This week, the American Medical Association denounced the use of digital manipulation and retouching on models and asked advertising agencies to consider imposing stricter guidelines for manipulating photos before they are sent to press. I, for one, say it’s about time. Apparently, this is an idea that has been floating around England and France for some time. For the past year or so, some lawmakers in Europe have been trying to get ad agencies and magazines to put warning labels on retouched images to alert the public that these images are fake, and that will hopefully help young people seeing these images to realize that an unattainable standard has been set regarding beauty. America is ready for such a change, especially in light of the relief and excitement many people seemed to feel after seeing models bare it all with no retouching a few years ago.
Though I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, I struggled with my body image all throughout high school (and probably even earlier than that) and college. I went to the gym twice a day and enrolled myself in exercise courses at school, giving me three workouts a day on average. I ate two very simple meals a day, skipping lunch. I became a vegetarian to more easily avoid fast food and keep off that dreaded Freshman Fifteen. It wasn’t until I came home from undergrad one summer and my friends and family said, “Wow, Ashley. You look sick,” that I realized what I was doing to my body. Luckily for me, that simple statement was enough to shock me into rethinking my eating habits. But for many people, statements like that aren’t enough. Just check out these statistics on eating disorders in America from the South Carolina Department of Mental Health if you don’t believe me. Eating disorders are incredibly prevalent in America, and are on the rise in other countries. Photoshopped images such as the one above are cited for the rise in eating disorders and unhealthy attitudes about body weight and size, but, if we follow France and England’s proposal, is adding a label to the bottom of a picture really going to help?
Warning: Models in this image may not be as thin as they appear.
America might be ready for warning labels on images. After all, we’ve been putting warning labels on cigarettes since the 1960’s, and even now we’re engaged in a discussion on including gruesome images in cigarette labels to increase the rate of smokers quitting. In America, warning labels are everywhere; even McDonald’s coffee now comes with a warning label that the beverage may be incredibly hot. In short, we as a society are used to labels warning us of one thing or another. But do these labels work, or are we so inundated with warnings that we tend to just ignore them? There has been some serious discussion about whether or not cigarette labels are effective (hence the new ones with images), and I can’t tell you how many times I have lifted that cup of McDonald’s coffee to my lips without waiting for it to cool down, only to end up with a burnt tongue. It seems to me that warning labels don’t always have the effect that critical thought does. Seeing a warning label is one thing; critically thinking about how the product can harm you before proceeding is another.
“But we know it’s fake already!”
Similarly, people may see these warning labels and say, “I know cigarettes can harm me, but oh well,” or, “I know this coffee is hot, but oh well.” What would stop them from saying, “I know this model doesn’t look like this in real life, but oh well”? And what makes us think that people don’t already know that these images are photoshopped, even before warning labels are included? Every year, I teach a unit on advertising and body image to my high school sophomores and, while they really get involved in the unit and subsequent discussions about unattainable beauty standards, they always say the same thing: “We know this already!” My question to them, then, is this: “Is knowing the same as understanding?” If you know these images are fake, do you understand? I grew up my whole life knowing that images were altered to make the models appear more “attractive,” but that didn’t stop me from wanting to look like them anyway. And, with eating disorder statistics on the rise as much as they are, I wonder if just knowing it’s fake is enough.
What about reverse retouching?
If we are going to warn people about images that have been retouched to make models appear thinner, what about the very real problem of images that have been retouched to make the models appear larger and healthier? Many magazine editors have admitted to what is called “reverse retouching,” or taking a very thin model and making her look healthy. This might happen when magazines hire women who look great in their pictures, but then show up looking like they haven’t eaten in months. They still use these models, but use digital manipulation to make them look healthier. Would these images require labels, as well? What would that look like?
In an ideal world…
In an ideal world, magazines, ad agencies, etc. would not even use digital manipulation to make models appear thinner (eliminating the need for any kind of warning system), nor would they use models who were too thin and use digital manipulation to make them look healthier (eliminating the need for models to starve themselves to get work). They would use just use real pictures of actually healthy people.
Since that probably won’t happen any time soon, in an almost ideal world, young people would be taught the dangers of digital manipulation, and would also be taught to think critically about the advertisements they see and how that affects them. If you would like to try teaching the young people in your life about this, I recommend starting with these YouTube Videos (this one, and this one). They both show how the retouching is done, which definitely brings home how fake it actually is. Just don’t forget to follow up these videos with discussions about the images we are inundated with every day. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a start.