01/14/2015 12:52 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Advertisers Need a Conscience

The United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled that a controversial image of an underwear model's thigh gap must be removed from Urban Outfitter's U.K. website. The ASA said that the image is "irresponsible and harmful." Kudos to the U.K.!

In a response, Urban Outfitters told the ASA that it's "common practice to use slim models in the underwear industry" and that they thought she "had a naturally tall and slim physique."

While it may be true that this particular model is naturally tall and slim, the advertising industry is still largely promoting images of bodies that are unattainable for the majority of the population, or encouraging a "thigh gap" to unwitting teens. What the industry needs firstly, is a conscience. Eating disorders, although treatable, still have the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness. And, we know that these over-the-top ads promoting thigh gaps, extreme thinness and non-stop diet promises continue to tell our young people that they are not good enough, translated to thin enough.

We know for a fact that these kind of images have a negative impact. 69 percent of American elementary school girls who read magazines say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape and 47 percent say the pictures make them want to lose weight. Eating disorders usually start with a diet.

People come in different shapes and sizes. These images fuel the fire of eating disorders and poor self body image, serious precursors to unhealthy eating behaviors and ultimately eating disorders.

Secondly, advertisers could consider more diversity in advertising, similar to campaigns put forth by Aerie and H&M in recent years. Both companies created campaigns that highlighted "curvy" body types, which resonated with the public and were profitable.

Finally, the bigger problem here isn't Urban Outfitters. We know that they have a penchant for controversy -- remember their "eat less" shirts? The bigger problem is that we don't have a governing body like Britain's ASA willing to make these kinds of decisions here in the U.S. The American equivalent of the ASA is the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), but as of now they have taken no steps to address or regulate misguided advertising to protect our young people. We care about dangerous toys, seat belts and healthy eating, but for some reason, addressing their role in a potentially life threatening disorder that will affect as many as 30 million people [1] in this country doesn't raise an eyebrow.

In the meantime, we as consumers have the power to vote with our dollars. By not patronizing outlets that use potentially dangerous advertising tactics, we can send the message that it's unacceptable.

Lynn Grefe
President & CEO
National Eating Disorders Association

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[1] Wade, T. D., Keski-Rahkonen A., & Hudson J. (2011).Epidemiology of eating disorders. In M. Tsuang and M. Tohen (Eds.), Textbook in Psychiatric Epidemiology (3rd ed.) (pp. 343-360). New York: Wiley.