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According to merit?/Diversity: Body image and the law

Every Issue

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2016 90 (1/2) LIJ, p.77

Many lawyers believe there is an expectation within the profession for women to be thin. 

Current issues relating to body image:
  • “Femvertising” – advertising female empowerment to increase sales – is shown to have a positive affect on women. In 2014 lifestyle website SheKnows surveyed more than 600 women about femvertising, and found that 91 per cent believed that how women are portrayed in ads has a direct impact on girls’ self-esteem.
  • Microsoft research in Israel and America provided evidence that exposure to thin models leads to increased online searches for pro-anorexia websites (International Journal of Eating Disorder, Vol.47 Issue 2, pp196-202, March 2014).
  • Dove’s viral campaign Real Beauty depicted women sized 6 to 14 as part of a stated “effort to change the way we view beauty”. The campaign has since been criticised after reports of extensive photoshopping and claims that Dove is furthering the emphasis on women’s beauty to the detriment of other attributes.
  • Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) recently discussed body image and the law, and whether Australia should consider law reform in this area. More than 80 members attended a breakfast panel event to hear media personality Tracey Spicer and leading researcher and lawyer Dr Marilyn Krawitz discuss the issue which has made global headlines.

    A growing volume of medical and social research shows that extensive exposure to images of ultra-thin models in media can lead to eating disorders, depression and anxiety. Young people, especially women, are particularly at risk of developing these conditions in pursuit of what they perceive is ideal beauty. The costs to society are high. In Australia alone, the estimated social, economic and public health cost was estimated to be $69 billion in 2012 (Source: Butterfly Foundation).

    In 2013, Israel enacted a law setting a minimum body mass index of 18.5 for fashion industry models and regulating the photoshopping of their images. In October 2015 the French parliament passed similar laws adding criminal sanctions. Other countries are taking action by tabling bills in parliament and setting benchmarks for industry self-regulation.

    VWL wanted to know if body image is an issue of concern for female lawyers and distributed a survey to members who attended the breakfast. The results are revealing and indicate that there is a compelling need for more research to be done in this area.

    Many survey respondents believe there is an expectation within the legal profession for women to be thin. A number of responding members said they feel pressure to be thin from sources such as friends, family and the media, including social media. Most compared themselves to images of thin models in the media, with all but one respondent stating they feel badly about themselves as a result of doing so. This theme of feeling negative after viewing images is consistent with medical and social research findings throughout the Western world.

    The majority of respondents believe law reform is required in Australia, with strong support for regulation of photoshopping and disclosure of its use to alert audiences.

    Exposure to images promoting beauty ideals affects girls from a very young age. Even in an intellectual profession such as the law, women are not immune to the social pressures and expectations which have been projected onto them since childhood.

    It is important to remember, our individuality is what makes us unique.

    As lawyers we are in a prime position to be able to influence law reform, with a view to improving the self-perception of other women, our daughters and generations of girls to come.

    Cindy Halliwell and Tair Tidhar, Victorian Women Lawyers


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