National Body Image Awareness Program

It is with great sadness today that I speak on this matter. I thank the member for Newcastle for her initiative in bringing it before the House, and I welcome the comments from the members for Hotham and Solomon, because it is a most important issue. From working closely with young people, I know the terrible impacts that our society's obsession with a superficial notion of beauty is having on the confidence, self-esteem and mental health of many.

I have seen it with my students and I have seen it with my children's friends. I have seen it too many times. I have seen its impact firsthand as children moved into adolescence. In its least destructive manifestations, it stunts the confidence of our young people. They become self-critical and unhappy, and their bodies can never replicate the images with which they are bombarded. In its worst manifestations, it slowly takes over lives becoming all encompassing, damaging physical and mental health. It is insidious, isolating and intransigent. And it is not an issue that affects only my community. Negative body image and disordered eating behaviours do not discriminate based on age, gender, race or wealth. It is pervasive and it is widespread, and it has the potential to end people's lives. It is not a problem that is going away.

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration estimates that around one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder, and it is a rate that is increasing. In fact, between 1995 and 2005, the prevalence of eating disorders doubled among both males and females. We are seeing an increase in hospital admissions for treatment of children under 10 years old with disordered eating behaviours. The Butterfly Foundation has reported that calls for help to their support line increased 200 per cent in 2013. While we sometimes hear a lot about these issues, we as a community need a greater understanding of what it is we are really facing.

Eating disorders are a group of very serious and multifaceted mental illnesses. They involve disturbed eating behaviours and a significant distortion of body image and its relationship to self-worth. Those who suffer from these illnesses can face psychiatric and behavioural difficulties, medical complications, permanent disability but they can also face long-term social, financial and functional impairment. Of course, the impact of an eating disorder is not only felt by the affected individual; it is also felt by families, friends, classmates and communities. I have witnessed the impact on families and caregivers—stress, loss of income, disruption to relationships and a high risk of suicide. The human cost is hard to watch, harder I know to bear. But the cost to the economy is also significant.

The total socioeconomic cost of eating disorders last year was estimated by Deloitte to be at $69.7 billion. The figure includes financial costs of close to $100 million for the health system and $15.1 billion a year in lost productivity. As you can see, it is an issue that has the potential to harm the entire community. It was with this in mind that the previous Labor governments acted. In 2010, we launched the National Eating Disorders Collaboration. It brings together around 540 eating disorder stakeholders in public health, mental health, education and research as well as the media. Together, they are developing a national and consistent approach to the prevention and management of eating disorders in Australia. In the same push, we launched the National Body Image Awareness Program. The program aims to create awareness around some of the causes affecting negative body image, including the role of the media, fashion and beauty industries. Both these programs reflect the understanding of Labor governments that negative body image and eating disorders need to be a health priority. It reflects our commitment to promoting healthy living, exercise and positive personal body image, and our belief that we, as representatives of our communities, have a role to play in addressing these issues. It is an imperative that the current government show the same determination to act because there is still more to be done. It is vitally important that we continue existing support services, assist ongoing research and ensure the best chance of success: early intervention. The impact of these illnesses are being felt in our homes, in our communities and across our nation. I call on the coalition government to confirm their commitment to addressing these issues and not leave this to fester.

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