Mad World: The Naked Truth

Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

Calling all Mad World readers! Our second Mad World Forum is next week, on October 20, right here in Portland! We'll be discussing The Naked Truth: Body image, Photoshop, and Other Adventures
in Advertising
. Let's get started on that discussion right now, shall we?

Bret Michaels' abs looking photoshopped
Yes, let's.

Because we are all super-savvy media consumers, we are all probably pretty aware of Photoshop and its implications. Pretty much every advertisement we see has been digitally altered in some way, and all of that digital alteration leaves us with images of women's (and men's) bodies that are not only unattainable for the average person, they don't even exist in the natural world. Even photos of the most super of supermodels get touched up before we see them, and though our logical minds know this, there is still a part of most of us that is affected by these images. Sure, I know that not even Jennifer Aniston is that flawless in real life, but that doesn't mean I don't get extra-frustrated by my own flaws sometimes (why can't I be flawless like that Jennifer Aniston?!). It's tricky.

At any rate, at next week's forum we'll be discussing all sorts of issues surrounding body image and Photoshop, and we'd love to get your feedback now to help guide the conversation. How do you feel about these digital touch ups? Even though you know they exist, do you find yourself affected by them? What questions would you ask someone in the advertising industry about these image alterations?

To get the conversation ball rolling (yes, I've decided that a conversation ball is a thing now), let's revisit some recent high-profile Photoshop incidents (including the Bret Michaels six-pack retouch, pictured above. As if you could forget).

Exhibit A:

Madonna can sell merch for Dolce and Gabbana, but her veins are clearly not welcome.

Exhibit B:

Gabby Sidibe for Elle, complete with new hair and skin color!

Exhibit C:

Yes, London Fog initially hired Christina Hendricks for her hour-glass figure, but then they changed their minds.

For even more adventures in Photoshop, visit Jezebel's Photoshop of Horrors.

So, what do you think? What related topics would you like to see discussed at our forum next week? Leave them in the comments section or—better yet—if you live in the Portland area, join us and discuss them in person!

OH_Logo.jpg This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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16 Comments Have Been Posted

The photoshopping in the

The photoshopping in the above examples and similar advertising frankly pisses me off.

First, I feel it reduces the humans in the ads to logos, to be manipulated as the advertiser sees fit, with not even lip service to the idea that people buy items from other people, not from automatons.

Second, I feel that I am being manipulated and my ideas of beauty, desirability, and sexiness are under heavy pressure, creating huge and detrimental impact on me all for the sake of trying to sell me something (not a good trade off). If someone like me, who is pushing back for all I'm worth, is so affected, then those who are less aware/more susceptible are even more affected, and I have to live with that, too.

Third, it's insulting that even when the "secret" of major photoshop manipulation is made known, advertisers keep right on doing it, as if they are banking on most of us being stupid enough to fall for it and buy their products in the vain and pointless hope that it will somehow transform us into those impossible images.

So, my reaction is anger, irritation, distrust, and aversion to those advertisers. I wish I could bottle my feelings and spread them to the advertising audience with the same effectiveness as the photoshop poisoning is spread.

I'd like to first say that

I'd like to first say that yes, Photoshop can certainly be used for ill, like the time a model for a Ralph Lauren ad ended up with a head wider than her pelvis. ( See here: I think the rationale behind making the touchups is that the average person sees "flawed" people, including themselves, every day. Advertisements are essentially selling a fantasy along with their product, and it seems that making everything as "flawless" as possible is part of selling that fantasy. Stylization of the human form has existed since before Photoshop--consider Renaissance paintings, the flawless skin and features, and yes, even the full figures, that would not have been the norm six hundred years ago, or the photographing of female movie stars through gauze to give their skin a dewy appearance in the early part of the twentieth century. Photoshop just makes it easier, and has the added issue of altering the appearances of real people. It's a strange dichotomy, really: by using clever lighting and filters and angles to make a subject look "good," one is considered a good photographer. Using Photoshop, however, is considered somewhat dishonest.

