Digital Perfection a call for the end of irresponsible photo-editing Sydney Rotar Abstract

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Digital Perfection

A call for the end of irresponsible photo-editing

Sydney Rotar


While modern technology is revered for aiding the betterment of society, the marvels tempt dangerous ground. Advertisements and media outlets increasingly utilize photo-editing software like Photoshop to “perfect” the human body to unrealistic proportions. This paper outlines the harmful effects of these irresponsible practices, and the steps that should be taken to stop them.

The Addiction to Photoshop

Creatives have sought to edit images sing the dawn of photography. Chemicals were often used to manipulate light and remove imperfection. (Queen Victoria Women's Centre Trust, 2008) In the digital age, chemicals have been replaced by technology; software like Adobe Photoshop allows editors to manipulate and perfect images easily, quickly, and without detection. However, modern practices in the fashion and media industry go beyond perfecting images, to manipulating the subjects. Human bodies are altered, facial features are manipulated, and natural “imperfections” like freckles are removed in most fashion magazines, print advertisements, and online publications. As editing becomes more prevalent, there is increasing concern over the negative affects of these less-than-realistic images. Industry is empowered to create the “ideal” human, and individuals compare their real bodies to these fantasies, leading to unhealthy esteem issues and diet practices.

One Perfect Image: Industry Defines “Perfection”

“Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, ... To a great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be.” (Legleitner, 2014)

Here, Jean Kilbourne asserts advertisers have a profound impact on the psychology of individuals, far beyond purchasing decisions. And indeed, research supports that advertisers and industry leaders in fashion and journalism have real power over the body image of society. (Clay, Vignoles, & Dittmar, 2005)

With so much influence, these industries have the ability to define “who we should be”. They tell us what clothes, skin tones, and body shapes are ideal. While we live in a new age where power lives with the consumer, these industries break the new norm by capitalizing on insecurities to push certain ideals: “Marketer’s know that girls and women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet aids, and a whole media industry has developed around fuelling body dissatisfaction.” (Legleitner, 2014)

Health organizations and child advocates are increasingly scrutinizing these editing techniques that stray further and further from realistic body types. Ralph Lauren was attacked after distorting a model’s body to the point where her head was larger than her waist (Figures 1 and 2). (Mail Foreign Service, 2009) More recently, Dior edited advertisements featuring Jennifer Lawrence to the point that the actress was unrecognizable. (Taube, 2014) Editors for these large fashion houses are fixated with the idea that certain nose shapes, waist sizes, skin tones, and muscle masses are preferred. They edit models and celebrities to mimic these preferences, to the point where everyone looks the same and these ideas are only perpetuated further. The never-ending cycle continues, thus creating the “perfect human” for real-life consumers to compare themselves to.

Accessible to the Masses: The Affect on Society

The most harmful affect these “perfect” images have on society affect developing teenagers. 70 percent of female teens attested that images in magazines influence their ideas of the ideal body shape, and 46 percent wanted to lose weight because of these images. (Clay, Vignoles, & Dittmar, 2005) Additionally, 60 percent of teenage girls say they compare their bodies to that of fashion models. (Girl Scouts of America, 2009) When these images are edited to perfection, they set unhealthy ideals that are not attainable. Rather than focusing on a healthy lifestyle for a growing teen, adolescent obsess over the superficial.

What is more concerning is the spread of this dilemma to younger children. A study of three to six year olds at the University of Central Florida found that half worried about being “fat”. Additionally, the number of eating disorders in children under twelve is increasing at an alarming rate. (Canning & Wynn, 2011) By reinforcing idealized images through digital alteration, these industries capitalize on profits by harming the psyche of a vulnerable population.

And as technology develops, the problems only seem to increase. New technology developments allow photo editing to go almost completely undetected. And applications on smartphones, such as BeautyPlus and Photo Wonder, allow users to edit photos directly from their device. These apps boast demeaning features like “slimming” tools and “breast enlargement”. (Hong, 2013) Popularity of these advanced photo-editing tools has soared, allowing consumers to over-edit themselves to perfection. Meanwhile, they become more critical of their so-called “imperfections”, and self-esteem inevitably suffers as they rely on editing.

