Photoshopping: Altering Images and Our Minds

Photoshopping, digital alteration, image manipulation, blah blah blah. Everyone talks about the fact that so many images of women are “perfected” with the help of technology, but we can’t just toss it aside as a non-issue everyone already knows about. Whether or not a person is aware of the possibility of image alterations, not everyone realizes exactly HOW MUCH these images are changed to fit some seriously un-human and unrealistic ideals that we view over and over. And not everyone understands that it isn’t just fashion magazine covers that feature drastically Photoshopped images. It’s TV. It’s video. It’s your favorite brand online. It’s everywhere.

While the vast majority of images of women are being digitally altered, so are our perceptions of normal, healthy, beautiful and attainable.

A before-and-after image from Britney Spears’ 2013 “Work B****” music video obtained by the Daily Mail, which shows the digital slim-down Britney’s body received via CGI.

One of the main strategies used to reinforce and normalize a distorted idea of “average” is media’s representation of women as extremely thin (meaning much thinner than the actual population or what is physically possible for the vast majority of women) – either by consistent use of models and actresses that are underweight or extremely thin, or by making the models and actresses fit their idea of ideal thinness and beauty through digital manipulation both on screen through computer-generated imagery (CGI — shown in the Britney Spears music video example) and in print media. Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup and hair care” (Coward, 1985) – and 30 years later, plastic surgery and Photoshop. This unrealistic form is consistently represented across almost all media forms, along with blemish-free, wrinkle-free, and even pore-free skin, thanks to the wonders of digital manipulation as an “industry standard” that is openly endorsed and defended by magazine editors and media makers the world over.

Though we hear about digital manipulation controversies all the time (check out our Photoshopping Phoniness Hall of Shame for tons of examples), media executives and producers continue to use it to an unbelievable extent and they violently defend it as a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Here are a couple interesting (and appalling) case studies from Seventeen and Self magazines to showcase this very issue:

The Feb. 2014 cover of Seventeen, featuring Troian Bellisario

The February 2014 cover of Seventeen featured “Pretty Little Liars” star Troian Bellisario, who opened up about her past problems with an eating disorder. The teen magazine decided to feature that as a teaser on the cover, right above a much larger headline for “Get an Insane Body — It’s hard, but you’ll look hot!” This juxtaposition of providing an outlet for a young actress to open up to young fans about a disorder that “ripped her life apart” next to a story promoting the thin ideals that drive many girls and women to such extremes in eating is appallingly irresponsible. Read more about our thoughts on Seventeen here.

When superstar singer Kelly Clarkson was digitally slimmed down almost beyond recognition on Self’s September 2009 cover, people noticed. Her appearance on “Good Morning America” within just days of the cover shoot proved that her body did not look anything like the very thin one that appeared on the cover. In a shockingly ironic twist, the issue she appeared on was titled “The Body Confidence Issue” and featured an interview inside where she explained how comfortable she felt with her body:

“My happy weight changes,” Clarkson says in the September issue of SELF. “Sometimes I eat more; sometimes I play more. I’ll be different sizes all the time. When people talk about my weight, I’m like, ‘You seem to have a problem with it; I don’t. I’m fine!’ I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the red carpet or anything.” 

Kelly Clarkson before and after Photoshop on Self magazine, Sept. 2009

Rather than apologizing for the seriously unethical and extreme Photoshopping snafu, Self editor Lucy Danziger tried to defend her magazine’s work to the death:

“Yes, of course we do post-production corrections on our images. Photoshopping is an industry standard,” she stated. “Kelly Clarkson exudes confidence, and is a great role model for women of all sizes and stages of their life. She works out and is strong and healthy, and our picture shows her confidence and beauty. She literally glows from within. That is the feeling we’d all want to have. We love this cover and we love Kelly Clarkson.”

Interestingly, Danziger wasn’t satisfied with that statement and felt inspired to take to her personal blog to further rationalize away the Photoshopping hack job:

“Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best…But in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.”

It’s hard to believe anyone’s “personal best” is a fake representation of herself. They’ll plaster “body confidence!” all over the magazine and quote Kelly talking about her own real body confidence, but they refuse to show us her actual body.

Target’s March 2014 Photoshop hack job to the JUNIOR’s swim line is unreal.

This is just one example that happened to generate enough media coverage that people were able to find out about the scary distortion of an active, 27-year-old superstar’s body in media. Unfortunately, this case study is pretty representative of thousands more that appear in magazines, on billboards, in advertisements, in stores and everywhere else you can think of every single day. At Beauty Redefined, we’ve termed this phenomenon “the normalization of abnormal.” Since we’ll see millions more images of women in media than we’ll ever see face-to-face, those images form a new standard for not just “beautiful,” but also “average” and “healthy” in our minds. When women compare themselves to a standard of beautiful, average and healthy that simply doesn’t exist in real life, the battle for healthy body image is already lost. Last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced they’ve adopted a policy against “false advertising:”

The AMA adopted a new policy to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those appearing in teen-oriented publications, that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.

