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  • Millie Plotkin, MLS
    Millie Plotkin, MLS Link

    Millie Plotkin, MLS

    Millie Plotkin, MLS, is Informationist for Eating Recovery Center, and creator of the Eating Disorders Information Gateway ...

Reviewed by Millie Plotkin, MLS

Kwan, M. Y., Haynos, A. F., Blomquist, K. K., & Roberto, C. A. (2018). Warning labels on fashion images: Short‐and longer‐term effects on body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms, and eating behavior. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 51(10), 1153-1161.

It is very common for fashion magazine and advertisements use computer software to digitally alter images to fit the societal ideals of thin bodies and flawless skin. Body image researchers and policy advocates believe these images are contributing to body dissatisfaction. One method proposed to counter this effect is to label photographs with disclaimers so that the viewer will know which ones have been altered.

In this study, a group of female college students were asked to view either labeled and unlabeled photographs in a lab setting and also over a period of 4 weeks after. After viewing the pictures once a week, they recorded their reactions of body dissatisfaction. The lab study also included a test snack, with calorie consumption and self-report of subjective binge eating measured. Participants were administered the EDE-Q and the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire-Appearance Scales (MBSRQ-AS) at both baseline and after the 4 week study.

This is the first study on label disclaimers to include an eating component. Participants who self-identified as restrictive eaters ate fewer calories in the test snack after seeing warning labels compared with those who did not view warnings. There was little change in body dissatisfaction in the short-term lab setting, however the 4 week follow-up showed an increase on the orientation scale of the MBSRQ-AS for those who viewed the warning labels.

Why is this important?

The “Truth in Advertising Act” was introduced in Congress in 2014 for the purpose of studying whether labeling digitally-altered images would be a useful and cost-effective way of fighting negative body image. The bill stalled and has not been reintroduced since 2016, largely due to the growing body of research showing effects similar to this study. However, similar laws have passed in other countries. Great Britain bans the use of digital alteration in advertising of skincare products and France requires that altered images bear the label “re-touched photo”. In the United States, some large companies, including Target and CVS have voluntarily written their own guidelines for use of retouching in advertisements. Target uses unaltered photos to sell swimsuits, while CVS asks all companies who sell makeup in their stores to either leave photos untouched or mark those that are.

Studies like this one add to a growing body of research which show that labeling altered images may not be the appropriate action to take. Disclaimer labels do not ameliorate the effect of photographs on body dissatisfaction and some studies even show that the wrong wording on labels can increase negative effects. Further research needs to be done to find the most effective way to educate consumers without causing harm.

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