More than half the British public suffers from a negative body image, an inquiry by MPs has heard.
The problem is so acute that girls as young as five now worry about their size and appearance, with children in danger of picking up their parents’ body-related anxieties, their report said.
Cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008 and the rise was said to be fuelled by advertising and “irresponsible” marketing ploys, the cross-party group of MPs was told.
According to Reflections on Body Image, co-authored by the MPs and health and education charity Central YMCA, negative body image was seen as an underlying cause of health and relationship problems, a key contributor to low self-esteem and a major barrier to participation in school and progression at work.
Appearance is also the greatest cause of bullying in schools, evidence suggested.
The report, published by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Body Image after a three-month public inquiry, identified a growing amount of evidence that body image dissatisfaction was on the increase, with the issue seen to be one affecting all of society regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, body size or shape.
Children and adolescents were seen to be more vulnerable to body image concerns however.
Around half of girls and up to one third of boys have dieted to lose weight and children and young people with body image dissatisfaction were less likely to engage in learning and participation in school, the report said.
Parents were identified as one of the main influences on children but by secondary school age, the peer group was seen to become a more important influence.
The inquiry heard that health issues attributed to excess body weight may be overstated meanwhile because body mass index, the measure commonly used, was seen to be an inaccurate way of classifying all individuals and their health risks.
And although being overweight or obese was associated with a range of health conditions, the inquiry received evidence challenging the notion that weight always entailed poor health.
The diet industry acknowledged the public had “unrealistic expectations” about weight loss, while critics argued there was no evidence diets work in the long term.
The inquiry, which took evidence from academics, the public, industry, charities and other experts, heard that:
:: Getting rid of dieting could wipe out 70% of eating disorders;
:: More than 95% of dieters regain the weight they lost;
:: 1.6 million people in the UK suffer eating disorders;
:: Up to one in five cosmetic surgery patients could suffer from body dysmorphic disorder;
:: One in three men would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body;
:: One in five people have been victimised because of their weight;
The report made a series of recommendations targeted at policy-makers, healthcare professionals, industry and the education sector designed to change public perceptions, attitudes and behavioural patterns.
These include compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons for primary and secondary schools, getting advertisers to commit to running campaigns that reflect consumer desire for “authenticity and diversity”, and reframing public health messages in “weight-neutral” language.
It also called for a review of broadcast and editorial codes on reporting body-related issues, a review of the evidence base to support the long term efficacy and safety of diets and a separate code of regulations governing cosmetic surgery advertising.
Patients should be screened before undergoing cosmetic surgery and a review should be carried out into whether the Equality Act ought to be amended to include appearance-related discrimination, the recommendations said.
Central YMCA will launch a campaign on the issues in the autumn after consulting the public beforehand.
APPG chairwoman Jo Swinson MP said: “Body image dissatisfaction in the UK has reached an all-time high and the pressure to conform to an unattainable body ideal is wreaking havoc on the self-esteem of many people.”
Central YMCA chief executive Rosi Prescott branded the report’s findings shocking.
“It’s clear that there’s something seriously wrong in society when children as a young as five are worrying about their appearance, based on the messages they are seeing all around them,” she said.
“Body image has become more important in our culture than health, and children are mimicking their parents’ concerns about appearance.
“We all have a responsibility to act now to bring about the attitudinal and behavioural change that’s necessary to prevent damage to future generations.”
The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons agreed a separate code of regulations should be drawn up governing cosmetic surgery advertising and called for an outright ban on adverts of this type in public places like billboards and public transport.
BAAPS also announced it was funding long-term research into psychological assessment of patients.
:: The finding that more than half of people have a negative body image comes from a study by the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, to be published in full later this year.