Photos of retouched Influencers may soon come with a warning

MPs in the UK want to make digitally altered bodies in paid posts display a logo to combat a rise in eating disorders. But how effective will it be?

by Tom George
03 August 2022, 3:30pm

Twitter: @yassifybot

There’s many reasons why we’re all abandoning the mess of suggested posts and excessive advertising on the social media platforms of yesteryear in search of greener, more authentic pastures, such as apps like BeReal. But one of those reasons is the blurring lines between artifice and reality, as the digital altering of bodies becomes less obvious to spot and increasingly more present on our Instagram feeds.

In the wake of amendments to an existing law in Norway that made it illegal for influencers to not disclaim when a paid-post on their social media was retouched, earlier this year the UK followed suit, with a bill put forward for a logo to be displayed on any digitally-altered images of bodies, in an attempt to combat body dysmorphia online. As of April 2022, the bill is still awaiting its second reading but in the meantime, MPs within the UK’s Health and Social Care Committee have called on the government to introduce new laws that would reduce harmful body expectations impacting Gen Z.

Not only does the committee — which includes former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt — want to make it so that advertising with models whose bodies have been digitally altered carry a warning, they’re also calling on advertisers to feature a wider variety of body aesthetics and for influencers to no longer post filtered or unrealistic images of themselves to social media. Finally, they’re also calling on the promotion of cosmetic services, such as fillers, to be regulated, and for those providing the service themselves to check the medical and mental health history of the customer, as well as offer a 48-hour “cooling off” period to cancel, in case they change their mind.

From April to October 2021, the NHS saw hospital admissions for anorexia, bulimia and eating disorders in young people aged 17 and under rose by 41%, largely believed to be because the pandemic has pushed much of our lives and interactions onto social media. So clearly, action on this dangerous rise is needed. But will these proposals by MPs be enough?

The legislation introduced earlier this year, called the Digitally Altered Body Image Bill, was proposed by Dr Luke Evans, a GP turned Tory MP for Bosworth, Leicestershire, to parliament on Wednesday 13 January. Effectively, the bill calls for greater transparency as to when influencers and brands have Photoshopped, FaceTuned or in any way edited a photo. “If someone has been paid to post a picture on social media which they have edited, or advertisers, broadcasters or publishers are making money from an edited photograph, they should be honest and upfront about it.” Dr Evans told the House of Commons. It would work in a similar way to those pop-up gaming ads you receive that now must state if they don’t contain any “actual game footage”. Or how influencers must now legally state, usually through #ad, #spon or #paid, when their post is in partnership with another brand.

When Norway first put forward their leading new legislation last year, one of the issues we raised was that until such guidelines became global, they wouldn’t realistically be very effective. After all, Instagram users in Norway would still have the posts of international influencers appearing on their feed, whose pictures aren’t policed under the country’s powers. Hopefully though, as the UK potentially follows suit, it will be an impetus for more and more countries to put in their own legal framework for the digital alteration of bodies on social media, having a bigger effect on our globalised news feeds and FYPs. Since, Isreal too has updated its photoshop laws to include digitally-altered images.

However, much like Norway’s law, the UK bill focuses specifically on paid posts and so digitally-altered pictures on social media that are not associated with a brand partnership or commercial purposes will not need to display a logo. “This isn't about stopping you touching up your wedding photos or removing red eye on a post, it is targeted at those with significant, far-reaching influence and those with commercial intent," the Dr Luke Evans added in his Ten Minute Rule Motion, a speech made to parliament after Prime Minister’s Questions. 

Additionally, a question that still remains is how such a law would be enforced. Often apps such as Photoshop and FaceTune are used to edit a photo in subtle ways that may not be obvious to those scrolling past but can still help create a culture that promotes a specific body standard and white or racially ambiguous beauty ideals. If the legislation does pass, it will then go to the Advertising Standards Authority to design the logo and decide in which instances it should be placed. The MP hopes though that the mere existence of the law will be enough to put many influencers and brands off editing paid posts shared online anyway. 

Though the Tory government has a proven history of stalling on action to reduce the effects of harmful body expectations online — this isn’t the first time such a bill has been proposed, the same MP proposed similar legislation in September 2020 that didn’t get past a second read in parliament — Dr Evans has stated the bill has strong cross-party support. Perhaps, along with the advice of the Health and Social Care Committee, it stands a greater chance of being passed this time.

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on social media and mental health.

Social Media