When the digital world of female faces and bodies looks nothing like the natural world, is it any wonder that women have turned to physical alteration to meet the unreal standards? The possibility of achieving unnatural ideals through enhancements, procedures and products is a game-changer for what women today are capable of looking like. But what about their daughters, students and coworkers? What will their own  “flawed” forms look like in comparison to that manipulated reality? With our own game-changing suggestions, we see an opportunity for a much more beautiful future.

You’ve heard about the epidemic of digital manipulation across media. Photoshopping, or other forms of image manipulation, is now an all-out media industry standard according to the likes of women’s magazine editors across the country (one of the most dangerous offenders). Plus, more than 60 percent of girls today admit to Photoshopping their OWN photos on their social networks. But this isn’t just a problem with print images.  This is a problem with our own self-images and our own actual appearances. Henry Farid, a Dartmouth Professor who specializes in digital forensics, put it quite succinctly: “The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible. We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery…big breasts, tiny waist, ridiculously long legs, elongated neck. All the body fat is removed, all the wrinkles are removed, the skin is smoothed out.” But you don’t have to be a professor to see this impossibly high bar being raised higher by the minute.

These billions of images of women in media far outnumber the females we could ever see eye to eye, and that reinforces a distorted idea of what we should like. Not even just what it takes to be the most desirable or beautiful – but what a regular, normal, average woman looks like. And we act out these distorted ideals of normal and attainable in very real ways – in our daily beauty endeavors and our beauty plans. Some of these examples may seem like a bit of a stretch, but consider them as strategies we use to take the unreal ideals we see in a lifetime of media use and impose them upon our own bodies to try to attain the reality we see mediated to us. Some of these examples may be part of your life or your plans for your life and others may not, but all of them represent the ways we quite literally physically “Photoshop” ourselves out of reality:

  • Cosmetic surgery: breast augmentation, liposuction, body contouring, lifts, tucks
  • Botox
  • Diet Pills
  • Tanning or skin lightening
  • Collagen facial fillers and lip injections
  • Lash extensions and prescriptions
  • Pore minimizing makeup and skin care
  • Anti-aging creams, lotions, gels
  • Laser hair removal
  • Tattooed makeup
  • Anti-cellulite procedures
  • Teeth whitening

We can’t help but imagine how different our world looked just a decade or two ago – not just in terms of what women in media looked like when digital manipulation was only science fiction – but what women in real life looked like. Cosmetic surgery was nearly non-existent. In just the last decade, there was a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures (namely liposuction and breast enhancement) in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone. Tanning beds were hard to find and extra pricey when found. Laser hair removal was non-existent. Tattooed makeup like eyeliner and lip liner was unheard of. Collagen lip injections and facial fillers hadn’t yet seen the light of day. Lash lengthening prescriptions weren’t conceived of, anti-cellulite procedures and gels weren’t on the market, teeth whitening wasn’t an everyday activity, pore-minimizing and anti-aging products were marketed by very few. Armpit beautifying lotion would have been laughable, as would butt-shaping shoes (especially for 8-year-old girls, but thankfully Skechers has filled that hole in the industry!).

Women inevitably looked different back then. Today, we see women presented to us all hours of the day in every form of media that do not look like women 20 years ago OR women you see face to face. And yet, over time, many of us come to hold ourselves to that unattainable standard that appears so normal and unquestioned as we physically Photoshop ourselves out of reality.

What does our world look like for little girls growing up today? What about for women growing older in a world that looks radically different than it did when they grew up? And how much pain, energy and time will they have to put into physically Photoshopping themselves out of reality? To be sure, it doesn’t come naturally. Each year, women put hundreds of billions of dollars into the latest procedures, products and prescriptions to try to reach that “bar” the wide world of media is raising.

But we raise that bar for ourselves and our daughters when we take part in our own physical Photoshopping. We raise that bar for females everywhere when we physically manipulate ourselves in attempts to meet a profit-driven standard that is inherently unattainable.