Which leads me to my next issue. The four photos shown here are not all terribly indicative of the ravages (or, the opposite of ravages) of Photoshop. Bret Michaels' (shudder) and Gabby Sidibe's are good examples--Michaels' shows the same shot, and Gabby's is obvious because of the retouched color. But the Madonna photo and the Christina Hendricks photos, frankly, are not. Madonna's photos are different in lighting, pose, and coloration, all of which make a vast difference before Photoshop. Also note that her veiny hand is, in the final version, placed behind the Dolce & Gabbana label. Hendricks is also in a completely different position, and in the non-Photoshopped version, she is pulling on her jumpsuit in a way that could alter her appearance. And both Madonna's and Hendricks' final photos are in black and white, while the original shots are in color, which makes an enormous difference. (If you don't believe me, find a color photo of yourself and alter it to B&W. See if it looks the same.) As much as advertisers rely on photo manipulation, a good deal of manipulation goes on during the actual shoot--lighting, angle of the sitter, and even pinning of clothing to create a slimmer silhouette or to eliminate bunching takes place. A better critique would have shown the original print as compared to the retouched one, because it would have set up a fairer basis of comparison.

Good points

Good points, Owl. Of course, when we're dealing with corporate-owned images like the Hendricks and Madonna photos, it's tough to get access to the non-retouched original versions. As I understand it, the originals I posted here are photos that were taken during the commercial shoots but are not necessarily exactly the same images that were retouched. I still think they give us a good idea of what was changed during the retouching process, though.

If you have access to better examples of digitally altered advertising campaign photos and their originals, please send them my way!

- Kelsey

No, I totally understand. I'm

No, I totally understand. I'm just saying, like I think June is below, that there's a lot besides digital manipulation that determines how we see a photo. You can probably find them on Google, and I don't remember what season, but there was definitely an episode of America's Next Top Model where they compared the contestants' retouched photos with the originals. The result? Tyra told them all they needed to look more like the retouched versions of themselves. There's also that famous Dove commercial where Photoshop is actually used to make women feel better about themselves. What are your thoughts on that?

Before it was easy...

Before photoshop existed, touch-ups were still done. Photoshop has made it easier, but it didn't create this problem. Don't believe me? Look at any of those b&w portraits of old time movie stars like Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn, etc. Retouchers would carefully take the negatives and buff them to perfection.

I'm curious as to how you feel about steps that are taken to hide the subject's "flaws" before the picture is taken. A competent photographer knows how to pose and light a subject so that the straight out of camera image is not reflective of reality. Is that ethical? Or how about photographers that use longer focal length lenses to compress their subjects within the frame, thereby flattering their figures? Is that ethical? Or should all portraits be taken with a 50mm full frame camera? What about photographers who use soft light so blemishes are not visible? What about photographers who use harsh light so muscles are defined? What about photographers who use short lighting to make a woman's face skinnier or broad lighting to make a man's face fuller. What about the use of make-up artist? Are those unethical and harmful?

Photoshop gets all the attention, but there are so many other things to consider when judging the validity of advertisements and portraiture. Where should one draw the line?

What happens before the image

What happens before the image is put on a computer is still an achievable possibility though. It's a really manipulated perspective, but it's still a real view. Retouching with photoshop on the other hand isn't attainable in real life at all.

But actually much of what

This is brilliant, and

This is brilliant, and everyone is raising great points in the comments section. You wonderful people make me come back here again and again.

As far as my reaction to photoshopped images, the workings of makeup, photography etc, a particular quote stands out to me. It's from an article I read a couple years ago: "Somewhere along the line, most women know that the image is impossible and corresponds to the wishes of our culture rather than being actually attainable. We remain trapped by the image, pervades fantasies of transforming the self" (Rosalind Coward, The Body Beautiful).

I don't want to assume that all women stay in this role, or that all men are excluded of course, but I do think what Coward says is really relevant, and it really captures how I feel about all of it. Yes, I love my body. I love my big ass and my hips and my muscles. But every once in awhile, I *do* have moments where I entertain my own transformative fantasies, and a lot of that has to do with the way "woman" is constructed and represented in the media.

I think a small amount of

I think a small amount of photoshop is fine, like fixing lighting, evening out skin tones (lord knows my skin is blotchy), editing out stray hairs, but not to the point where it looks fake. Where it goes awry is when everything is airbrushed, when models are made thinner, when people look different in real life than when in photos.

