Body Image and Mental Health

Part of Exiting the European Union (Transport) – in the House of Commons at 3:07 pm on 23rd July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 3:07 pm, 23rd July 2019

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I will go on to speak about the role of advertising because, as she will know, it has changed. When we were growing up, adverts were in magazines or on television. Now, they are accessible to young people 24 hours a day, seven days a week on smartphones and tablets. That has changed the pressure on young people, as is highlighted in the Mental Health Foundation’s excellent report.

Before I come on to advertising, I will touch on the issue of cosmetic surgery, which the Minister raised. Members may want to know why I am interested in the subject. It is down to a force of nature, my constituent Dawn Knight, whom the Minister has met. Unfortunately, several years ago a cosmetic procedure on her eyes led to the horrific situation that she can no longer close her eyelids. As the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow said, such procedures are not easily reversible. It is not like someone changing their hair colour and not liking it. The procedure has had a devastating effect on Dawn’s life. I pay credit to her, because she has been determined to campaign on this issue. I know that she has met the Minister on a number of occasions to highlight the dangers of cosmetic surgery.

The Minister referred to regulation. I have been calling for regulation in this area for five years. I do not think there is a lack of political will, and certainly not from this Minister, but I am told that the Department of Health and Social Care is so scarred by the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that it does not want to bring forward any more health-related legislation. I say to Ministers that they must. This is the wild west because there is no regulation.

The Minister rightly warned people not to go abroad for such procedures, because standards are not high. Sadly, I have to say that they are not very high in this country either. Dawn’s case and the cases of numerous women that Dawn has documented over the years show that surgery that takes place in this country is sold like a commodity. It is not sold as something that could threaten or change people’s lives; it is sold like any other product. I am sorry, but it is not like any other product. Some of these procedures are very dangerous and can result in death.

The problem is the way the industry is structured. There are groups that give the impression that they employ surgeons and that they are hospitals. One that I have spoken about on behalf of Dawn and other victims—that is what I call them—is the Hospital Group. One would think that it is a hospital that employs surgeons and nurses, but it is not. It is a sort of marketing facility company that has a hospital and flies in surgeons from Europe, sometimes on a daily basis. They fly in, operate and fly out again. The aftercare treatment is non-existent in some cases. As Dawn’s case shows, when people try to sue the individual, they find that their indemnity insurance does not cover the resulting legal case.

What we need is a properly regulated system. The fly-in, fly-out surgeons need to be banned. I am sorry, but it is not acceptable. People say, “We have the General Medical Council,” but that is another of my hobby-horses. It is an organisation that is ripe for reform. The Government have promised reform of how the GMC operates, but they have not brought legislation forward. We need legislation to reform it because, as I will say in respect of another organisation in a minute, I am never a great fan of self-regulation. I was one of those who campaigned to take regulation away from the Law Society. Self-regulation has clearly failed. Nearly five years on from her complaint against the doctor, Dawn Knight is still fighting. It is not a user-friendly process for anyone to get redress for their complaint and we need to address that as a matter of urgency.

Cosmetic surgery is advertised and sold like any other commodity. There used to be two for one offers on Facebook and elsewhere—buy one procedure and get another procedure free. There were time-limited offers. Those should all be banned; they should not be allowed at all, because some of those procedures are very dangerous and people are often not aware of the dangers. I would argue that such a ban is part of the regulation we need. This is not a multimillion-pound industry, but a multibillion-pound industry and it is exploiting people’s poor body image.

Before anyone had any type of cosmetic surgery, I would insist that they had a mental health assessment. Not only should the risks of the surgery be explained, but we should question whether people actually want the procedure.

Advertisers use “Love Island” to promote the idea of young women having procedures to enhance their appearance. That reinforces the image that somehow there is a perfect body to be had, but also the idea that these procedures are risk free. Having spoken to Dawn and other victims of cosmetic surgery, I know that these are not risk-free procedures. In many cases, they lead to mental health problems afterwards during the recovery process.

As the Minister rightly said, the ones who pick up the tab are us—the taxpayers. Not only do we pick up the bill for the correction of the surgery when these organisations fold themselves into new companies and go into bankruptcy, meaning that people cannot get any redress; we also pay for the mental health services for those individuals afterwards.

I say again that we need more regulation of advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority is a toothless tiger. The Mental Health Foundation’s report says that last year the ASA upheld a complaint against the producers of “Love Island” for promoting cosmetic surgery as part of the advertising package around the show. But anyone who has dealt with the ASA will know that it is slow and that it is not proactive. One of the report’s recommendations is that it should be proactive in looking at adverts in advance to ensure that they are pre-screened before they go out. Again, though, that involves self-regulation, and it does not work.

I accept that we have a Government at the moment who do not like regulation and who want to strip it out. We are possibly going to get more of that nonsense over the coming months from the new Prime Minister, but I take the clear view that the state needs to protect people when they are being exploited. On cosmetic surgery, I take the clear view that people who want to have cosmetic surgery have the right to choose what to do with their money, but they should have a fully informed choice rather than being pressured by glossy advertising.

Online advertising and body image have already been raised in the debate. We have heard about the way in which adverts and other images are photoshopped and that this is somehow a positive thing that every young person should look forward to. The Minister also mentioned Botox and fillers. Those procedures are not cosmetic surgery in the sense of people going under the scalpel, but I would argue that they are equally in need of regulation because of the appalling effects when things go wrong. According to some adverts, people can simply go along in their lunch hour and have a Botox or filler treatment and then walk away in the afternoon, but those are medical procedures. They are advertised on social media and elsewhere, but Botox is a prescription drug, and it is interesting that people seem to have access to it even though they have no qualifications at all. No qualifications are needed for injecting someone. Madam Deputy Speaker, I could inject you with Botox this afternoon—not that you need it—without any qualifications or training whatsoever. The Minister was right to say that the problem with the way in which social media algorithms work is that anyone who enters the term “Botox” into a Facebook search, for example, will then be bombarded by adverts not only for Botox and fillers but for training courses on how to administer them. People can actually sign up for those courses in order to earn money.

The only regulation around this is Facebook. Dawn Knight has raised the matter directly with Facebook, but I understand that the only thing anyone can do is to say to Facebook that they no longer want this on their feed and take it down. I have written to Sir Nick Clegg, who has now gone off to live with the beautiful people in California, to ask him why Facebook is carrying those kinds of adverts and bombarding vulnerable people with adverts for Botox and other fillers. Those adverts have no disclaimers about risk, and there is no quality control over the individuals offering the services. As the Minister said, they could be people in hairdressers and other such places. Well, I am sorry, I know Facebook is earning money from those adverts, but it should ban them. I know that the vulnerability of young people is a matter of concern for the Minister, for Dawn Knight and for me. They could be getting access to these procedures without knowing the risks, and they are being targeted by the social media companies. I am waiting to see what response I get from Sir Nick Clegg and the beautiful people in California. Hopefully, they will take some action against this.

This is a serious issue, not just in terms of the way people are personally affected; it costs the taxpayer money when cosmetic surgery goes wrong and when people need mental health support. We also need regulation. We are all focused on Brexit at the moment, and perhaps this is another area that will not be addressed over the next few months. I hope that that is not the case, and I know that the Minister will continue to argue for this reform, as she has already done in Government. I also know that my constituent, Dawn Knight, will not leave this issue alone. I will not do so either, because people are putting themselves at risk and it is the duty of the Government to take action in Parliament to protect individuals when they need it. There is a lot of pressure on young people when it comes to body image. All I would say to those young people today is this: think positively, and be kind to yourself.