Saturday, August 15, 2009

Photoshop of Horrors

At least some governmental body somewhere in the world is paying serious attention to the effects of digitally manipulated imagery on the self esteem of vulnerable young audiences. In the U.K., Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson is sounding her party’s call to ban the use of Photoshopped images on materials deemed to be targeted at under-16-year-old young women. In The Independent:

The Liberal Democrats are calling for a ban on the use of altered or enhanced pictures on publicity material aimed at the under-16s as part of a wider drive to boost the self-esteem of young girls. It also wants the introduction of new rules insisting that advertisements aimed at adults disclose how much images have been airbrushed or digitally enhanced.

Lib Dem frontbencher Jo Swinson said: "Today's unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable perfect images no one can live up to in real life.

"We need to help protect children from these pressures and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them." {…}

A spokeswoman for the Advertising Standards Agency suggested it would be difficult to intervene to control airbrushing. She said: "All ads are altered or enhanced, whether it's food that has steam added at a later date to lighting techniques to airbrushing."

Although it seems impractical to control the use of digitally manipulated images through legislative rulemaking (How could the government effectively screen and evaluate digital images that can be posted instantly online? How could the government label every one of the billions of digitally modified photos utilized by advertisers? The questions just keep coming…), I appreciate the Liberal Democrats’ recognition of the pervasive, systematic campaign against young women’s self esteem and body image conducted by unthinking advertisers. The media is inextricably wedded to advertising, and this dual information source has adapted to exploit and cater to the audience groups that are most vulnerable to its idyllic vignettes of impossible perfection. So says British fashion designer Wayne Hemingway in his response to the Photoshopping ban written for The Independent:

The fact is there will always be people who see different forms of advertising and become obsessed with what they see. The trouble is that the media, through which these images reach young people, are dependent on the advertising. Legislating on this issue is very difficult because there is a huge amount of ingenuity in the fashion industry and they'll find a way around anything the Government does. The industry is all about big business, and so long as there is money behind a trend like airbrushing, it won't go away.

Of course, the image-makers can’t to cop to any malicious or conscious attempt to take advantage of young women’s vulnerability as their self-concept develops by creating impossibly perfect inhuman pixilated beings to which they can aspire through the help of the beauty, health, and retail industries’ wares. While aware on some level of their motivations, the media/advertising information conduit paints a picture of an innocent tool that can even help to take on eating disorders. From The Independent article:

The Periodical Publishers Association, which represents 400 magazines, said: "Images are predominantly manipulated to remove... stray strands of hair, spots, bruises, creasing on clothes and shadows will be removed... articles and advertisements promoting a healthy lifestyle and should be seen as a partner in tackling eating and other disorders, rather than one of the sources."

Media outlets claim to present confidence-inspiring, “aspirational” iconography in order to show radiant role models, but the only images of these role models worth looking at are thinner than the actual woman represented. Even though Kelly Clarkson is comfortable with her weight and appearance, on her cover image for the new issue of Self magazine, Clarkson’s shape is distorted and whittled down in order for her body to conform to Self magazine’s construct of what a role model looks like at her “personal best.” Margaret Hartmann of Jezebel:

On the new cover of Self (see post image), the editors did everything they could to obscure what her body actually looks like. Her right arm is totally invisible and much of her left arm has been cropped out. A yellow dot strategically obscures the area where her butt meets her lower back and white pants against a white background make her legs almost invisible. Much of the photo looks like it was drawn on a computer, which would be obvious even if Clarkson had been living in seclusion since From Justin To Kelly. But, the Photoshopping is even more obvious since Kelly Clarkson has been widely ridiculed in the past year for putting on weight.

In reaction to the online uproar about the cover image, Self editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger posted to her blog:This is art, creativity and collaboration. It's not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.” On the August 13, 2009, Today Show, after assuring viewers that "we love Kelly for the confidence that she exudes from within," Danziger explained that on a cover, "you want to capture the essence of you at your best." Apparently, you at your best resemble an unreal Barbie doll version of yourself, and your aspiration and inspirations to excel are only related to how you look.

All of these disembodied selves that the media/advertising machine sells us are so enticingly superficial, like the hollow Easter rabbit that promises endless chocolatey pleasure. Take a bite, though, and realize that there’s more chocolatey goodness in a Dove bar than constitutes the Easter bunny. Likewise, if you take a bite and pursue the unattainable, unreal physical ideals promulgated, as I did for too long, then you become aware of how incomplete, unfulfilling, and disempowering they are to consume with the hope for satiety. In reality, we are so much more expansive and multifaceted than any false image can convey; humans are multi-dimensional beings that operate on physical, mental, spiritual, energetic, subtle, and profound planes of existence. Limiting ourselves to aspiring only to perfect our physical bodies neglects the deep happiness and contentment that comes with evolving the consciousness of our mental and energetic bodies through meditation, spiritual discipline, self-study, and other activities of refinement.

This is why I am so convinced that legislation will never provide meaningful assistance to young girls whose self worth falls prey to manipulated imagery. Only by educating and raising awareness in young women (and men!) about the advertising techniques and motivations employed by companies to sell products through the kinds of media literacy lessons that the Liberal Democrats also called for with their Photoshop ban can the objectifying effects of the media’s body imagery be mitigated. So therefore, I propose that the Liberal Democrats fund my research with a lucrative grant so that I can develop my media literacy and body awareness program for young women J. In seriousness, it is crucial that any preventative or self esteem-boosting efforts undertaken consider all levels of our beings, from understanding the physical distortions at play in manipulated images and critiquing the industries that create these images, to developing one’s consciousness of her own body, mind, spirit, and aspirations through awareness-building techniques such as yoga and meditation. Slapping a “PG-13” label or some equivalent on advertisements that use digitally manipulated images isn’t going to do much more than fuck up the pretty picture.


  1. The laws won't do a all has to come from self-acceptance and self-love. I think last week there was a bit of a ruckus about a photo-shopped photo of Twiggy minus her facial lines. OMG, she is my age and that is just ridiculous to not show wrinkles. Botox is just a temporary phony device to continue self-deception. I watched a Woodstock show on VH1 last night and the people reminising were white-haired and chubby,with double chins. That is LIFE. You are alive and you age and that is fine! That is normal! I wish people would take off the blinders and accept what they are, what age they are, and what they look like! We need to transcend this!! UGH...

  2. I can't believe they are trying to pass a law banning this practice. Almost everything is photoshopped these days- so people are just among a large list.