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Digitally Enhanced Photos Make Us Look Good but Feel Bad About Ourselves

Unrealistic images of models and celebs isn’t just a problem for vulnerable young women. We’re all victims of this pervasive fakery.

posted by Suzanne Gerber, June 13, 2012 More by this author

split image of a woman's photoshopped face

Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


split image of a woman's photoshopped face
Hemera | Thinkstock
Blame it on Abraham Lincoln. One of the most iconic photos ever taken of him wasn’t. Correction: It was his head. But the body belonged to Southern politician (and slavery proponent) John C. Calhoun. Apparently the powers that were in the 1860s didn’t feel that any "heroic enough" photos of Lincoln existed.
 
That was hardly an isolated incident. Photo manipulation has been around for at least 150 years. Civil war photographer Mathew Brady was guilty of “tweaking” his photos (including once dropping in a general who wasn't even present at the photo shoot). World War I images were altered to create a more dramatic-looking effect. Even Stalin, Hitler, Castro and Mao were known to indulge in a little creative air-brushing. (If only that were their worst crimes.)
 
Fast-forward to 1990, the year Photoshop was born and the year that digital image manipulation began to edge out airbrushing as the preferred method of making everyone from world leaders to celebrities to models appear taller, thinner, younger and, in a word, faker.

Magazines have been Photoshopping covers for decades, possibly never more infamously than when TV Guide put Oprah Winfrey's head on Ann-Margret's body in 1989. But we all know the rules of the game, so no biggie, right?
 
Not right.
 
Adweek.com posted a smart blog by Jessica Seigel this week discussing a rising groundswell of resentment against the fashion and advertising industries, which continue to take the “fine art” of Photoshopping to increasingly outlandish extremes. In the past couple of years, there’s been public brouhahas over extreme cases (notably Julia Roberts’ Lancome ad and Christy Turlington’s for Maybelline and the scandal involving Ralph Lauren model Filippa Hamilton). Happily, some celebs (like Brad Pitt, 48, and Kate Winslet, 36) are vocal opponents of this trend, lending their star power to initiatives led by various consumer, feminist, educational and parental groups. 

Last year, at its annual meeting, the American Medical Association adopted a new policy taking aim at this issue. Its purpose: “to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements ... that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.”
 
A press release issued after the meeting stated: “A large body of literature links exposure to media-propagated images of unrealistic body image to eating disorders and other child and adolescent health problems.”

Along similar lines, British and French legislators have been pushing for laws in their respective governments that would require the labeling of all digitally enhanced photography in advertising. Despite tremendous support, the bills are constantly being challenged. (Some have suggested the French bill’s failure to launch had something to do with oft-retouched first lady Carla Bruni.)
 
The trickle-down effect of all this is insidious — and serious. Dove’s Self-Esteem Mission revealed that 80 percent of women surveyed felt images of female stars and models in the media made them feel insecure and concluded that “images and ideals of the human form presented in the media set unrealistic standards for the U.S. female population.”
 
Which explains the popularity of websites like Lookbetteronline.com, a photo-retouching service that enhances images of “regular folks,” presumably for their social networking and online dating photos. They’re hardly alone: If you Google "personal photo retouching," you’ll get more than 15 million results. You can learn how to DIY your image on YouTube, and there are at least 70 smartphone apps that can tweak your photos before you upload them.

Lookbetteronline's home page doesn't soft-pedal its sales pitch: “If you're not getting the results you want online, there’s a good chance it’s because your online dating photos are unflattering, blurred or just average and unremarkable." So even as we're damning the image-enhancing trend among celebs and models, we're personally benefiting from it. 
 
Or are we? While much of the research focuses on the harm this does to young women, the trend certainly isn't doing much for the self-esteem of people who are trying to age naturally and gracefully. All those 50-plus models promoting cosmetics, while sporting a couple of crinkles or laugh lines, have still been retouched a lot.

And when Madison Avenue tries to use "real" people to sell us stuff, those actors are either frail, old gray-heads (the message being, Without our product, you’ll die!) or hyper-perky “youthful” middle-agers, hiking and biking or about to get frisky in a hot tub. What you don't see is anything in between, which is probably how most of us look.
 
No one said getting old was easy — “it’s not for sissies,” as Bette Davis famously put it. But an honest acceptance of the process and who we are (and who we’re becoming) starts with an acceptance of how we look. A constant parade of aging stars who are trying to look like they stopped aging at 30 (or maybe 40) isn’t helping anyone.  
 
We don’t need laws to stop this. People always find ways around them anyway. What we need are regular people, like us, to step up and say, "Enough’s enough." Making a celebrity's skin a little smoother or thighs a bit thinner is bad enough. But attempting to erase an entire generation's signs of aging is a crime against 78 million (and counting) Americans. Let's inform the tastemakers that some of us are actually proud of our wrinkles.