Stephen McCulley, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeon. MBChb, FCS(SA)Plast, FRCS(plast)

Protecting our body image: BAAPS on cosmetic surgery ads

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image has conducted an inquiry into the general public’s attitude to body image and has published a report stating that half the UK public suffer from negative body image, that it is on the increase and that it is associated with a number of damaging consequences for health and well-being.  Media, advertising and celebrity culture were perceived by 75% of respondents to the consultation to be the main social influences on body image.  With this in mind, the APPG recommends a separate code of regulations to govern cosmetic surgery advertising and a ban on cosmetic surgery ads in public places such as billboards and public transport and the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons have voiced their support of this.

What’s the problem?

According the APPG’s report the scale of the problem in the UK is extremely worrying.

  • 60% of adults report that they feel ashamed of the way they look;
  • 70% of adult women and 40% of adult men report that they have felt pressure from television and magazines to have a perfect body;
  • 42% of girls and young women feel that the most negative part about being a female is the pressure to look attractive;
  • One third of men would sacrifice a year of their life to achieve their ideal body.

Poor body image is starting to infiltrate all age groups and is reported to affect girls as young five who now worry about their size and appearance.  Half of young girls and up to one third of young boys have dieted to lose weight, and over half of bullying experienced in school is because of appearance.  Body-image problems undermine self-confidence, contribute to depression and lead to the onset of a range of physical, emotional and societal problems.  Children and young people with negative body image are less likely to engage in learning and participation in school; 70% of teenage girls don’t participate in certain activities, such as going to school, because of body image anxiety.

The report indicated that one factor making body image worse is parents passing on their own body image concerns to their children.

How do adverts make it worse?

Adverts perpetuate a false concept of an “ideal” body by commonly presenting a single type of body shape as the most desirable and ideal way to be, rather than giving a realistic view of the array of body shapes and sizes which exist.  The report indicated that the idealised media images do not adequately reflect the majority of consumers or the reality of the general population.

Looking specifically at cosmetic surgery adverts, the report pointed to a number of complaints about plastic surgery ads which downplayed the risks of, or trivialised cosmetic surgery.  The BAAPS have compiled a list of cosmetic adverts from the last decade which are arguably irresponsible.  A few examples are:

  • Travel vouchers as incentive for booking surgical ‘body overhauls’
  • Surgery offered as competition/raffle prizes by magazines, radio stations, nightclubs
  • “Divorce Feel-Good”  packages combining breast augmentation and liposuction for women going through divorce
  • Cosmetic surgery gift/Christmas vouchers and loyalty cards
  • Surgical procedures sold via online discount coupons like Groupon

The report suggested that some patients who had undergone surgery had had unrealistic expectations of the outcomes and that often patients were treated more like customers than anything else.  The report implies that cosmetic surgery advertising exacerbates this culture and therefore recommends alternative guidelines for such adverts.  The BAAPS fully supports this recommendation.  President Fazel Fatah said,

“We fully support the Group’s recommendation for the establishment of a separate code for cosmetic surgery advertising.  The unrestricted ads, which we see on the television and on the side of buses are clearly having a negative impact on vulnerable people and particularly children, and should be severely restricted if not banned outright.”

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