Unreal Faces and Bodies: Should The Truth About Photoshopped Fashion Photos Be Exposed?
Of all the things to criticize about women’s magazines and fashion advertising, nothing is more universally reviled than the airbrush. The world of the digital photo retoucher is that of a beauty-standard Frankenstein: normal-sized women are made to look wan and waifish, older women are remade into ageless nymphs, limbs are lengthened, breasts are enlarged, skin is whitened. Men aren’t exempt, either: wrinkles are massaged out, guts and love handles whisked away. Even those we perceive to be nigh-perfect are often altered to be ridiculous, obviously fake, and robotic. But as it becomes more prevalent, and more people are interested in tracking it — whether for feminist or tabloid purposes — is it possible that the era of the obscenely Photoshopped image could be reaching an end?
In the last decade or so, as photo airbrushing has become both more sophisticated and more accessible, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of its use to make magazine images the very definition of perfection, at least in the opinions of editors and other gatekeepers. Sarah*, a professional photo retoucher who’s worked with most major women’s magazines, says that photo retouching has been common since yearbook pictures acquired a glossy dew in the 1980s, but says there’s been a “Cambrian explosion over the last 15–20 years, with the advent of Photoshop.” Largely influenced by commercial fashion, the demand for images that depict the supreme Western beauty standard exploded, tending towards tall, tiny-waisted, wrinkle-free, and light-skinned — and rarely has it deviated from those unrealistic demands, as feminists have riled against for decades. Even Crystal Renn, the fashion world’s most famous “plus-sized” model, now wears a size 8, slim for most nonmodel women. The most obvious and frequent complaint about Photoshop, of course, that its increased use makes both women and men feel completely insecure with their realistic bodies, leading to poor self-esteem, racial insecurity and discrimination, body dysmorphia, fear of aging (and youth worship) and, in the worst cases, life-threatening eating disorders. It was enough to lead the American Medical Association to adopt a policy against airbrushed images in publications directed at children and teens. "The appearance of advertisements with extremely altered models can create unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,” said the AMA’s Dr. Barbara McAneny. "We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software."
The AMA followed liberal Democratic members British Parliament, who in 2008, sought to ban overt airbrushing in magazines directed toward kids under 16. MP Jo Swinson, who headed the movement, told the Daily Mail:
"I am not suggesting that advertisers should stop using models who are perhaps more beautiful than the average person. But there is a difference between doing that and using a beautiful model and nipping in her waist by two inches or taking slathers of flesh off her thighs. There is lots of evidence to show that children under 16, particularly those aged around 7 or 8 years old, are not particularly good at telling the difference between adverts and editorial content on TV or magazines. They view it all the same way.”
But, of course, the unrealistic beauty standard has been in practice for much, much longer than when amateur designers could pirate Adobe products or television distorted the young mind. Modern digital retouching began in the 1980s, and had a historical precedent in the painted photographs of the 1940s and ’50s — pinup girls used in advertising, who were based on pictures of real women but artistically rendered to make them smaller, more doll-like, and with much, much pointier boobs. (Those pictures obviously precede the hairless perfection of today’s mainstream porn actors, which have a similarly devastating effect on the self-esteem and male expectations of women and girls.)