Last year, a 14-year-old girl started a petition to demand that Seventeen magazine stop Photoshopping the models who grace its pages. She’d had enough, saying young girls deserved to see real bodies and real faces as they struggle to love their own physical appearances. In 2010, the actress Emily Blunt was quoted in Los Angeles Times Magazine as saying that she once instructed a photographer not to Photoshop her into looking thinner.
“I can understand there are things like shadows they need to fix after a shoot,” she said, “but it’s unfair to represent an image of yourself if it’s not true.”
After seeing herself digitally thinned for a mass-market magazine, Actress Shailene Woodley was recently quoted as saying she strives to have only realistic images of herself in print.
“That’s BS,” she said. “That’s not what I really look like.”
Years ago, a friend of mine attended a holiday party at her work. Some of the images from the party were later posted to the company’s website, and right away, she noticed that she didn’t look quite like herself in them: Her thighs were thinner, her teeth were whiter, and some of the wrinkles on her 50-something face had clearly been airbrushed out. Worse, not everyone in the pictures appeared to have been altered. Even as she envied this more youthful and svelte version of herself, she also felt hurt—and judged. Someone was sending a message: You’d look better if you were thinner, had whiter teeth, and were less wrinkled. Thanks a lot, right?
Professional photographers use Photoshop all the time, especially to improve composition. But when it comes to altering the subjects’ physical appearance, the rules of engagement have yet to be set in stone. Should permission be sought? How much is too much? Should you stick to erasing flyaway hairs and giant zits? If it’s okay to shave off a little thigh curve, is it also okay to add a bigger bust line?
I see a distinct overlap between Photoshop and plastic surgery—that is, with many of the same questions at play. Do you strive to make your subjects look like themselves, just better? What does it mean, to look better? Most important, why are we doing it at all? It’s a complicated discussion, and as photographers, we should all be part of it. Clearly photographers now hold some collective sway over body ideals and, therefore, body image. We best be careful how we use it. Your thoughts?