Dr. McAneny of the AMA states, “We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software.” And yet, in the last year, Photoshopping has reached an all-time high. It is inescapable.

From lost self-esteem, lost money and time spent fixing “flaws” and a well-documented preoccupation with losing weight (NEDA, 2010), the effects of these unreal ideals hurt everyone. We know that advertising – especially for fashion or beauty products – depends on two things: 1) girls and women believing their happiness, health, and ability to be loved is dependent on their appearance, and 2) girls and women believing can achieve physical ideals by using certain products or services. Do we really understand that ALL media (with very few exceptions) depends on advertising dollars to operate? Because of that, the editorial content or programming has to uphold those same ideals or else advertisers aren’t happy. Digitally slimming women’s bodies, adding or exaggerating a “thigh gap,” and removing signs of life like pores, gray hairs, and wrinkles aren’t just casual decisions based on aesthetic preferences of a few editors — they are profit-driven decisions to create false ideals for females to seek after in hopes of someday attaining. These hopes are largely driven by desire to be found attractive, loved, appear healthy, and ultimately, happy.

Same model, differing degrees of Photoshopping on REAL printed ads, Oct. 2009. Ralph Lauren responded: “After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”

One telling example from the ‘90s (found in Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth”) explains how a prominent women’s magazine featured gray-haired models in a fashion spread (unheard of even today, right?). It was a success until one of their biggest advertisers, Clairol hair color company, pulled their entire campaign as a protest against the spread. The magazine, which depended on those advertising dollars, was forced to never again feature gray-haired women in a positive light. The same holds true for media today. Pay attention to what kind of companies are advertising in your favorite magazines or during your favorite TV shows. There’s a very good chance they are selling beauty products, weight loss products or other appearance-related services, which means the female characters featured positively (like in relationships or pursued by men, complimented, not the butt of jokes, etc.) will likely resemble the idealized women in the advertising.

From media outlets like that go to great lengths to make unrealistic and unattainable beauty ideals look normal and within reach, to the diet and weight loss industry raking in an estimated $61 billion on Americans’ quest for thinness in 2010 (Marketdata Enterprises, 2009), those with financial interests at stake in our beliefs about women’s bodies are thriving unlike ever before. Simultaneously, women and families are losing. Losing self-esteem. Losing time and money spent on items, services and products meant to fix our never-ending list of “flaws.” Losing real understandings of healthy, average and attainable. Sometimes even losing weight they didn’t need to lose in dangerous ways in order to measure up (or down) to Photoshopped ideals we see every day as “normal.”

Former high fashion model, Crystal Renn, battled a deadly eating disorder for many years before deciding to switch to “plus size” modeling for health purposes. Photographer and Fashion for Passion founder Nicholas Routzen said that Crystal looked thinner because the photos were “…taken from a higher angle with a wider lens,” but that“I shaped her … I did nothing that I wouldn’t do to anyone. I’m paid to make women look beautiful.”

While representations of women’s bodies across the media spectrum have shrunk dramatically in the last three decades, rates of eating disorders have skyrocketed – tripling for college-age women from the late ‘80s to 1993 and rising since then to 4% suffering with bulimia (National Eating Disorder Association, 2010). Perhaps even more startling is the 119 percent increase in the number of children under age 12 hospitalized due to an eating disorder between 1999 and 2006, the vast majority of whom were girls (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). Though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2000) reports that “no exact cause of eating disorders have yet been found,” they do admit that some characteristics have been shown to influence the development of the illnesses, which include low self-esteem, fear of becoming fat and being in an environment where weight and thinness were emphasized – all of which are shown to be related to media depictions of idealized bodies, which is all but inescapable. Scholars have proposed that eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are due, in part, to an extreme commitment to attaining the cultural body ideal as portrayed in media.

Photoshopping has taken these unreal ideals to a scary new level. Henry Farid, a Dartmouth professor of computer science who specializes in digital forensics and photo manipulation, agrees. “The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible,” he told ABC News in August 2009. “We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery. It’s moving towards the Barbie doll model of what a woman should look like — 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.”

What we see in media, and what we may be internalizing as normal or beautiful, is anything but normal or beautiful. It’s fake. It’s a profit-driven idea of normal and beautiful that women will spend their lives trying to achieve and men will spend their lives trying to find. But until we all learn to recognize and reject these harmful messages about what it means to look like a woman, we all lose. And I don’t want to lose. Are you with us in taking back beauty for females everywhere?

