Unreal Faces and Bodies: Should The Truth About Photoshopped Fashion Photos Be Exposed?
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With pinups, it was clear that the paintings were fake. And with the Internet Age, and feminist blogs in particular, it’s much easier to track the insanity that is over-airbrushing, particularly when “before” photos leak, as with the the string of ads in which 52-year-old Madonna is made to look 28 or, at the very least, a living doll. At this point, there’s been enough documentation that curious adults can figure out that photographs, particularly those having to do with fashion, are doctored in some way, particularly when they’re painfully, hilariously obvious. Not just because of the tireless documentation of places like Jezebel, but because of outrage as the practice became more prevalent.
Recently Hany Farid, a Dartmouth computer science professor, and Eric Kee, a Ph.D. student, laid the groundwork for a tool that would be able to break down how much an image has been Photoshopped on a scale from 1–5. Published in the National Academy of Sciences, their “Perceptual Metric for Photo Retouching” measures the degree to which a photo has been altered, using software that mimics human perception. Figures from their paper, published here, show each degree on their scale, from light zit-obscuring to deleting a good 40 years from a person’s face, as identified by their test subjects.
New software tool aside, some perceive the flurry of criticism and exposes around airbrushing as precursors to a new, more realistic movement in editorial imagery. More editor Lesley Jane Seymour told the New York Times she thinks that’s what readers increasingly want. “Readers aren’t fooled if you really sculpt the images,” she said. “If you’re a good editor, you don’t go too far these days. If you give someone a facelift, you're a fool."
Of course More is a magazine for women over 40, so it behooves Seymour to say as much. Says Sarah, the photo retoucher, “I am fascinated by the prospect of this software, and I think it'd be great if everything was rated and or exposed. But I doubt it will do much to change the culture of retouching, because it is so wedded to larger narratives about body image. Rachel Ray and Oprah both have magazines where they frequently appear on the cover and are very retouched. ... And you know, more power to them, I guess.” Vogue, which sets the industry standard, is clearly not laying off it. Just look at the gloss job on these images from its January 2011 issue featuring Kristen Stewart, the young Twilight star who’s already youthful, beautiful, and thin enough without Adobe’s help. (See also: Glamour’s November issue, which apparently thought her left arm and ear were not cover material.)
Still, how far will people go before excessive Photoshopping becomes too tiresome and surreal for even the most beauty-centric among us? Recently Jezebel noted that certain ads for H&M depict models' real faces ... supplanted atop fake bodies, in some weird and interesting yet horrific effort towards perfection. While that might bring up interesting thoughts in cyberpunks, it’s a generally creepy thought that we’re moving beyond “perfecting” real bodies into “precrafting” fake ones. As if Gisele as a standard wasn’t hard enough, no one will ever be able to attain the abs of a computer.
But it’s not the extremities of airbrushing that are most damaging, says Sarah. It’s the desensitization. “The most mind-blowing things I've had to do aren't necessarily making someone way skinnier, although I have definitely been shocked by that,” she says. “It's more the prevalence than the extremeness that makes constant nipping and tucking disheartening. The most bizarre thing to me is instances where I've been asked to, like, pick everything up off of a table and move it around, and make it different sizes as if it's fucking Colorforms instead of a photograph. Or compositing together photos to create an entirely new image that is no way a document of reality.” See above.