area and ensure that this forms part of their medical history and consultation, such as including a BDD questionnaire in all consultations. He adds, “Most practitioners have already completed mandatory training, such as basic life support and safeguarding, as part of their appraisal process, so adding in additional training should not be a difficult step to overcome.” 

Furthermore, Dr Fairris reiterates that practitioners should continually educate themselves on mental health conditions and ensure BDD is in the training they seek out. She explains, “There are numerous educational modules available for practitioners on identifying patients with mental health problems. I would also suggest that practitioners have internal guidelines for what to do if a patient is flagged as having mental health issues and know how to and who to refer them to if managing it is beyond their scope of practice.” 

Enhance your education 

With mental health and body concerns on the rise in the industry, it is important for practitioners to continue enhancing their education on the topic to ensure their patients receive the highest care and safety. They should also be educated in marketing rules and regulations, and how to take accurate clinical photography. Dr King concludes, “I believe that compulsory mental health training is a step that should be introduced, and for practitioners who are not experienced in this area, perhaps they should use an assessment service with other practitioners who are knowledgeable in this field. Adding a BDD questionnaire to your consultation process seems a minimal, but important, step to protect both the public and practitioners from seeking treatments, which could further damage the patient’s mental health and wellbeing.” 

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