NEDA President: For Real Progress, We Need Action, Not Lip Service

B Calkins /

Some people might say that we’ve seen a lot of progress lately in terms of the social responsibility of brands.

Dove saw marked success with their Real Beauty campaign, retailers like H&M received big press for featuring larger models, and brands like ModCloth were widely praised for eschewing Photoshop and carrying larger sizes. Similarly, on the flip-side of the coin, we’ve seen retailers like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch  deservedly publicly slammed for their irresponsible and discriminatory practices.

Clearly, there is a demand for socially responsible brands. I nod to these companies, and others like them, for their efforts. Although, it is not clear how committed they really are to their revised messages: as in the case of Dove, they followed that great healthy body image campaign with one promoting a cellulite cream.  As someone recently said, beauty companies and gyms make it their business to exhibit perfection to make you feel an inadequacy and consequently the need to purchase their products or a membership. I  applaud the consumers for speaking out and taking action when they see injustices. The anti-Abercrombie campaign  that we participated in, in 2013, was consumer-based and had results.

But I have to ask—is this enough progress? I sure don’t think so.

I’d like to see advertisers use diversity of models and send positive messages as standard practice—not just as splashy campaign. Eating disorders are complex, biologically-based illnesses, but we know that the images we see and the cultural messages we hear every day play a triggering role in the development of eating disorders for many, many people. Brands need to take responsibility for the content they’re putting out there.

The recent development of Aerie partnering with NEDA as its National Walk Sponsor sets a new bar.  This is a company that now advertises no photo-shopping,  encourages its market to “love your own selfie,” and also invested financially in the fight against eating disorders.  That is a real start. Reflecting real people and promoting healthy body image is a positive step to begin chipping away at the negative “hate your body messages” surrounding all of us. But we also know that to be meaningful, to retain that customer base, this commitment needs to be real and sustainable, not a temporary sales gimmick.

This years’ theme for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is “I Had No Idea.” Through this campaign we wanted to target audiences that we have learned often really do ‘have no idea’ of the signs, symptoms or implications of eating disorders. These include the medical community, athletes, families, people suffering from sub-clinical eating disorders and the media.

I have often said that we need to circle the wagons around this issue, meaning change would involve all media, the modeling industry, the retail industry, the diet industry and policy makers to join forces with a commitment to help significantly reduce eating disorders. We know that 30 million people will be affected by an eating disorder at some time in their lives. We also know that each of those industries play a role in the contributing factors to an eating disorder.

For real progress, we need brands to actually commit to social responsibility rather than use it as a marketing ploy.

For real progress, we need action, not lip service.

And for real progress we need everyone to get in the know about eating disorders.


Lynn Grefe is the President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.