Beauty, Mental Health and Public Policy

“I am the winner of a genetic lottery.”

  • Cameron Russell

“What I really want to say to these little girls, is: why? You know, you can be anything. You could be the President of the United States or the inventor of the next Internet or a ninja cardio-thoracic surgeon poet, which would be awesome because you would be the first one.”

  • Cameron Russell


I am a father of a beautiful daughter. Okay, so I am not objective about her beauty. However, it is true that I thought long and hard about her future after a TED talk given by Cameron Russell. This might seem strange to some. For, Cameron Russell is a fashion model and we don’t listen to them. Or, as she noted “image is powerful, but also imagine is superficial”.  Given that we see models as superficial, it is easy for the broader public to dismiss their views.

However, I have not been able to dismiss Ms. Russell’s speech. Her words were powerful, thoughtful and troubling. Consequently, I have been struggling to come to terms with them. For, as she noted, 78 per cent of US girls were unhappy with their bodies in some way by the time they were 17 years old. Through having various conversations, one could believe that Canadian numbers would be similar.  As noted before, her argument for this was simple: “image is powerful”. To be specific, Media images – including Magazine Covers – leave their mark on young girls because they are powerful. For these strong messages have influential teams behind them. On every photo shoot, the very best make-up and hair artists are present to fix every hair which is out of place or any blemish that may arise. Photographers take thousands of pictures keeping only the very best shots, while their assistants fix the few shots that are kept. With all of this going on – and millions, if not billions of dollars depending on the result – one should not be surprised by Ms. Russell’s commentary.

Therefore, it is not surprising that these powerful images have a way of playing on “our perceived successes and our perceived failures.” If this is true of an adult, one must wonder what this would do to a child. A child who has few perceived successes and a large amount of perceived failures.  Canadian reports indicate that we have a problem. A 2006 Government of Canada report –The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada – reported that 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15 – 24 years had an eating disorder. While, another study showed that four percent of boys in grades nine and ten reported anabolic steroid use.  (Boyce, W. F. (2004). Young people in Canada: their health and well-being. Ottawa, Ontario: Health Canada.) This shows that body preoccupation and attempts to alter one’s body are issues affecting both men and women.

These reports indicate that our children have problems: problems which can affect their physical and mental health. In a Canadian context, this has important public policy implications because we socialize our health care costs. For example, let us just take a look at the non-medical use of anabolic steroids. Steroids, for example, tend to increase cholesterol rates and blood pressure. Non-medical use of anabolic steroids, as a result, could lead to added and unnecessary use of our health care system. Or put differently, the incidence of cardiac arrhythmias, hypertension and congestive heart failure could increase just because people have body image issues. What is even more terrifying is a simple fact: non-medical anabolic steroid use will lead to heart attacks and sudden cardiac death in seemingly healthy adults.

But this is only the beginning. Based on a few studies, non-medical anabolic steroids have been linked to significant psychiatric symptoms like aggression and violence, mania, and less frequently psychosis and suicide. Furthermore, there is even some evidence linking steroids use and cancer. Therefore, if boys are using anabolic steroids because of body preoccupations, our society is paying more – in the short and the long term – for their health care needs.

However, the same can be said of girls. Anorexia or Bulimia have real costs. The State of South Carolina indicates that the cost of outpatient treatment, including therapy and medical monitoring, can be as much as $100,000. With that being said, the costs might actually be more because 80% of the girls/women who have accessed care for their eating disorders do not get the intensity of treatment they need to stay in recovery – they are often sent home weeks earlier than the recommended stay. ( If we assume that 4% of all youth could be affected, we could assume that millions or billions of dollars could be spent because our society would not act.

Therefore, body image issues have a real social cost. They can lead to anabolic steroids use and eating disorders, which cost money to treat. These body preoccupation activities, over the medium term, lead to costly health issues like higher rates of high blood pressure or high cholesterol. In the long term, there are a number of instances of organ destruction. This could include destruction of the liver, kidney and reproductive organs. All of these costs would be put on the taxpayer and society. These are costs which we can avoid by just dealing with this situation at hand – reducing body image issues.

Accordingly, if we believe that it is our responsibility as parents and adults to protect our children and progeny, we must act. If we believe in sustaining our health care system, we must act. The only question is: “what do we do to protect our children – both girls and boys – to ensure that they have a strong understanding of themselves and a strong love of their body?”.

To date, the answer has been public education campaigns. The ParticipACTION programme is probably the best example of this. However, one can see others. For example, Unilever launched the Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty. However, the effectiveness of public education campaign is questionable. Just look at the resources provided to such programmes by both government and industry. For example, the Liberal Government cut ParticipACTION in the 2001 to save money. When it was re-launched by the Harper Government in 2007, ParticipACTION was given a $5 million dollar grant. That grant was insignificant given that the Government of Canada spent $55 million in 2012 alone on advertising. This included $9 million in ads by Natural Resources, $16 million budgeted for the “economic action plan” and another $5 million for a job training ad campaign by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (Harper government’s 2012 ad budget now tops $55 million, The Canadian Press as published by CBC, Posted: Nov 9, 2012 2:38 PM ET). Furthermore, McDonald’s in the mid-eighties spent an estimated US$80 to 100 million to promote the one sandwich – the McDLT. Therefore, a $5 million dollar grant is not enough.

