Beauty, The Photoshop Way

Beauty, The Photoshop Way

Photoshop is being pointed to as the root of all evil more and more these days. Once upon a time women may have sighed over gorgeous girls in magazines and wondered why such beauty couldn’t really be bought in a jar. Perhaps some may have casually used the terms ‘retouching’ or ‘air-brushing’ without knowing exactly what they meant. But now, in this media savvy modern world in which we live, it seems the whole world knows what Photoshop is and what can be done with it. And it appears that now we know exactly what it is, we’re out for it’s blood!

For those not in the know, Photoshop is an industry standard graphics application; that is, if you want to work with an image in advertising, or in a glossy magazine, you can bet you’ll be using Photoshop to do it. Of course, there are packages other than Photoshop that can be used to create the same effects, but Photoshop is probably the most common and it is fast becoming the most notorious. There’s no denying that Photoshop is a wonderful tool, allowing huge freedoms to designers with the images they create.  However, it’s the rise in public awareness of how the programme can be used to ‘better’ an image that is, in turn, raising the Photoshop’s notoriety. This image ‘better’-ing might be fine and dandy when it comes to making the grass greener or the sky bluer, but when it comes to ‘better’-ing an image of a woman by making her thinner a whole big can of worms is opened.

Arguments surrounding definitions of beauty are obviously raised when discussing photo re-touching. Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that image re-touching is certainly not new, but we have now come so far with re-touching technology that make-up shoots can be created without make-up. And re-touching isn’t just confined to static imagery; everything from television adverts to music videos to feature length films can go under the digital knife. There is now no escape from re-touched imagery, and the media is distinctly lacking in images that truly represent real beauty. Who says that if a person is to be deemed acceptable to appear on the cover of a magazine they need to be stripped of any slight wrinkles, freckles or extra inches around their waist? Who says that their skin tone needs to be made a few shades lighter?

Photoshop raises the bar of beauty to levels of impossible perfection. ‘No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted’ comes the final line in beauty firm Dove’s film Evolution. However, Dove can’t remain in their ivory tower with a completely clean conscience since Pascal Dangin, who is referred to as the ‘retoucher’s retoucher’, admitted to being involved in the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns.

With the saturation of Photoshopped images, many feminists are no longer just upset by the existence of the beauty industry and it’s message that women must achieve a ‘beauty norm’. Now the ‘beauty norm’ required of women can’t even be achieved by the woman in the campaign photograph without a hell of a lot of re-touching, and it’s making feminists spitting mad.

But whilst feminists may discuss Photoshop in terms of the ‘Beauty Myth’, what does photo-retouching mean for women who may have never even heard of Naomi Wolf? This is what Alesha Dixon aimed to get to the bottom of in her recent BBC3 programme Alesha:Look but don’t Touch.

In this programme Dixon spoke to women who clearly had self esteem issues, but whether this was as a result of seeing Photoshopped images was not clear. Still, this was the assumption that Dixon made as she spoke to 18 year old Ellie, a girl who was getting a 7 grand boob job for her birthday. Sat on Ellie’s bed, the two discussed how Ellie had been bullied for being a size 14 at school and also how she idolised certain celebrities that she saw in magazines. It was the latter point that Dixon picked up on as the reason behind Ellie’s desire for larger breasts and, as she winced through Ellies intrusive cosmetic surgery, professed to support her decision in that light.

Another woman, Nicola, was using a less drastic tactic to raise her self esteem by dipping her toe into the world of photo shoots and Photoshop. Nicola confessed that she had never allowed her partner to see her naked bottom due to her feelings that it was a little on the large side. However, having control over a naked shoot and then specifying what parts of the image she wanted re-touched seemed to raise her confidence and she later admitted to showing her boyfriend her body in all it’s glory.

So, Dixon made it clear that women had body hang-ups (quelle suprise!), but whether this was related to Photoshopping was difficult to say. It was far more telling when Dixon visited school classrooms and talked to teenage girls about their interpretations of the images they saw in magazines. All were able to pick out examples of beauty within the pages, and all  expressed a desire to resemble the images in some way, but few were aware that the images had been retouched.