Recognize that you are not just a body. Recognize that your body is not just an ornament or an object to be fixed and judged — it is an instrument to live and do and be. Reject messages that teach you otherwise. Cancel subscriptions, unfollow on social media, spend your money elsewhere, talk back to companies and speak up in your own circles of influence. Your reflection does not define your worth, and self-comparisons to unreal ideals get us absolutely nowhere. These ideals are unlikely to change anytime soon, so we have to change our perceptions of media and bodies with or without media.

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.

For the largest and most detailed collection of Photoshopping Phoniness on the Web, see our Hall of Shame Gallery!

And have you seen our new sticky notes to slap on magazines in the store aisle? They’re soooo good. Find them here

Weight, Size and Media Lies: The Numbers Don’t Add Up

We’ve all been duped. After years of TV watching, magazine reading, advertising exposure and media dominating our worlds, too many of us have internalized sneaky media lies that normal, average and regular, healthy women all maintain a weight of about 100-125 and wear between a 00 (yes, that’s a double zero) and a 4. Those are the only numbers we ever hear. Everything else is kept top secret, as if weighing more than 125 at any height is a horrible shame to keep locked inside or to be reserved only for grim “before” stories of extreme body makeovers.

Celebrities tend to keep their weight/size stats on the down-low for the most part, but occasionally we are hit with some numbers — whether written into scripts, divulged in interviews or leaked by stylists. Zoe Saldana weighs 115, as declared in a May 2013 Allure magazine headline. In the movie “500 days of Summer,” the gorgeous sought-after girl next door (Zooey Deschanel as Summer), is described as being of “average” height and “average” weight, which is listed on the screen as 5’5″ and 121 lbs. Jennifer Lopez told Vogue in March 2012 that she is “just a regular woman. I wear a size 6.” In the pilot episode of “30 Rock,” Jack Donaghy (boss man Alec Baldwin) says he could deduce anything about Liz Lemon (employee Tina Fey) from their first meeting. She says, “What? Are you going to guess my weight now?” He replies, “You don’t want me to do that” (in a threatening “you-would-be-ashamed-if-I-said-it-out-loud” manner). Shortly after, he does state her embarrassing weight … and it’s 127.

With the help of for-profit media upheld by advertisers who make billions off unattainable beauty ideals, many of us have come to believe a very distorted picture of what it means to look like (or weigh like or fit into clothes like) a “normal” woman. Along with the idealized images of women’s bodies we see nonstop in all forms of media, the vast majority of the weights or dress sizes we ever hear or see in mainstream media are carefully selected and often distorted. They are generally in reference to models and celebrities ranging from size 00-4 (sometimes 6, and it’s usually treated as a real act of bravery to admit it), and though media makes them sound totally standard and “average” for any woman, we know that they are not representative of many regular, healthy women all over the world who often feel like abnormally large monsters when they compare their own weights or sizes to those declared by celebrities or casually thrown around in TV or movie scripts.

The average model is 5’11” and 117 lbs (which is considered severely underweight, even according to the BMI). That does not mean every person with those stats is unhealthy, but we do know that with the exception of a few, most women would have to go to unhealthy extremes to get anywhere near those measurements. The vast majority of women we see in any form of media are very thin, not to mention digitally altered, softly lit, and styled by an entourage of experts from the roots of her hair to to the tips of her toes. But what about those female celebs who do appear to be of a more normative size and weight than runway models? Their weights and sizes should sound a lot more like the middle/higher end of the spectrum, right? They’ll make us 127-lbs-and-up gals feel less freakish, right?

When It Comes to Size, These Aren’t Such “Little White Lies

If, by chance, the beautiful women we see in popular culture are not very thin, they often publicly profess to being a size or weight that does not seem to be reflective of their actual measurements. Take Kim Kardashian for example. (There’s no need to explain who she is at this point.) When ridiculous backlash against her body size came up in 2011, Kim blogged to her fans that she loved her cellulite and “va va voom” figure and they should embrace their own bodies. Just weeks later, she made sure the world knew that she was a “curvy size 2” and no bigger. But Kim isn’t alone in claiming a size that seems to be much smaller than her actual self. After media controversy swirled around Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jessica Simpson gaining weight in recent years, both women set the record straight by simultaneously claiming they “loved their curves” and were very happy with their “size 2” figures (note: this was before Jessica’s pregnancy and media frenzy over her post-baby weight).

Or take 5′ 9″ singer/actress Jennifer Hudson, who told reporters in 2007 she weighed 140 lbs., after dropping 30 since her American Idol days. She said that in a sea of size 2 celebrities, she enjoys representing the “real women*” out there with her healthy figure. But after signing a contract with Weight Watchers in early 2010, she self-reported to have lost 80 lbs. total, and wears a size 4- 6. If we do the math based on what she has told the press, that means the curvy singer would currently weigh 90 lbs. (170 lbs. during Idol, 140 lbs. in 2007, -50 with Weight Watchers in 2010 = 90 lbs!) Unlikely.

