Recently, Marcia and I received an email from a college student writing a paper on the relationship between Photoshop and eating disorders. This is an ongoing discussion, and part of the larger issue of mass media’s depiction of unrealistic body types for both women and men and its effect on body image and self-esteem.
With Photoshop and other image-editing software, photo editors can touch up, manipulate, merge, blur and take all kinds of creative license, turning a fairly accurate likeness of a person into Barbie and Ken doll look-alikes.
One of the biggest issues we have with “Photoshopping” in fashion magazine is that editors don’t have to disclose its use. If Vogue photo layouts came with the equivalent of the surgeon general’s warning on cigarettes that might help.
Here are some of the questions we were asked, and our responses. Answers in the first person are all Marcia’s:
Q. Do manipulated images contribute to eating disorders?
A: I don't think anyone knows for sure. Very thin women have been used in ads long before Photoshop. Most people with eating disorders do acknowledge how images of beautiful thin women have affected them (me included).
Q. In what way are women affected by these altered images?
A: The images shape what our standards of beauty are, and obviously illustrate a societal ideal. If one is aiming to be the best in everything these images can encourage women to try to be as thin as possible. Society’s idea of absolute beauty hasn’t always been that of a sickly stick figure: take a look at this witty piece in London’s Daily Mail, “What if Boticelli had Photoshop?”
Q: Do Photoshopped images affect men?
A: My male patients tell me that pictures of male models and actors with sculpted, six-pack abs are very disturbing.
Q. Is there anything that can be done to limit the use of altered images?
A: A law passed in Israel in 2012, known as “The Photoshop Law” prohibits advertising or fashion media from employing models who fall below the World Health Organization’s standard for malnutrition (18.5 Body Mass Index), and also regulates the use of Photoshop in photographs.
No movement to pass such a law in the US has yet surfaced. At its 2011 annual meeting, the American Medical Association issued this fairly toothless statement warning the public that manipulated advertising images can result in “unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,” especially among children and adolescents. The AMA also encouraged advertising associations to try to prevent body image problems and eating disorders by working with organizations concerned with child and adolescent health
Q. What do you think should be done to counter the negative effects caused by unrealistic manipulated photographs?
A: We support governmental action because the fashion industry has done next to nothing, and we like what Israel has done. Whether or not regulations are imposed, Americans are in a buyer beware situation. It’s important to talk to both adults and children about the fact that most of the fashion photos we see have likely been Photoshopped. We need to remind ourselves whether manipulated or not, these images should have no bearing on how we evaluate our bodies. They should have as much to do with our self-esteem and size and shape goals as do National Geographic photos of tropical fish; that is to say zero effect!