The birth of digital image editing has revolutionized photography forever. It has changed the way we mentally process photos, it has changed the way we view the world around us, but most importantly, it has changed the way we view ourselves. While programs like Photoshop provide an immense amount of opportunities for photography and digital art, it also provides a platform for promoting unrealistic expectations – particularly when it comes to body image. We are bombarded with images everyday of what is being sold as the epitome of beauty – the be all, end all of bodily perfection – showering us with body dysmorphia and causing many of us to resort to extremes to meet the standards we are being brainwashed to believe are real.
In 2011, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement in recognition of the negative influence of digitally altered images on body image. Who could possibly deny that? Not only is it giving an unrealistic expectation for what the human body should look like, it’s also completely stripping personhood from models, as many of the images are composites of random hair, faces, legs, arms – much of which doesn’t even belong to the original model; women become worth only their best bodily feature. There are many naysayers who disagree with AMA’s statement, but I’m definitely inclined to agree. There tends to be some confusion about the process itself, as many people think it’s just a bit of airbrushing and viola, but in reality it’s an immense effort that can take days and days and a world of patience. Once you see what really happens behind the scenes, it becomes apparent that not only is categorically impossible to conform to society’s expectations of perfection, but also that we as women are suddenly valued only as parts of a body to paste together into someone’s idea of a flawless Female 2.0.
This is Katy Perry, or rather, a dismembered Katy Perry composed of body parts from different photographs and retouched to make a whole Katy Perry 2.0. This is a great example to show how powerful programs like Photoshop actually are, giving insight on the work that happens behind the scenes.
Not sexy enough? No problem. Photoshop can give you an entirely different facial expression, as well as remove many years off your face. After all, who wants to admit women actually age?
This picture should give you some déjà vu, because it’s Demi Moore’s head plastered onto supermodel Anja Rubik’s body. Why alter and airbrush the shape of a body when you can just decapitate a celebrity with the face to sell and put it on the unattainable body of a supermodel?
Even companies jumping on the anti-Photoshop bandwagon are ironically encouraging the commodification of bodily perfection. Dove, famous for their Real Beauty campaign, among other feel-good campaigns promoting diversity in body image, is owned by the same company as Axe. That’s right, Unilever owns Dove and Axe, who made this.
I spoke with Karis Drake, a veteran photographer and Photoshop artist, on his thoughts regarding AMA’s official statement and the link between retouched images and plummeting body image. “Photoshop can create a perfect face when selling makeup, and the company selling that makeup will do anything in its power to reach [their customer]. That includes creating false ideals of perfection. Repeat this thousands and thousands of times and all of a sudden it has been woven into our everyday life. It becomes very normal, and in ways, expected.” He emphasizes it is consumerism that drives the industry, as negative body image is, sadly, profitable. If people link their appearance to their success in careers, relationships, or life in general, they will do and buy anything to achieve this success. Dove plays the same song to a different tune, where they emphasize ethics that their parent company very blatantly defies, all because it’s profitable. One hand is lecturing against the idealization of bodily perfection while the other is endorsing it and using it to market products to men. It’s two completely opposite messages coming from different corners of the same mouth, but all for one purpose – profit.
Exactly how much time and effort goes into photoshopped images? “I’ve spent over 12 hours on a photo for a hair competition,” Karis explains. “It was shot by a photographer who wanted a composite created from nine different images. This includes changing arms, torso, and even a head, and adding every angle of good hair available. The result ended up winning for a certain competition, and I was the secret that was never mentioned in the details. Never accept what you see, no matter how good it looks.”
On the flip side, these celebrities who are being promoted as the ideal of feminine perfection are often treated as though they owe it to us, their fans and followers, to be the epitome of beauty at any given moment in time. Just look at all the flack Kim Kardashian has been getting for gaining weight during her pregnancy. It is never okay to shame someone for any part of their appearance for any reason, pregnant or not, but this is a great example of the no-tolerance attitude taken by media and consumers.
When Christina Aguilera made her comeback, websites were filled with comments from readers in regards to her supposed weight gain. While I regretfully didn’t screenshot this comment, I actually read “Get on the treadmill and try again, bitch.” Madonna in turn is frequently criticized for… aging, because how dare she? Shirley Manson, front-woman of Garbage, made some great commentary in her defense:
“The tabloids complain about her looking old, and people laugh at her for that. Then Madonna goes and fixes her face, and they laugh at her for that. Even though they begrudgingly say she looks amazing, they’ll still laugh at her for trying to look young. Then she steps out, looking amazing, and the tabloids go and blow up a picture of her aging hand. Nobody’s doing that to George Clooney, blowing up pictures of his hands! I look at these magazines, and I want to say to them, What’s your point? That she’s aged? Does that surprise you? Or is your ‘point’ an attempt to undercut what she’s achieved? I think it is, even if it’s on a subconscious level. And you probably wouldn’t turn down those hands if they were grabbing you under the table, you fucking idiots.”
She makes a fantastic point, as the pressure is mostly on females to defy aging and pregnancy and continue to look like they never did because the pictures – the point of comparison – were Photoshopped to begin with. The rate of eating disorders in North America is much higher in females, and this can clearly be linked to the emphasis on feminine perfection and the quest for attaining the unattainable; this subsequently brings us back to the realization that this quest happens to be extremely profitable for the beauty industry. It is a profit made at the expense of not only the physical and psychological wellbeing of us as individuals, but at the expense of women as a whole, as our worth is reduced to marketer’s efforts to trick us into thinking there’s something wrong with us for not looking like a picture of 10 different dismembered women cut and pasted together into an ideal Frankenbride.
Photoshop isn’t all bad. It has been abused with negative intentions, but it has also provided limitless possibilities for digital art. “I want to point out that I don’t blame Photoshop entirely for being the problem,” Karis says. “It can absolutely open up opportunities, and I would be lost without it. Now I spend my focus on adjusting lighting and color, and that is much more pleasing than giving someone 8 inches of extra length on their legs. The problem in part lies with corporations and the media trying to sell us all these false ideals without telling us that it’s all a lie. We as a society should be insulted that we continue to fall for this. We need to educate ourselves on what we are looking at everyday. When I look at a fashion magazine, I know I’m looking at a fantasy. But does a 14-year-old girl? This is where a huge part of the problem lies. So who’s responsible for the wellbeing of that girl?”
On that note, who is responsible for the wellbeing of young and/or impressionable consumers? How should we be approaching the correlation between body dysmorphia and image editing? Placing warnings on airbrushed images like France is considering? The problem is much more than airbrushing, as the issue is the driving force to destroy the female self-esteem in order to promote products we probably wouldn’t ever think of using otherwise. From foundations, eyeliners, and hair dye to intense plastic surgery, many women go to extremes to mimic a fantasy. We must learn to embrace ourselves as we are, be aware of what we are consuming, and most importantly, spread this awareness to others. While Photoshop isn’t the villain, it’s proving to be a very effective weapon.