Take a glance at full-length shots of Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Simpson, or Jennifer Hudson, and then grab a pair of size 2 (or 4) jeans. Something tells us these celebs are telling a dangerous not-so-white lie to the girls and women who adore them and who can’t help but compare their own real weights and sizes to these potentially very misleading claims. Blame it on vanity sizing or only wearing extremely stretchy clothing, but either way, publicly claiming to wear a size at the lowest end of the spectrum is significant for every girl or woman who compares that claim to her own clothing tags. 

No wonder our perception of “average” or “healthy” is incredibly skewed toward thinness and unreal perfection. Since we’ll see billions more images of women in media than we will ever see face to face, we must counteract those images with reality. Lexie and I got a glimpse of some refreshing reality freshman year of college when one of our friends (who was pretty thin-looking and very athletic) confidently and casually stated that she weighed 165. We had never heard any girl or woman share their weight that was anywhere over about 135. We never made a big deal of it at the time, but it was so incredibly informative to hear that number — that was higher than we assumed and higher than we had been taught was acceptable for a healthy girl or woman — spoken confidently, with no apologies or shame accompanying it, and from a healthy, active girl.

What does normal look like? What do accurate weights and heights look like? For starters, we recommend looking around you. We can’t let media messages, whether in paid advertising or casually thrown in entertainment media, define “average,” “normal” or “healthy” for you. Numbers can’t do that. Numbers are so unbelievably specific to individuals and not comparable for different heights, body types, ethnicities, ages and lifestyles. Those numbers we do ever hear in media (and often from peers or family) are carefully selected, engineered to drive profits for weight-loss companies, cosmetic procedures and other appearance-related products, and also distorted to sound more like the media ideals. We can’t blame a celebrity (or any girl or woman) for claiming to be a weight or size she might not actually be, because we know very well the pressure women face to fit those ideals and the backlash that accompanies not fitting those ideals. We have a strategy for rejecting these lies, and it begins with sacrificing our reliance on the numbers: weight, BMI, measurements and clothing sizes. They are so beyond arbitrary that it is shocking. Don’t believe me? Then read my research on the BMI. Then read my research on how to measure real health and fitness.

Still tempted to base your health or your worth or the success of your day/week/year on what jeans size you’re wearing? Then go get a pair of jeans at Ann Taylor or Old Navy or Banana Republic and get the same size/style from Forever 21 or Express or Target and see the definition of “arbitrary.” Throw away your scale, or at the very least, hide it so it’s only convenient to get to it every 6 months or so. Never calculate your BMI again, and forget whatever it told you about your health category. Buy whatever clothing size fits you properly and helps you feel comfortable enough to not picture what you look like all day long and self-objectify yourself away from exercising, eating a healthy diet and being successful in every area of life. And please, please, please don’t let your value and worth go up as your size goes down, and vice versa. The numbers we should be focusing on are the number of minutes you spend engaging in physical activity, your heart rate, your blood sugar, your cholesterol and your best friend’s phone number (so you can call her to get her on board with this whole thing).

Along with fighting media lies using our own beautiful realities, let’s institute a policy of honesty — what we might consider the best policy — particularly between mothers and daughters! One of our supporters recently shared with us that she grew up with a very messed-up perception of heights and weights because her mom always lied about how tall she was — exaggerating her height by at least 3″, which left our friend feeling “like a clumsy giant, enormous in comparison to her, and so confused why I felt so very large in comparison,” considering she was only two inches taller than her mom’s self-proclaimed height. For this reason, she says, ” I will never fib to my daughters or anyone else about how tall I am or how much I weigh or any other measurement.” Lots of us have experienced feelings of being dreadfully abnormal when comparing our own measurements to the exaggerated claims of others. We must normalize reality. We must work on taking back beauty every single day.

Moms can do so much good in normalizing real weights and sizes by telling the truth to daughters and sons who might not get to hear other real info about bodies from media or self-conscious friends. That doesn’t mean we all need to go around declaring our dress size or weights — in fact, we would strongly recommend that you do not do anything of the sort. Regular discussion of those numbers is often not necessary or helpful for the well-being of ourselves or others. As women, we are taught to be so fixated on those numbers that they come to define us, and determine our happiness. Have you ever stepped on a scale in the morning only to see a number that was slightly higher (or lower, in some cases) than what you hoped for? Did it tank your mood, lead to discouragement or shame and contribute to unhealthy decision throughout the following day or week? Been there. Skip the scale. Your reflection does not define your worth, and neither does your weight or dress size — no matter how it compares to Kim Kardashian’s claims.

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.

*ALL women are “real women.” Tall, short, thin, regular, curvy, large, whatever. We hate those ideas that only curvy women are “real.” The only women that are un-real are the ones that have been digitally created using Photoshop.

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