Are images used by the aesthetic industry contributing to body image problems?

Heather Stephen

Body image issues are rising so does the medical aesthetics industry need to shape up its act when it comes to the images it portrays?  Heather Stephen finds out.


Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto was flicking through a magazine over breakfast when she came across an ad which almost made her choke on her coffee.

The advert for a body sculpting treatment showed a very slim woman pulling a small section of skin of her washboard flat tummy with the strapline ‘if you can pinch it we can treat it’.

Speaking on her Instagram feed, Dr Mahto, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London, raged: “This woman has abs most of us would dream of and what she’s pinching is skin.

“Images like this are part of the problem in driving self-esteem and body image issues in young girls and women. They exploitatively play on insecurities to convince people they need to pay for expensive treatments they don’t need. The aesthetics industry really needs to clean itself up – disgusted by this.”

Dr Mahto was not the only one who was shocked by the ad which was retweeted more than 650 times in just a few days by her outraged followers.

“This ad is so inappropriate,” she told Harley Street Emporium. “It is not unusual for ads for fat busting treatments to use slim models but this caught my eye because it was suggesting that even someone very slight needed treatment and this could influence people to think they are fat when they are not.

Dr Mahto believes this is “exactly the sort of thing that drive eating disorders. Body contouring is on the increase and can help people but as an industry we should not be promoting images that say everyone should be a UK size 4.”


Time to champion a positive image 

She is calling for the industry, like the fashion industry to champion a more healthy body image. According to US statistics 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and 81% say images in the media make them feel insecure.

The NHS says one in 100 people may be affected by body dysmorphic disorder but some experts in the field say it could be double that. It’s also been estimated that up to 20% of people who have a cosmetic procedure may have it to some extent. While it’s mainstream advertising images that are usually the culprits, a tendency for the aesthetics industry to use more models in advertisements could see it facing the same heat.

“We should be using models that are representative of all diverse sectors of the population and I don’t want to see a situation where we create the problem so we can fix it,” Dr Mahto says.


Nothing to pinch here: Could images like this affect body image?

Several studies have shown that using unrealistic images in advertising has a detrimental effect on how we feel about our bodies, leaving us at greater risk of eating disorders, depression and self- harm.

There are 1.6 million people with an eating disorder in the UK – the highest rate in Europe – and although there is no concrete evidence thin models in advertising actually cause these illnesses and there are multiple elements involved there are studies to show they worsen self-esteem and have a negative impact on women’s lives.

A global body confidence study conducted by Dove found nine out of 10 women have cancelled activities because they feel bad about how they look and seven out of 10 women blame their discontent on the impossible ideals they see on TV and in magazines.

And, according to Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, says the problem is getting worse as she explains “the gap between actual body size and the cultural ideal is getting wider and is giving rise to anxiety among almost all women, although it is the most vulnerable who are most affected by this.”


Time for action

There are a lot of unhappy people out there so what’s being done about it?

Well, countries around the world are attempting to tackle the use of extremely thin models in advertising.

In Israel it is now illegal to use models in advertising and fashion with a body mass index of less than 18.5. France brought in a similar law in 2015 and any digitally retouched images have to be labelled as such.

In the UK the Advertising Standards Authority tells advertisers they “should ensure that they don’t promote particular body types in an irresponsible manner.”

And the guidance goes on to say that “whilst the use of thin models is itself not necessarily problematic, advertisers must ensure that models are not depicted in a way which makes them appear underweight or unhealthy.”

If these rules are breached the ASA can force a company to pull the ad and can issue advice to magazines not to trade with the offending advertiser.


Nothing to pinch here: Could images like this affect body image?

More to do

But is it enough? Plastic surgeon Gary Ross, who operates at the BMI Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle and Christie Clinic in Withingon, doesn’t think so. He agrees with Dr Mahto that the industry needs to pull its socks up as ads that portray unrealistic images or ideals are preying on the vulnerable.

“People are led to believe they can achieve changes which are not possible through these kind of images. Advertisements and social media are altering our perception of reality and people come in for consultations with unrealistic expectations”, he says.

Mr Ross would like to see an outright ban on ads that fuel body hatred and lead people to unnecessary and expensive treatments but he thinks we could have a while to wait.

“In theory the Advertising Standards Authority can pull any adverts that promote unhealthy body image but this rarely happens,” he says.

“We have started to see changes in the fashion industry but advertising is a lot slower to act. For instance, we knew cigarettes were bad for you but it took decades before adverts were banned so I think it will be a long time before patients’ interests are put before profits.”


Take home message

Although most aesthetic ads are responsible it looks like there is still some way to go before the industry marketing does what it’s supposed to – give information on treatments people really need while protecting the vulnerable. What do you think? Let us know.


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Images used in this article are illustrative only and not those used in advertising campaigns mentioned in this story. Source: Shutterstock