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Controversial advert opens doors for big discussion... on BIG issues

According to a 2012 survey by the National Statistics Office and the Directorate for Health Information, almost 1% of people aged between 15 and 50 in Malta have suffered from disordered eating.

Davinia Hamilton
17 June 2013, 12:00am


An advert from a local cosmetic clinic was published in last Sunday's media, leading to an outcry on social media.

By Monday, the discussion had extended to local television and newspapers.

The advert in question promotes services for Transforma Cosmetic Clinic. Set in the Garden of Eden, complete with the Tree of Knowledge and a serpent bearing the inauspicious apple, the advert features a sullen, nude, plus-sized woman, presumably representing Eve, in the forefront. In the background, sitting with his back to her, is Adam. He looks off into the distance, with a speech bubble above his head stating "Help me please!!"

Below Eve are two lines of bold text, which read, "Nobody was born perfect... but we'll help you get there."

Some people joined the Facebook discussion to defend the advert, claiming they did not understand why it had led to such controversy. However, people continued to share the image, amid statuses exclaiming disgust and labelling the advert "offensive."

On Monday afternoon, Transforma issued an official apology on their Facebook page, claiming, "The way the advert was interpreted was not what the company wished to portray... The feedback received runs counter to Transforma's values and its standards of professionalism."

'Media often does not consider what it is like to live with an eating disorder'

Advertisers and the media have a responsibility to be more careful when dealing with sensitive issues, according to Joanne Ellul Lanfranco, who in the past suffered from an eating disorder.

Ellul Lanfranco, who used to suffer from anorexia and orthorexia (an obsession with avoiding foods deemed to be 'unhealthy'), says people responsible for promoting certain products and services often do not consider what it is like to live with an eating disorder and the psychological turmoil it brings.

According to a 2012 survey by the National Statistics Office and the Directorate for Health Information, almost 1% of people aged between 15 and 50 in Malta have suffered from disordered eating.

Over 55% of these had a binge-eating disorder, which involves the ingestion of immoderate amounts of food, and feelings of depression or guilt after episodes of binging.

Anorexia nervosa is characterised by extreme restriction of food intake and a fear of gaining weight. It affects over 34% of people with an eating disorder in Malta. Bulimia, meanwhile, which involves binge eating and purging, affects 13.3% of Maltese eating-disorder sufferers.

Ellul Lanfranco says people also need to learn how to better filter messages they are exposed to through the media.

"People with eating disorders constantly need somebody to remind them why their heart will stop beating if they don't eat. That is why these sorts of images are not beneficial to people who are trying to pick up the pieces after an eating disorder."

She believes the media has to ensure it does not reinforce the idea that one's worth is measured by one's weight.

She says the reasons for one developing an eating disorder are complex: "They have a lot to do with the need to be in control and are often a cry for love - as in my case. The logic is that if weighing very little means being loved and being attractive to other people, the sufferer will do anything it takes to attain that."

"Going through an eating disorder and learning to accept my body has helped me discard the idea of the 'perfect body', but such phrases may have a negative influence on people who are struggling to accept the way they look."

She says the key is to be at a weight at which one is physically and mentally healthy, and insists this is a different number for everybody.

"Please, please, please, trust me. Our tummies were made for holding our organs, not to be flat. Our bones were made as a structural foundation for our body, not to jut out. If you are suffering, please seek help," she insists.

Ellul Lanfranco has set up the Eating Disorders Support Group Malta Facebook page to extend her support to people suffering from eating disorders.

'This problematic advert is not alone, but we may be witnessing a sea change'

"Harmful images send messages to women and young girls that they are valued only by how they look and telling men and young boys that women are objects to be looked at, and valued or devalued, around a complex set of rules related to appearance," according to Dr Brenda Murphy, senior lecturer at the University's Edward de Bono Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking.

Murphy, whose research interests include gender and media, says advertising is a complex genre, and there is documented research of longstanding negative portrayals of women.

Commentary on the way women look is typical in all media, but especially in advertising. Using the female body, or parts of the body, has become standard practice "even if the product has no direct relation to women".

Many 'absurd' images are found in local glossy magazines, she says. "The tyre company or computer company considers it logical to portray an incongruous image of a woman next to their product."

"It becomes all the more absurd when these adverts target women. One is provoked to ask why adverts compel women to take a male reading or a desiring male gaze," she says.

According to Murphy, the practice of targeting the female consumer with images of the 'perfect body,' which is genetically unachievable, is habitual practice with marketing agencies.

"So when women have been brainwashed by media images into believing the 'beauty myth' - that they are of value when they look 'good,' the door is open for the next set of messages: if you don't 'look perfect,' then make yourself so."

Murphy believes this allows advertisers to appeal to insecurities, which have been developed with a lot of help from media-bound ideological mindsets, to make their profit.

How does Murphy feel about the public reaction to the Transforma advert?

"It is encouraging. We may be witnessing a sea change, where audiences and consumers are beginning to think critically about what they are seeing."

She says the reasons for this resistance reach far beyond this advert; "This problematic advert is not alone."

Murphy hopes resistance will extend to other adverts where young girls are sexualised and women are infantilised and reduced to eye-candy, and to images where men are portrayed in narrow versions of masculinity, depicting them as solely authoritative or violent.

"There is also the need for the recognition of responsibility, firstly to tighten policy and legislation, and also to teach critical thinking and media education across all age groups."

This, she says, will arm audiences with the ability to critically assess what they see, giving them the power to decide how they want to engage with problematic images.
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Pierre Sciberras
I don't see what the big fuss is about, everyone knows being overweight is unhealthy and leads to future health problems. Unless you have a medical issue there is no excuse for being overweight period!
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This advert can only prove an expected stereotype of how women should not be. However my concern is that this all starts at an educational level. Children are thought about healthy eating and healthy habits but are they thought to accept themselves and to accept others, that body types are different and that no perfect body exsists? Education is an important pillar to future mentality changes. These images are shameful and are published without the slightest thought of the distress they can provoke, typical! I can just imagine the chuckles at the advertising agency and the thought of how great the advert is, these stereotypes should be abolished.
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Kemm se tikber din? Allura ahna l-qosra u l-fratas x'ghandna nghidu. Hadd mhu perfett u kulhadd ghandu xi difett. Alla taghna mohhna biex nuzawh.Kulhadd jaf li taghmel x'tagmel hadd mhu se jigi perfett u Allahares ghax kieku kollha wicc wiehed nigu. Reklam dejjem reklam.Hemm bzonn niehdu inqas ghalina anzi ghandna vera bzonn nidqu naqra bina nfusna.
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Manuel Scicluna
Advertising is aimed at morons who can't think for themselves.
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