The Dove’s® Campaign for Real Beauty is just another example of this trend. The campaign was meant to differentiate itself from its competitors. In Dove’s case, they wanted to figure out a new way to sell soap and other personal care products. Given that personal care products have largely been commoditized, Unilever felt that a campaign which showed them caring about their customers gave the Dove® brand an advantage. It did. It became a viral hit. So much so, I still see it in circulation today – nine years after it was first launched. 

With that being said, how effective can the Dove’s® Campaign for Real Beauty Campaign be, when Dove’s owner, Unilever, spends money on brands which sexualize men and women. The AXE brand would be just one example of that phenomenon. Accordingly, the Dove’s® Campaign for Real Beauty was based on the self-interest of Unilever; Dove’s® brand owner. From my point of view, a public education campaign that depends on self-interest is just another way of selling a product. Just as one would never expect an “ugly” model on a TV game show, one can expect that a private interest putting together a public education campaign is all about one thing: profit. As a result, if the public education campaign does not work, the company – a profit making entity – will develop another profit oriented market strategy. Therefore, while Unilever is not in the wrong, the Government of Canada cannot expect to make public policy based on the whims of profit making entities.

Consequently, we need an alternative. Some might argue that the solution might come in a tax or tax credit. However, I would disagree with that as well. The Conservative Child Tax Fitness Credit could be judged as a failure.  CBC noted that a Statistics Canada report that noted that “almost a third of Canadians aged five to 17 are overweight or obese”. (31% of Canadian kids are overweight or obese, Sep 20, 2012, This number had not changed in over a decade, in spite of the introduction of the Child Tax Fitness Credit in 2010.

Therefore, I am proposing a more radical approach: the introduction of a media literacy course in High School. When combating TV, the Internet, Magazine, Facebook, Social Media and other sources of visual information, society needs time. Society needs to have time to correct, adjust or absorb the ideas from entities who sole desire is profit. Society needs to have permission to provide individuals with the tools to make the best possible choice and a media literacy course is that tool.

For in this setting, teachers could talk to kids about the way that media affects and effects them. In that situation, children can have the chance to understand what media does to them and what it is supposed to do to them. In that environment, children can gain the lifelong tools required to navigate the information age.

To those who say media education is not as important as math, writing or reading; I would say you are mistaken. Media, today, informs us about how our society works. Television Channels and Financial Companies shape our perception of financial products like insurance, mortgages and investments.  Suzie Orman, Oprah, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz inform us about a variety of every day necessities. This would include dieting, financial planning and the way our bodies are supposed to work. These people talk about Gun Massacres and the use of marijuana. In fact, they shape our thoughts in a way that was once left to priests, reverends, rabbis and imams. Accordingly, media education is not small.

This should be especially important when one considers the story of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. In 1997, they were fired from Fox owned-and-operated station WTVT in Tampa, Florida. They were alleged that they were fired after they refused to: 

“knowingly include false information in their report concerning the Monsanto Company’s production of RBGH, a drug designed to make cows produce more milk. They successfully sued under Florida’s whistle blower law and were awarded a US $425,000 settlement by jury decision. However, Fox appealed to an appellate court and won, after the court declared that the FCC policy against falsification that Fox violated was just a policy and not a ‘law, rule, or regulation’, and so the whistle blower law did not apply.

The court agreed with WTVT’s (Fox) argument “that the FCC’s policy against the intentional falsification of the news — which the FCC has called its “news distortion policy” — does not qualify as the required “law, rule, or regulation” under section 448.102.[…] Because the FCC’s news distortion policy is not a “law, rule, or regulation” under section 448.102, Akre has failed to state a claim under the whistle-blower’s statute.”

Consequently, if a court could find that a media source could purposely distort the news, one should think about whether society should have a fair amount of time to correct the record. It is true that this will cost us in both money and resources. In fact, children might not graduate as quickly as possible. However, this does not have to be all bad. Children might, for example, have time to have proper financial education.

In my opinion, this allows us to look after the “Other”. For, it allows us to look after our children. This allows us to have a policy that assists our society because it serves the best interest of the vast majority of our society. This is the type of policy that will allow our children to understand beauty and the media. This is my answer to the problem.

2 thoughts on “Beauty, Mental Health and Public Policy

  1. Totally. Beyond media-literacy for citizenship, the notion we have a skills mis-alignment is nonsense… Canadian business doesn’t take marketing or design seriously, and we killed and killed and killed for being nerdy dorks who think its enough to hire some engineers and run the numbers. Grads who undertand spin are ready to sell… Canadians aren’t.

    Can’t resists a plug for a favourite book, if you haven’t seen it Russ:


    1. So we agree on something. I have already read the book and have no arguments with it. In fact, I have recommended it to people out here in Calgary.


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