Should the US government get involved when fashion brands digitally shrink a model's waist or whip up a thigh gap in Photoshop? That's the thinking behind a bipartisan bill called the Truth in Advertising Act (H.R. 4445), which seeks to curb the use of "unfair and deceptive ad imagery" as a public health issue.
Introduced in 2014, advocates are trying to push the bill through Congress — including ModCloth founder Susan Gregg Koger, who hosted an event on Capitol Hill along with two of the bill's three co-signers. The gathering kicked off a campaign by the e-commerce brand, which is known for its inclusivity, to get shoppers to write to their members of Congress and ask that brands "stop the extreme and harmful photoshopping of women in advertisements."
It's not just shoppers who are concerned. The cosponsors of the bill — Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Lois Capps (the latter two of whom were at today's event) — believe that the Federal Trade Commission hasn't kept up with modern advertising strategies, and focus more on wording than imagery. The bill asks the FTC to develop a regulatory framework for ads that significantly materially alter models' appearances.
"What we see in advertisements and fashion magazines colors our expectations, even if those images are unknowingly altered," Rep. Capps said in a statement. "This especially affects young people who internalize this unrealistic ideal of beauty —leaving them at risk and vulnerable. We must do all we can to ensure that our nation's consumers have the tools necessary to distinguish real life from fiction so that they can form a healthy body image."
So how would passing the Truth in Advertising Act affect the ads we see every day? Ideas raised in the Q&A section with Koger included the possibility of requiring labeling on ads that have been digitally altered, or calling on individual celebrities or models to pledge that they wouldn't allow their bodies to be altered and instead show their "authentic selves." Lena Dunham, for example, has already said she'll no longer permit publishers or brands to airbrush her; Kerry Washington and Zendaya have also spoken out about being digitally altered in magazines as well.
Other countries are farther along in the conversation about the body imagery in advertising, most notably Great Britain. London just announced a ban of advertising deemed to be body-shaming on subways and buses, and the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has repeatedly banned campaigns that feature what it called "unhealthily thin" models, like this banned Saint Laurent ad.
"France and Israel and Italy and Spain, and now London a few days ago, have started to really be very vocal on the implications of what these images can do to people," Johanna S. Kandel, founder and executive director of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness and the Board Chair of the Eating Disorders Coalition, told Racked.
The Eating Disorders Coalition worked with Rep. Ros-Lehtinen in 2014 on developing H.R. 4445, as well as the Anna Westin Act of 2015 (H.R. 2515), which also includes a call on the FTC to study and report back on the need for digitally altered images of models in advertising.
There has been some push back with Truth in Advertising act in regards to possible regulations within the First Amendment, Kandel told Racked, but she said the bill simply asks that the FTC commission a study of the implications of digital manipulation of models in advertisement and then look at next steps.
"We know that images alone do not cause eating disorders," Kandel said, explaining that there are also biological, environmental and social factors involved. "But we know that there is a lot of body image dissatisfaction when you're inundated with these images that you can't ever attain because they're not real."
Which is why advocates have set their sights on fashion as one source of body expectations. At today's event, Koger of ModCloth brought up Dove's Real Beauty campaign and Aerie's unretouched ads, both of which famously ditched digitally altered images and received tremendous positive consumer response. Social media, she argued, has helped push brands along as customers have more of a say in what they consume and how they talk to brands.
"I think there is this outdated idea that in order to create aspirational images, you show a certain body type and a specific ideal of beauty. I think with social media, the customer has kind of moved on," she explained.
In response to such sentiments, ModCloth is the only retailer so far to sign the Truth in Advertising pledge, a campaign established by Brave Girls Want to get advertisers and agencies to stop materially altering its models. During today's event, Koger said she hoped ModCloth's advertising would be a "counterpoint to the unrealistic ads we see over and over again."
But she acknowledged that the road to change is bound to be a long one. After all, H.R. 4445 is still sitting in the House. "I think there is a call for it from customers at large, so I do think we will see more retailers doing this," she said. "It won't happen overnight."