Mental health, body image and the law: new advertising and photo retouching rules

In our modern age of ever-present social media, reality TV, and pandemic-exacerbated social isolation, unrealistic beauty standards are a pervasive part of young people’s lives. 

These unrealistic ideals make it harder for people to grow up with a holistic, positive self-image. Mental health outcomes help to illustrate the extent of the problem. For example, rates of eating disorders (which are serious psychological conditions that have a recognised association with body dissatisfaction) have been rising. And the interactive nature of psychological illness suggests body dissatisfaction issues may also contribute to causing other mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders. 

This issue is being increasingly recognised, and some new laws and rules are being introduced in the UK to combat it. These include: 

New rules for advertising cosmetic interventions

On 25 May 2022, the Advertising Standards Authority (or ‘ASA’, the UK advertising industry’s regulatory organisation) will bring into effect new targeting restrictions.

The restrictions will prohibit advertising for cosmetic interventions (eg lip fillers or nose reshaping surgeries) from being targeted at under-18s. Ads for cosmetic interventions will not be allowed in: 

  • non-broadcast media (ie media that can be accessed at any time) aimed at under-18s or for which under-18s make up more than 25% of the audience
  • broadcast programmes aimed at or particularly likely to appeal to under-18s 

Hopefully, the restrictions will help reduce the body image conformity pressures that young people already face, and they may reduce the likelihood of young people deciding to get procedures that they will later regret. 

These advertising restrictions align with the changes introduced by the Botulinum Toxin and Cosmetic Fillers (Children) Act 2021. The Act makes it a criminal offence to administer botulinum toxin (‘botox’) or fillers to children under 18 unless (in some cases) a registered medical practitioner gives permission (eg for medical reasons). 

For more general information about advertising standards, read Marketing and the law

The Digitally Altered Body Images Bill

This bill is currently making its way through Parliament. It could help to tackle the negative effect that heavily retouched images of celebrities, actors and influencers can have on young people’s self-images. 

The bill would introduce a requirement for a logo to be displayed by advertisers, broadcasters and publishers on images that they publish of a human body which has been digitally altered to the point that the body (or body part) represented has been ‘fundamentally changed’. 

‘Fundamentally changed’ is defined in the bill as ‘altered in proportions to the point that it presents an unrealistic or unachievable aspirational body or body part image’. It is positive that the bill explicitly recognises the connection between digitally altered images and audiences’ developing unrealistic expectations of body image. There may, however, be a limitation to the bill’s influence if ‘fundamentally changed’ is interpreted to exclude more subtle alterations which audiences may not be as adept at noticing. 

Are these laws enough?

This collection of upcoming rules and laws represents a step in a positive direction. However, it must be remembered that there is a vast collection of societal and individual factors that contribute to mental health issues.

Moreover, some recent legal changes seem to be going in the wrong direction. The Government’s new requirement for calorie labelling on restaurant menus has been criticised as being dangerous for people suffering from eating disorders. 

Body dissatisfaction and associated disorders need to be treated as serious public health issues whose mitigation should be given proper, holistic attention.

If you’re an employer, ensure you make any reasonable adjustments that staff need to support their mental health and consider how else you can promote mental well-being in the workplace.


Help is always available if you are experiencing mental health difficulties. Contact Samaritans’ 24/7 helpline on 116 123.

India Hyams