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Opinion: Are We Airbrushing the Bigger Picture?



Hello Aphrodite!

What do you think of this article and airbrushed magazine photos in general?

– Liz, in response to Calling All Lovely Ladies

Liz, I am so glad you asked. The article that Liz is referring to concerns the recent proposals made by British and French MP’s to significantly change the legislature governing the use of digitally enhanced photographs for commercial and advertising purposes. They advocate that airbrushing in advertising be closely monitored and its use restricted; retouched photos would be required to carry ‘warning labels’, unless the ads in question are deemed to be aimed at under-16’s, in which case the use of airbrushing would be banned altogether.

The message is clear: not only does airbrushing amount to false advertising, but it significantly contributes to creating and promoting an ideal of beauty that is both nonexistent and unattainable. Having such images so prominently and ubiquitously displayed is immeasurably damaging to the self-esteem of all women who previously had to contend with personal trainers, professional makeup artists, stylists, hairdressers and photographers and now have to add technological wizards to that list.

I am, however, extremely sceptical as to the effectiveness of the labelling system. Who has actually noticed the tiny labels mascara adverts are now forced to carry when they use false eyelashes on their wide-eyed models? Perhaps something like this eye-catching  statement- made by a group of adbusters in Berlin who superimposed photoshop screens over highly retouched ads- would be more successful at getting the message across?photoshopadphotoshopsubway

Airbrushing has become an accepted, even expected, element of advertising and magazine publication, despite public disapproval and dismay. After the outcry that followed Kate Winslet’s infamous ‘slimming down’ on the cover of GQ magazine, Editor Dylan Jones defended the decision by saying “we do that for everyone, whether they are a size six or a size twelve. It hasn’t a lot to do with body size. Practically every photo you see in a magazine will have been digitally altered in this way.” And Alexandra Shulman, Editor of British Vogue, corroborated this when she revealed that although the magazine is forced to use super-skinny models to fit into the sample sizes the designers send them, they often airbrush these models to make them appear bigger.

It seems that even the most naturally beautiful women are subjected to the indignity of having their tiny imperfections scrutinised and then hidden from view like a dirty secret by the photoshopper.

photoshop jessica alba

We can either take solace in the fact that not even Jessica Alba is physically perfect, or we can face reality and admit that when women as beautiful as her are not considered good enough, somewhere along the line our perception of beauty has become seriously warped.

Lizzy MillerI have a confession to make. Recently Glamour magazine caused a huge stir when they included this ‘un-retouched’ photo of ‘plus-size’ model Lizzie Miller in their magazine. Never mind the fact that it was 3” by 3” and hidden in the back of the magazine, Glamour has been lauded for their ‘brave’ move and have received an outpouring of thanks and commendations from women all over the world. It seems normal women were thrilled to bits to recognise someone in the magazine that they could identify with and yet who still looked beautiful.

Not me. I am embarrassed to say that my initial reaction to seeing this extremely honest picture was one of discomfort and distaste.

Now please don’t think I am judging this very attractive girl for having a little extra flesh around her middle and a few stretch marks, I really wasn’t thinking about her when viewing this picture as much as about me. Just as my reaction says far more about me than it does her. I was unhappily reminded of all my own ‘flaws’ and the very idea of exposing them in such a candid manner made me recoil in horror. I realised at that moment just how affected and conditioned I have become by the idealised version of beauty that is forced on us at every turn of a magazine page. It seems clear that airbrushing is only part of a bigger issue.

Who is it who decides what is beautiful? Is it really as simple as the beholder? Or is it the magazine editors? The advertisers? Or the designers who send tiny sample sizes to photo shoots?

As I discussed in The Fairer Sex, biology plays a substantial, sub-conscious role in determining which features we find appealing, but it can’t be the only factor. For example, the idea that beauty is linked to mathematics can be traced back to ancient Greece, and the discovery of the ‘golden ratio’, suggesting that beauty is found through symmetry and proportion.Yet you only have to look at how the ideal of beauty has changed through the ages to challenge the sufficiency of both arguments.

In ancient Greece, pale skin was considered beautiful. During the Renaissance, European women were expected to renaissance beautyhave a long neck, blonde hair, thin eyebrows, a high forehead, and visible blue veins to be judged beautiful. During Elizabeth I’s reign, it became extremely fashionable to have red hair, while Victorian women were expected to have short necks, round faces and soft, full figures. The flappers of the 1920’s took pride in their willowy stature and bound their breasts for a flat profile. The opposite was true in the 1950’s when the hourglass shape was the pinnacle of beauty. And these are just examples of the Western ideal.

Traditional Chinese views of beauty include large eyes, small noses, and petit frames. In South Korea it is a high compliment indeed to be told you have a ‘small head’. This trend of small heads, button noses, and rosebud mouths with large eyes is clearly reflected in Asian ‘anime’ characters. In India I knew two sisters who were treated quite differently by their servants because one had dark skin, like them, and one had ‘beautiful’ light skin. All over Asia, skin whitening treatments are a big business. In contrast many African and Caribbean countries, large women with full breasts and ample buttocks are highly desired.

Many of these trends can be explained by the social environment of the time. It seems that conceptions of beauty often depend on the group of people who are perceived to be most successful at the time. Therefore pale skin has been a fairly consistent measure of beauty as it has either been associated with those wealthy enough not to have to work in the fields under the hot sun, or with Western colonial conquerors. Similarly, voluptuous women have generally been thought beautiful during times, or in places, of hardship and shortage.

Rubens' voluptuous women, appropriately enough depicted with... Aphrodite's Apple!

Rubens' voluptuous women, appropriately enough depicted with... Aphrodite's Apple!

It seems to me that beauty has never been truly attainable. What defines beauty is its rarity, and what decides beauty is its difficulty to achieve it. If everyone were able to meet the ideal, then standards would inevitably be changed in order to preserve the rare and valuable nature of ‘ideal beauty’.

The problem with airbrushing to achieve this ideal is that is does become commonplace; perfect faces are all around us, in magazines, on television, on giant billboards. Their very familiarity makes them seem normal and attainable, and we therefore chastise ourselves when we don’t measure up. Because clearly we are abnormal and freaky. If we instead started thinking of ourselves as unusual, distinctive and unique, and seeing our ‘flaws’ as things that set us apart and make us unique then we could give up on chasing whatever society, on a whim, decides is ‘in’. If we accept our own version of beauty we may one day find that society begins to chase us.







4 Comments leave one →
  1. 31/08/2010 13:34

    Very interesting your article. Thanks for the information.

  2. Ems permalink
    08/10/2010 10:56

    I think that if airbrushing is banned all together it will be a good thing. Slowly, our perception of beauty will change as we get used to seeing completely nature and real women in advertisements. Hopefully, imperfection will now be classed as beautiful 🙂

  3. Ems permalink
    12/10/2010 13:09

    Watch this:

  4. 03/02/2014 10:23

    I want to to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have got you saved as a favorite to look at new things you post?

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