Lydia Jade Turner, Melinda Tankard Reist July 11, 2012
Winner … Kirsty Thatcher, aged 13.
Dolly's Model Search has torpedoed a government attempt to set up industry self-regulation on body image.
We give talks at schools about body image and there are always girls in tears. They come up to us afterwards and confide that they compete to see who can eat the least number of calories at lunch. Even those who present as confident reveal they can feel ''like a pig'' for eating an apple when their peers are on a severe calorie restriction diet.
Many report eating almost nothing during the day, then finding themselves uncontrollably overeating in the afternoon in private.
Some are distressed when they see pop-up diet ads on the internet while trying to do homework. Others report going on a media ban for a month to try to break the anxiety about not being perfect. Into this troubled environment enters Dolly magazine and its resurrected Model Search, pitting girls against each other in a contest which should have remained banned. The 13-year-old winner, Kirsty Thatcher, was announced this week in Sydney.
Kirsty and state finalists appear bright, beaming, lithe and without obvious body fat. They fit the stereotype. (An indigenous girl is the only divergence.) They will now be presented to teen and tween girls as "role models" and "inspirational''. But what are they modelling?
A meta-analysis of 77 studies involving 15,000 participants, undertaken by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed that ''exposure to media depicting ultra-thin actresses and models significantly increased women's concerns about their bodies, including how dissatisfied they felt and their likelihood of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours, such as excessive dieting''.
Jess Hart - Dolly's 1998 model search winner - posed with Jennifer Hawkins on a 2010 Grazia cover headed: "Jen & Jess: how to get their $5M bodies!" Hart told Grazia she gets "super strict about her diet" before a photoshoot.
Despite all the body image initiatives and education, the bombardment of images ultimately has more effect.
"We didn't want to betray our readers and teenage girls," says editor Tiffany Dunk. So why only choose girls who fit an idealised norm?
Dunk says they didn't ask girls their weight or their size. But this was hardly necessary. Readers were asked to ''rank'' a photo of 14-year-old Geelong entrant Elodie Russell. What for - personality?
Video: Dolly model winner too young?
If Dolly wants to justify the contest by saying peers should model to peers, then they should model a diverse range of shapes and sizes to reflect what the readers look like.
It is troubling to thrust any girl into an industry where they are taught what matters most is to fit some cookie-cutter mould of what women should look like.
And what of the girls who don't make it? How many are damaged by the message that their value lies in how others view and judge their bodies?
One ex-Dolly model entrant has written: "I was never as happy or as sure of myself after that. It was just too big of a let-down, because … it was a rejection from 'the experts', from people with professional opinion, and it was a closing of doors in my face from a glamorous and revered industry."
And now Dolly has won a prize of its own, in the federal government's inaugural positive body image awards, the centrepiece of the Australian government's National Body Image Advisory Group set up in 2009.
Giving Dolly the positive body image award is like awarding KFC a healthy food award because it started selling salads.
As other countries such as France and Spain look to change the law (for example, by banning ads for plastic surgery and dieting until after 10pm), our government has introduced a toothless voluntary code and rewarded a magazine that upholds the body ideals of the global beauty industry.
The Minister for Youth and Sport, Kate Ellis, said at the launch she was ''calling on industry professionals to move beyond the 'business as usual' approach and take real action to promote positive body image''.
Unfortunately industry didn't give a damn. Besides Dolly, the Dove Body Think Program was highly commended. Dove is owned by Unilever, known among other things for its skin-whitening creams, seeking models who meet a long list of beauty criteria, photoshopping women in its ''real beauty'' campaign, and the notorious Lynx/Axe brand of male deodorant, which has been advertised as "washing away the skank" of an unwanted sexual encounter, and using the more recent "Clean your balls" campaign.
Even Mia Freedman, a former Dolly editor and chair of the advisory group, admits she was "wrong" to think the voluntary code of conduct would work. "NOTHING HAS CHANGED. The Body Image Code of Conduct has been given the fashionable middle finger by those it was aimed at," she wrote.
That's a lot of money and energy down the drain.
When will we get regulation that actually works, and which doesn't reward a girls mag for bringing back the archaic practice of pitting girls against one another based primarily on their looks.
Lydia Jade Turner is a psychotherapist and managing director at BodyMatters Australasia. Melinda Tankard Reist is a commentator and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Both were co-founders of Collective Shout, which entered the body positive awards.