Low self-esteem and distorted body image can lead to real health issues. Extreme dieting and binge eating are common for those suffering from poor body image. In fact, 31 percent of teen girls admit to starving themselves to lose weight. (Girl Scouts of America, 2009) These unhealthy dieting practices can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts, anxiety and obsessive behaviors, eating disorders, and large weight swings. (Queen Victoria Women's Centre Trust, 2008) These risks are detrimental to the health of any individual, but particularly to the developing girls who are affected most by unrealistic images in the media.

The Unhealthy Side of “Skinny”: The Affect on the Industry

One of the most telling aspects of the Photoshop craze comes from a surprising practice: editing models to appear LESS skinny. Industry professionals involved in the extensive editing of models recognize that while they use to have to edit girls down, industry pressures have gotten to the models themselves. They now are so skinny that they look unhealthy, and must be edited to erase bone lines and gaunt features. (Wade, 2013) An editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine outlines this danger:

“For all our retouching, it was still clear to the reader that these women were very, very thin. But, hey, they still looked great! They had 22-inch waists (those were never made bigger), but they also had breasts and great skin. They had teeny tiny ankles and thin thighs, but they still had luscious hair and full cheeks. Thanks to retouching, our readers... never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny…Their skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology…A vision of perfection that simply didn't exist.” (Hardy, 2010)

But what about these models themselves? Industry professionals starve themselves to meet unattainable, never-ceasing expectations. The more they are edited, the more they feel they are not good enough. Supermodel Miranda Kerr has been known to edit pictures of her body to be slimmer for her personal Instagram account. (Weisman, 2013) Even when not for paid work, these public figures feel a need to deliver unachievable sizes.

Indeed, arguably the worst damage to self-esteem is to that of the models themselves, who feeling an unparalleled amount of pressure to deliver perfection, and resort to dangerous habits to achieve it. French model and actress Isabelle Caro made headlines in 2007 for an anti-anorexia campaign featuring her severely deprived, skeletal body (Figure 3). People were shocked to see an unedited Caro, who normally would have been photo-shopped to hide the unsightly realities of her ultra-skinny form (Figure 4). Isabelle passed away at the age of 28 from respiratory complications expected to be the result of fifteen years of anorexia. (Daily Mail, 2010)

The Path to Change

Why “Warnings” Cause More Harm than Good

In the wake of these harmful practices, the most common suggested solution is a warning label on any image that alters the body. Legislation has been proposed throughout Europe that would require any advertisement or publication that physically alters the body pictured to disclose so a’ la a typical health warning (similar to a package of cigarettes). (Gann, 2011)

This solution falls short for two reasons. First, most consumers are immune to this sort of “warning”, and often ignore such information. Even those who do may not be informed of how much an image has been altered or edited, and they may expect it has been altered less than it really has. Second, the message itself is somewhat hypocritical. The message itself says, “This in-shape, attractive, public figure that can afford to eat well, workout with a personal trainer, and dress in premier clothes and make-up still isn’t good enough. So we have perfected this person digitally to show how we think they, and you, should look”. Editing the picture itself, even when disclosing they have done so, simply perpetuates the ideal image and the notion that people should try to look a certain way.

Industry Self-Regulation

Since government intervention is unlikely to occur, or cause much impact, the only chance for change is relying on the industry to change itself. But why would they do this? Why would they sacrifice profits for the good of society? They won’t. But they may change if consumers demand it.

As mentioned, power in the marketplace has shifted from the corporation to the consumer. The power of technology has enable communication to do so. And because of this, we have already seen more people calling for change. Online petitions have inspired magazines to publish “no Photoshop” pictures and one magazine published an entire “no Photoshop” issue. (Legleitner, 2014) Vogue has responded with Lena Dunham’s minimally-edited cover (Rosenberg, 2014), and American Eagle has launched a lingerie campaign free of editing (Lutz, 2014).

