The holiday season, having just recently ended, descended upon us like a thick layer of melted marshmallows on a piping mug of hot chocolate – it was sweet, but it was a lot. It’s easy to become numb to the barrage of advertisements we encountered as we shopped for loved ones, urging us that Victoria will tell us her secret if we sign up for a pink credit card, or that in 2019 we need to stick to our “new year, new me” resolutions by signing up for a gym membership now – right now, before this deal ends! Before we chastise ourselves for failing to wake up at 5 A.M. to work out, or agonize over the fact that no make-up product ever manufactured will be able to cloak our human imperfections – let’s press pause.
Let’s consider whether or not the advertisements we are inundated with are meant to create and solve a niche insecurity, effacing our feeble human resolve with the seemingly innocuous suggestion that everyone could stand to lose 10 pounds. The overwhelming tendency of social media, and more traditional formats like television and print ads, is to present unrealistic standards of beauty and body proportions as if they are what we should all be striving towards.
Humans have been narcissistically altering images of ourselves for centuries. There’s a reason nobody in medieval portraits has acne, though they undoubtedly were just as genetically prone to skin inflammation as anyone living in a post-industrial western society. In the 1930’s, photographers went to pain-staking lengths in the dark room, using techniques like dodging, burning, overexposing, and even manually painting over photographs to achieve the desired look. The advent of extreme photo-editing is nothing new; it’s just gone digital.
Digital retouching software, like Photoshop, can erase a stray strand of hair, correct faulty lighting, and remove extras from the background of a shoot to polish the final product. More frequently, it is used to shave off pounds, reshape facial features, and create the illusion that there must be an entire race of super-human celebrities without pores, cellulite, or wrinkles.
Since the release of the original Photoshop in 1990, thousands of cheaper alternatives have become available for download on smartphones and even built into apps such as Instagram. In 2016, blogger Mel Wells furiously called out Samsung for releasing a smartphone with a default front camera setting that automatically airbrushed her selfies.
The unreasonable expectation this sets for people in our society is clear: be perfect or be ashamed. Studies have demonstrated that prolonged social media use has negative effects on the body image of both male and female adolescents. For young girls, the effects of extreme retouching may be worse. While genetics and other factors may make an individual more predisposed to developing an eating disorder, body dissatisfaction is the best-known contributor to the development of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
These concerns begin early and persist as we grow up in a society where it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what is real and what is manipulated. 40-60% of girls aged 6-12 are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. When disordered eating habits such as binge eating, anorexia, and bulimia begin in adolescence, there is a higher risk for continuance ten years later as girls transition into young adulthood.
Recognizing the potential for harm, in 2011 the American Medical Association adopted a new policy to work with advertisers to discourage retouching, especially on platforms marketed to teens. Any other product that is known to pose debilitating health consequences is required to come with a warning. In fact, research shows that including even generic warning labels that an image of a model has been digitally enhanced helps reduce feelings of body dissatisfaction among young women. Some brands like Dove, Aerie, Modcloth, and Target have gone as far as refusing to retouch their models at all, despite predictions that their profits from ads would suffer (spoiler alert: they didn’t!).
The checkout lines are still saturated with glossy images of women on the covers of magazines, pouting, posing, promising a tell-all within the slightly fragrant pages. I used to stare at their porcelain skin and wonder why it seemed like my face had so many tiny freckles. At home, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and suck in my stomach until my ribs looked like a bird cage, lamenting that I seemed all at once too skinny and too soft, like all the puzzle pieces of my frame were put together the wrong way. By the time someone told me those women didn’t really look like that, I was already convinced that I couldn’t be enough.
This year, let us rest in the knowledge that our worth comes not from our waistline, our faces are allowed to have lines because they are for expressing emotions, and our ability to be real should be cherished over our proximity to perfection.
Mel Wells Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/BG9O5qPTJs4/?hl=en
Photograph: Isabelle Whiteley, That’s What She Said Project, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/08/thinner-retouching-girls-image-manipulation-women
 Carusillo, Claire. 2016. The History of Acne.
 Yanarova, Siyana. 2018. History of Retouching: Photographers and Retouchers Synergy in the Analog Photography Era. https://retouchingacademy.com/history-of-retouching-photographers-and-retouchers-synergy-in-the-analog-photography-era/
 Editorial Staff. 2018. https://1stwebdesigner.com/history-of-adobe-photoshop/
 de Vries, Dian; Peter, Jochen; de Graaf, Hanneke; Nikken, Peter. 2016. Adolescents’ Social Network Site Use, Peer Appearance-Related Feedback, and Body Dissatisfaction: Testing a Mediation Model https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10964-015-0266-4
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 Cash, T. F., & Smolak, L. 2011. Body image: A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
 Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Larson, N. I., Eisenberg, M. E., & Loth, K. (2011). Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: findings from a 10-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(7), 1004-11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3140795/
 n.d. 2011. AMA urging advertisers not to retouch photos of women. https://www.cleveland.com/nation/index.ssf/2011/07/ama_urging_advertisers_not_to.html
 Slater, Amy; Tiggemann, Marika; Firth, Bonny; Hawkins, Kimberley. 2012. Reality Check: An Experimental Investigation of the Addition of Warning Labels to Fashion Magazine Images on Women’s Mood and Body Dissatisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 105-122. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2012.31.2.105
 Feldman, Jamie. 2017. Un-Retouched Ads Aren’t A Huge Money-Maker, But Brands Don’t Care. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brands-no-photoshop_n_58dab41ce4b0546370629f88