It appears that few of us are really fully aware of how much re-touching actually goes into making the images we see everyday. As the manager of a re-touching studio that Dixon visited said; “You don’t know what’s been retouched to what extent. That’s the whole clouded part of our industry, that everything you see at some point will be augmented”. Dixon went to the studio to see the magic happen and, when shown a retouched image of her mother, said; “See now my Mums gonna want to have a face lift when she sees this”. “You’re quite powerful, really, aren’t you?” Dixon asked one of the re-touchers, who passed the buck saying; “At the end of the day we’re just doing what were asked by the photographer and the art director”

Passing the buck happens often in the media industry when it comes to heated debates over Photoshop. Excuses,  such as; “If the girl is perfect people will look at the clothes” were expressed in the programme, effectively passing the buck back to the consumers of the images. Similar excuses came thick and fast as Dixon shifted the objective in her programme and began on a quest to find a publication that would run an un-retouched photograph of herself on their front cover. “Because we’re competing with so many magazines we need it to look as good as it can possibly get” was the general, restrained way the magazine editors replied with a resounding ‘Not-On-Your-Nelly!’

Just one brave magazine took Dixon up on her offer, with Celebs on Sunday agreeing to a cover image sans retouche (although I’m not sure that it was that brave, since it appears that the Celebs magazine comes as part of the Sunday Mirror newspaper and so isn’t subjected to shelf scanning like other glossies are). The un-retouched cover ran, to cries of ‘Wow, there’s hardly any difference’ and ‘You look amazing’ (well, this is Alesha Dixon we’re talking about) from those that Dixon thrust the magazine at. Interestingly, Celebs ran a side by side comparison inside the magazine to show what they would’ve done, if they’d only been allowed. From the tiny changes, it hardly seems worth the bother to run it through Photoshop at all.

I enjoyed the programme. Admittedly it was light, with no huge discoveries or changes made by the end of it, but I still felt it was a worthwhile add on to the ever expanding public knowledge of photo-jiggery-pokery. However, if it had been up to Julie Burchill, this programme would have never been aired. Her piece in the Observer Woman entitled ‘Why Photoshop is a feminist’s best friend’ discussed Elizabeth Hurley’s love of Photoshop (she even doctors her holiday snaps) and said that all us nasty feminists should leave Liz alone and stop telling her not to Photoshop herself. Of course, Burchill was missing the point a bit there (and not only because she says that worries about abortion and equal pay were confined to the 20th century) because no one’s angry at the models. Her point that feminists constantly obsessing over the effects of re-touched imagery bring the whole of woman kind down to a level of ‘neurotic, look-obsessed cretins who are likely to collapse into a weeping heap of jelly’ when they see images of beauty very nearly strikes a chord, however. I do sometimes worry that my worries over Photoshop mean that I am imagining, in an overly patronising way, that women are so weak as to be completely dismantled by an image of unobtainable gorgeousness.

The thing is, though, that we still live in a world where women are judged by their appearance (the existence of Photoshop alone is evidence of this). However strong women are, and I know that they are, there is something extremely  undermining about a bombardment of unrealistic images and expectations of aesthetics to women as a whole.

So what next? Well, whilst it would be wonderful to jump straight into a world where Alesha Dixon smiles down un-retouched from every magazine… erm, well you know what I mean… it feels like one giant leap for woman-kind right now. A little bit more reasonable an expectation, and a suggestion that is increasingly being made, is that retouched images should carry some sort of disclaimer stating that the image has been retouched. Whilst I can almost see this happening in make-up and beauty advertisements (as is now enforced for mascara advertisements to side-step any false advertising accusations), I can’t really imagine this happening throughout the rest of the media. With re-touching being so prolific, a disclaimer on every re-touched image would basically mean a disclaimer on every image.

So with resistance from the media, the future looks bleak… Or does it? In a weird twist of fate, Photoshoppers actually seem to be digging their own grave with more and more examples of laughable images presented as perfection. A day doesn’t go by without some blog pointing out a celebrity hacked up beyond recognition, a model deformed, or some brand face air-brushed until they look like an alien. Whilst in the past the public may have been unsure what was real and what wasn’t, images like these mean there can be no mistake. And, in my opinion, there’s also no mistake that the real deal is a far better option than any freakish creation conjured up in Photoshop. If these bobbleheads continue to grace our pages surely it can’t be long before the media also realise a more natural look is the way to go. Here’s hoping…

By: Sarah Barnes, 29.07.2008 | Comments (3)
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