The driving incentive behind this self-regulation is notoriety. Much like the revolution of social responsibility and green practices, if consumers demand it, companies will follow suit. When responsible practices come to the forefront of consumer debate, they begin to add value to the firm. Thus, the issue must be discussed in depth, with media and research scrutiny illustrating the damaging effects of these practices. Then, advertising the individual company’s strides towards a better body image must be implemented to create value.

Education and Parenting

Equally important is the education and parenting of those most vulnerable to these societal pressures. Clay et al. suggest from their findings that educating children and teens on the purpose of media images and healthy beauty may be the most successful way to reduce the internalization of these images. That is, if young people understand why they are presented these images, and learn how to be beautiful and healthy, harmful media imagery may not prompt them to try and match that of the images they see. (Clay, Vignoles, & Dittmar, 2005)

Queen Victoria’s Women’s Centre in Australia agrees that empowering young women to critically analyze media imagery and make their own, informed choice can reduce media pressures regarding weight and increase their satisfaction with their own body. (Queen Victoria Women's Centre Trust, 2008)

Parenting is also an important aspect in curbing children’s concern regarding body image, particularly with younger children. Younger children generally do not notice their personal traits until someone brings attention to them. (Gann, 2011) Parents can set an example by focusing on health rather than looks, for both themselves and their children. They can curtail bullying by discussing positive attributes about themselves and others, and continue educational efforts regarding media. Janis Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, suggests parents treat media imagery like ghosts or monsters: fictional characters meant to entice a specific reaction. (Gann, 2011)

The most important aspect for both parenting and education efforts is a focus on health, rather than image. Rather than focusing a conversation on negatives like dieting, calories, or fat loss, focus the conversation on positives like healthy living and fun activities. (Gann, 2011)

The Plan

This plan outlines the development of a cross-industry organization for the betterment of media imagery, the Council for Advertising and Media Educational Outreach (CAMEO). CAMEO will be made up of professionals from the fields of fashion, advertising, journalism, medicine (including pediatrics), nutrition/health, and psychology. This council will have two goals: (1) the development of guidelines companies adopt to portray positive, healthy body images and (2) the education of young adults regarding healthy living and the purpose of media imagery.

CAMEO will feature a logo (the Cameo “Healthy Stamp of Approval”), which businesses can proudly display when they sign the pledge to adhere to the guidelines set forth by the council (Figure 5). They will begin by inviting respected industry professionals who have shown interest in this reform to sit on the council (Figures 6 and 7). They will then invite businesses to sign the CAMEO pledge (Figures 8, 9, and 10). CAMEO will regularly monitor the publications of the businesses that sign the pledge, and will revoke the CAMEO Healthy Stamp of Approval if a business is found to not be compliant with these standards.

It is realized it will not be simple to partner with these high-profile organizations. The key is to begin partnering first with organizations that already engrain these ideals in their core philosophy (i.e. Dove and American Eagle) and challenge them to make it official. With a few high-profile companies, CAMEO can then start to grow and spread it’s reach.

CAMEO will host educational programs to start discussions about healthy living, media purpose, and body image. The program will initially focus on adolescents’ ages 9-17, with additional programs for other age groups being possible once the council gains footing. Children will be inspired to “make their own CAMEO”, developing their own healthy goals (not based on weight or appearance) rather than relying on celebrities and models appearances for comparison. Programs will include healthy field day events (sponsored and advertised with CAMEO approved businesses) and celebrity-filled Public Service Announcements discussing healthy body image. Educational “viral videos” will also be sponsored, such as the one found here:

CAMEO will function as a non-profit, and will be funded by donations and government programs (i.e. through the FCC).