The line is different for every woman, and no woman should be shamed or blamed for how she chooses to enact “beauty.” We’re in this fight together! These messages telling us we are not worthy of love, happiness or success unless we are unattainably beautiful, thin, and sexually desirable are lies, but they are powerful. To the girls and women reading this: If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong. (In the U.S., we got this statement on billboards as a much-needed reminder!) We grasp the reality of our beauty when we begin to see ourselves for what our beauty really entails, and not what industries would have us believe: scars from years of playing, freckles from the sun, wrinkles from smiling and laughing and living, cheerfulness in spite of trials, selflessness
when there are so many reasons to turn inward, musical gifts, the ability to solve math problems with ease, the ways we join together with other women instead of gossip and judge, the time and care we offer our families and friends, and the list goes on and on and on.

We are in the midst of a beautiful reality that is ours once we recognize it and grasp hold of it. And studies show that when we can learn to love ourselves – despite the beauty ideals we are surrounded by and cannot obtain – it shows! Recent studies show us that girls who don’t like their bodies or appreciate them – regardless of their actual appearance – become more sedentary over time and pay less attention to having a healthy diet. And that makes sense. If you think you’re gross and worthless, why would you take care of yourself?

On the flipside of that study, research has found that girls who feel good about themselves and respect their bodies – regardless of what they look like – are more likely to be physically active and eat healthy. They are less likely to gain unnecessary weight and they make healthy lifestyle choices far into the future. How we think about our bodies and our beauty has everything to do with how we treat ourselves. When we can learn to love and respect ourselves, regardless of how our bodies appear, it shows! We must learn this now and we must begin to teach the little girls in our lives how beautiful their realities are and can always be.

Here’s an outrageous idea: What would happen if confident, happy, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all over hair removal or tanning regimens? How could that change the way their daughters, students, friends, nieces and coworkers perceived themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real faces? Their own varied-looking and perfectly functional breasts, behinds, thighs, arms and abs? How could simply owning and (treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes.

What if we stopped Photoshopping or altering our own photos to fit unreal ideals, including family portraits and even kids’ school photos, which are now sold in packages that include blemish removal and teeth whitening, among other manipulations of reality? What if we stopped imposing our current perceptions of beauty and flawlessness on our own families in this small way, and allowed pictures to capture what we really look like — even in those awkward adolescent years? Don’t we want our posterity to see our reality, instead of a manipulated version of what we thought we or our children should look like in order to be acceptable?

Yes, maybe all the other girls at school are getting the Photoshopped school photo package. And yes, maybe every 55-year-old woman on TV or movies has a wrinkle-free, perfectly injected and lifted face that appears ageless. But when I look at my own mom, who I’ve never doubted is incredibly beautiful, and I see her very real face with very natural smile lines, it makes me feel OK about the newly appearing creases around my own eyes. My first thought isn’t how unnatural and unacceptable those lines are and how quick I can start my first round of Botox. It’s that they’re OK. They’re normal. They don’t detract from me. They make me ME. 

My mom doesn’t need injections in her face to fix anything or make her more beautiful, and I don’t either. But if she ever decides to, I would understand. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 28, I frankly don’t yet grasp the real pain and anxiety that undoubtedly accompanies aging and its effects on female faces and bodies that become invisible and worthless in some ways to a society that prizes youthful beauty over all else.

But if my mom doesn’t succumb to the pressure to change her physical reality and, in turn, my own reality of what women’s faces and bodies can look like and should look like, I will be forever grateful. My own smile lines will show it. In turn, I will proudly show my future children, nieces, nephews, or students my un-altered middle school photos, bushy eyebrows and all. Let’s preserve our beautiful reality for ourselves and for the future generations (inlcuding those growing up today) who deserve to see what’s real, rather than the ideals we chose to embrace digitally and physically.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.