In today’s growing world of mass media, honesty in visual media isn't always a publisher's first concern. With that, the issue of altering photographs in media is becoming an increasingly relevant and controversial topic in both the magazine industry and in society as a whole. From making skin seemingly flawless, to making a waist impossibly small, the media has been editing pictures of people -- mainly women -- to make them appeal more to the societal and stereotypical definition of “perfect." While it may seem harmless, there are many reasons why editing to these extremes should not be permitted.
The practice of major altering of photographs that are published in mass media can be harmful in numerous ways. As a photographer, and someone who has frequently worked with Photoshop for about five years, I know that minor alterations such as to colors and lighting are harmless. Sometimes even the small adjustments of skin blemishes such as acne, dark circles under the eyes, or even scars can surely be passable (as per request by model). However, these acceptable modifications are not ones that stretch beyond general reality, good health, or even common normality. In the business of magazines, we see many alterations that fit these descriptions. People are often digitally stretched, pinched, shined, and finessed to create an unreachable image of perfection. When a person lives in a world where this is becoming the standard, it is hard to not think poorly of themselves and wish for something that not even the majority of those models really have. Granted, not everyone looks the same and many models do have natural beauty. Nonetheless, there is a key word in the former statement: natural. The imperfections and natural appearances of these beautiful people are what make them so beautiful, and everyone possesses these. It is the existing human-made standards of beauty that can make us think we are less attractive than we actually are.
A plethora of ideas have been discussed over the years for a solution to this growing problem, not only in America, but worldwide. In 2009, legislation was introduced in France that would require any published photographs that have been altered in any way to include some form of disclosure of that information. While this is inarguably better than nothing, can it really fix the problem? Sure, the audience will read that disclaimer and know the photo has been tweaked. Even so, there is still that exposure to the advertising of people who don’t actually look the way the audience sees them. No matter what, in the pictures, they will look better than anyone else or they will wear the article of clothing better.
A study was conducted by Psychology Today in their Journal, Body Image, about this idea of a disclaimer. The test trials included advertisements with different variations of these features: no models, models, no disclaimer, a generic disclaimer, and a detailed disclaimer on what exactly was edited. Test subjects were asked to look at the advertisements and then describe how it made them feel. Dr. Camille Johnson of Psychology Today presented the results, and discussed that “simply reminding women that they are seeing digitally-altered photographs - in essence telling them that photos feature fictional people -- did not prevent women from being negatively affected by the photos." This shows that not even the disclaimers can fix or prevent the damage that these overly-enhanced photographs can cause. Also, while this study was conducted only on women, this can happen to anyone. Even though all of this editing happens primarily to women, it also happens to men and is harmful regardless of sex.
In recent years, some media platforms have taken note of the issue, and have even done something to address their own contribution. In 2012, Seventeen Magazine released a “Body Peace Treaty” and pledged to “never change girls' body or face shapes." This was after a 14-year-old from Maine campaigned to fight this practice of unrealistic alterations that gave the teenage target audience a false idea of what is beautiful. To the delight of this young girl, Seventeen also released a statement that announced their partnering with the National Eating Disorders Association and the Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls. This is what we need more of in our society, especially in our younger generations and more specifically, for younger females. We need magazines to be honest and real with the pictures they use in publications, not promoting people to be worshipped, but promoting subjects that young girls and the general public can relate to.
Today, we do have some strong role models who are proudly outspoken about this issue. One of the most public figures is the teen music star, Lorde. This 19-year-old icon is proud of her natural flaws and will openly bash digital alterations on her social media pages, and will even comment on the topic of her own pictures from concerts or photo shoots as seen in the two pictures below.
With influential people like Lorde openly opposing this issue, there is a better chance for it to become less of a commonality. To the mass media, the preferences of stars can sometimes mean more than the preferences of the general public - with that said, sometimes the stars’ preferences can influence the public’s. This is because it is a person speaking out against the digitizing of our view of reality, who would normally be the subject of said digitizing.
I feel as though the future of the media’s alteration of what is natural and beautiful could easily be tipped over in either direction of an extreme, or even stay where it is today. If action is not soon taken in decreasing the digitizing our view of reality, this could severely damage us as a culture, country, or even the whole general human population that this media reaches. From deteriorating the self-esteem of our younger generations, to really any human developing an unhealthy and twisted view of what is beautiful, it is harmful. At the same time, with efforts like the young girl’s in Maine or Lorde’s, steps are being made towards improvement. A few magazines have listened to the criticism of the issue at hand and have not only understood, but have gone through with changes in the way their companies work. All we can do now is keep working towards improvement and hope that we can see a major turn towards a healthy and organic media during our lifetime.