We cannot expect a change in society’s value of the ultra-thin to change overnight. Nor can we expect simply minimizing Photoshop use to do so. However, the premise of perfecting every image stalls us from progressing towards change. Industry pressures to perfect the body are extremely damaging and unethical, as they only benefit corporations through profits earned by lowered self-esteem.

Thus, the minimization of Photoshop to be used simply as a tool for touching up pictures, and not humans, is the vital first step towards creating a healthy example for young people. We cannot expect industry to give up the practice, but we can work towards healthy guidelines to depict realistic body types. Michael Graupmann put it best when he suggested, “Perhaps it is time for a refresher course for the media and Americans of what Photoshop was created for originally: bringing a subject more into focus, not creating works of fiction.” (Graupmann, 2011)


Figure 4: A typical edited photo of Isabelle Caro, depicting ultra-skinny yet healthy-ish features.

Figure 3: Isabelle Caro’s shock campaign against the dangers of anorexia for Milan Fashion Week in 2007

Figure 2: Actual size of Ralph Lauren Model

Figure : Ralph Lauren’s Edited Photo

Figure 5: The Council for Advertising and Media Educational Outreach (CAMEO) “Healthy Stamp of Approval” for Businesses

Figure 6: CAMEO’s invitation letter to join the residing council

Figure 7: Prospect list for Council Members for CAMEO

Figure 8: Letter to Business Prospects for Healthy Stamp of Approval

Figure 9: Business Prospects for Healthy Stamp of Approval

Figure 10: An example of what the CAMEO Pledge for Businesses may look like

Works Cited

Wade, L. (2013, 12 30). Models Are So Thin Magazines Have To Photoshop Them Fatter . Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Business Insider:
Weisman, A. (2013, 11 15). The Internet is Fuming After Miranda Kerr Posts Photoshopped Picture on Instagram. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Business INsider:
Canning, A., & Wynn, G. (2011, 6 20). Body Image Issues: 6-Year-Old Girl Worries She Is Fat. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from ABC News:
Clay, D., Vignoles, V. L., & Dittmar, H. (2005). Body Image and Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls: Testing the Influence of Sociocultural Factors. JOURNAL OF RESEARCH ON ADOLESCENCE , 15 (4), 451-477.
Daily Mail. (2010, 12 30). Anorexic Model who appeared in shock ad campaign dies at 28. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Mail Online:
Gann, C. (2011, 11 30). Home> Health Parents Should Tell Kids Picture-Perfect Celebs Aren't Real, Psychologists Say. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from ABC News:
Girl Scouts of America. (2009). Beauty Redefined Fact Sheet. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Girl Scouts of America:
Graupmann, M. (2011, 6 29). Photoshop on the chopping block?: AMA condemns touching up fashion photos. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Culture Map Austin:
Hardy, L. (2010, 5 20). A big fat (and very dangerous) lie: A former Cosmo editor lifts the lid on airbrushing skinny models to look healthy . Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Mail Online:
Hong, K. (2013, 8 16). I tried 5 photo apps to help you look more beautiful online. Are they better than plastic surgery? Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from The Next Web:!x2wK5
Lutz, A. (2014, 1 7). American Eagle Abandons Photoshop for New Lingerie Campaign. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Business Insider:

Legleitner, E. (2014, 2 7). The No PhotoShop Movement. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from The Michigan Times:

Mail Foreign Service. (2009, 10 10). Ralph Lauren apologises for digitally retouching slender model to make her head look bigger than her waist . Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Mail Online:
Queen Victoria Women's Centre Trust. (2008). Young Women, Body Image, and the Digital Age. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Queen Victoria Women's Centre:
Rosenberg, A. (2014, 2 21). Lena Dunham’s Vogue Shoot Is A Reminder That Photoshop And Feminism Don’t Have To Be Mortal Enemies. Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Think Progress:
Taube, A. (2014, 2 27). Dior Photoshops Jennifer Lawrence So Badly, She's Almost Unrecognizable . Retrieved 3 2, 2014, from Business Insider:

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