We are aware that these images are photoshopped and not real but younger girls and boys are not. Highly photoshopped images cease to be photographs and turn into works of fantasy art portraying something that doesn't exist. And young people are the target.

If someone evens out your

If someone evens out your skin tone in photoshop, won't you look different than in real life? Evening out skin tones is a form of airbrushing. I'm not saying it's wrong or right to do that, but I don't think it's logical to then say it's not ok to airbrush a model for a make-up advertisement.

In fact, I'd argue it's more damaging to show children pictures of models who have been slightly enhanced compared to a picture that has been completely photoshopped and is obviously a fantasy. A teenage girl will look at the first and think, "Oh wow, she's so beautiful. I'll never be that beautiful." The same girl would likely look at the 2nd and think, "That's obviously not reality."

To me it's the same as

To me it's the same as getting spray-tanned. Or wearing make-up. Or when you enhance the color of one's eyes or hair. There's a lot of different kinds of airbrushing on the spectrum: there's mild airbrushing, which I think is fine (and by mild, I mean here and there), and there's this:

Doesn't even look like her. That's going too far. Making people look thinner or more muscular is going too far.

And I disagree that a picture that is completely photoshopped and obviously a fantasy would be obvious to teenage girls. To us, it might be obviously photoshopped, like the Mariah Carey cover. But to others, it might not be. And I'd further argue that slightly airbrushed pictures don't look airbrushed when done correctly, and the person actually looks like that in real life. But I'm talking removing errant hairs, some freckles, birth marks, etc. I would still look like me if my birth marks were airbrushed off.

Actually you wouldn't look

Actually you wouldn't look like you do in real life since in real life you have your birth marks. I'm not saying it's wrong to remove them, but I think it's hypocritical to say that's ok and then turn around and say it's not ok to do it for ads.


I'd like to know what you think about using photoshop for photography not used in advertisements like school portraits, family portraits, wedding photography, & senior portraits. If you're not aware, photoshop is used in most areas of professional portrait photography. Nowadays you can get your 5th grader airbrushed and remove her braces and pimples through Jostens ordering system.

Take a look at this blog post to see what I mean:

This is pretty much an industry standard. It's not unusual to do a little tucking with the liquefy tool before letting clients see a finished product. Same with photoshopping veins, pimples, etc. Only some photographers will do permanent "blemishes" like freckles, moles, or birthmarks. Many times the client requests these edits themselves. Then they post them on facebook for their nieces, cousins, friends, co-workers to see. Do you think that is harmful or unethical? If so, do you think it's worse or better than advertisement photoshopping?

That's a good point, June.

That's a good point, June. I've actually experienced this. In my senior year of high school, my freckles (and I've got quite a few) were airbrushed out in some misguided attempt to make me "flawless." I was insulted. Not only did I not give consent to the alteration, my face became a creepy, plasticine single tone that actually served only to make me (and my skin quality) look worse. I guess it all comes down to what the "ethical" limit is on photo alteration, and I think the limit is different for everyone. Some people might draw the line at red-eye removal, others might be okay with contrast and saturation manipulation, and some might prefer to be completely airbrushed. I'll even admit to manipulating photographs of myself in various manners, including altering the contrast (digitally and darkroom), cropping them, or even simply choosing a "better" photo over another.

I would never want my child's

I would never want my child's school pictures photoshopped! that's part of the joy of looking back and remembering. I think that's horrible that a parent would want their child's braces or pimples 'shopped out. That is worse to me than a child seeing a magazine ad. It's setting up an impossible version of *themselves*. Seeing other people looking "perfect" is way less harmful than seeing yourself like that. I likewise would never want my wedding photos edited in that way either. I don't want to look thinner because I know I didn't really look that way. Color enhancement? Sure. Breast enhancement? No thanks.

Photoshop is not going anywhere

Photoshop is not going away anytime soon. We reclaimed BITCH, CUNT, and SLUT into female positive attributes so that we can't be shamed anymore. We should reclaim PHOTOSHOP next. With increased access to the PHOTOSHOP and Open Source options like GIMP, it is possible for the average person to create the fantasy of their dreams. By being the one in control of the fantasy, you can take the power away from the advertisers who feed us the imagery. Maybe that's when we will emotionally understand that the images portrayed are unrealistic and unattainable.

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