A man walks by a billboard on New Bond Street in London, England, Sept. 14. If British government officials get their way, fashion ads in Britain may soon have to label a photo if it has been retouched. — Photo by The Associated Press
“The morning sun, when it’s in your face, really shows your age.
But that don’t worry me none, in my eyes you’re everything.”
— From “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart
Imagine if you came to work some morning and found that the photograph of you in the online company directory had been retouched. Your hair was neater, your teeth whiter, your neck thinner, your wrinkles gone.
Imagine that if you went into your boss’s office and asked what was going on, he said all employee photos had been airbrushed to make them more attractive and more visually in line with the brand the company was trying to project.
In other words, your actual appearance just didn’t cut it, from a marketing point of view.
Would you be outraged?
British actress Kate Winslet was in 2003, when GQ magazine took her cover photo and used computer software to slim her body without her consent.
You would probably care if it was your image that was manipulated, but perhaps we should care that it happens to anyone, period.
Why? Because magazines, billboards and print ads abound with airbrushed fantasy women that do not exist in the real world. Perfectly sculpted calves. Voluptuous breasts that defy the laws of gravity. Flawlessly lipsticked plumped-up lips. The slim hips of a 12-year-old boy.
This is what girls are taught to aspire to. It’s not enough to be a good friend or daughter or partner or parent. It’s not enough to have a successful career or to be philanthropic.
You say you’re a brain surgeon? So what. You’re still fat.
Who cares if you just helped build a school in an impoverished country. Your lips are too thin and your hips are too wide.
If you are to truly succeed, you have to fit society’s view of ideal female beauty: thin, pretty, young and sexy.
And you have to stay that way for as long as you can.
Go to the Dove skin-care company website and check out its “Evolution” video, which shows how a billboard image is carefully created with only the barest rooting in reality.
Or go to YouTube and watch activist and author Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women,” if you’d like another eye-opener.
Kilbourne deplores the dehumanization of women in advertising and asks us to take a hard look at the messages being delivered and the truth behind them: even if you can afford the Gucci watch or the Prada shoes, they won’t turn you into the type of woman modelling them, since she does not exist.
Increasingly, men are being dehumanized in advertising, too. They are not real men but the perfect combination of an assemblage of parts: chiselled abs, perfect pecs, even white teeth set in a strong, stippled-with-stubble jaw.
What harm is there in fixing things up a little, some people might say. What’s wrong with letting folks fantasize?
Well, the harm is that people are actually influenced by these artificial images, and some actually try to replicate them by trying to change their own bodies.
And tangible alterations hurt a whole lot more than digital ones.
Some people, desperate to achieve a certain weight and dress size, turn to harmful behaviours — bingeing, purging and starving themselves in an attempt to “correct” what they perceive to be flaws in their appearance.
Sometimes, they kill themselves in the process.
In Canada, the Quebec-based fashion retailer Jacob announced last month that it would no longer digitally alter the bodies of its models in images for its brands.
“By adopting an official policy and broadcasting it publicly, we hope to reverse the trend in digital photo manipulation that has become excessive in our industry,” communications director Cristelle Basmaji said in a news release.
In fact, Jacob is taking it one step further by launching an informational ad campaign that shows the raw image used in an advertisement, the finished ad and then the way the ad would have looked back in the days when the company did digitally alter photographs.
According to a recent Associated Press (AP) story, Australian magazines that follow an agreed code of conduct are given a “body image tick of approval.”
In Britain, AP reported, the government is contemplating encouraging fashion houses and magazines to disclose when images of models’ bodies have been airbrushed.
“We know these images by themselves don’t cause eating disorders directly,” Susan Ringwood, one of the forces behind the campaign in Britain, was quoted as saying, “but they certainly are an influence on people, particularly those already ill or seriously at risk.”
Ringwood is the head of Beat, a British charity that combats eating disorders.
All of these initiatives are worthwhile, and fashion houses that have banned emaciated models from their catwalks deserve credit, as well.
But as long as the latest fashions continue to be modelled by walking skeletons, and magazines and billboards continue to push products using anatomically impossible images of men and women, we can expect to grapple with the emotional and medical fallout for many years to come.
The next time you’re shopping and you see a billboard in a store with images of models that don’t look real, why not contact the company and register your objection? Same goes with magazine covers and print and web ads.
After all, there are tangible benefits to keeping things real.
As Jean Kilbourne notes, “The obsession with thinness is a public health problem, and public health problems can only be solved by changing the environment.”
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.