Should Photoshop be Banned from Mass Media?

Kelly Clarkson was featured on the cover of SELF for the magazine’s 2009 September issue — an issue that is now infamous for Photoshopping Clarkson’s body to be drastically thinner and not at all like what she actually looked like at that time.

Earlier that year, Clarkson had been ridiculed for her weight gain, but she fought back, saying, “My happy weight changes. I’ll be different sizes all the time. When people talk about my weight, I’m like, ‘You seem to have a problem with it; I don’t. I’m fine!’”

The former editor-in-chief of SELF, Lucy Danziger, defended the magazine’s editing of Clarkson’s picture, which she said was done to make Clarkson “look her personal best.” In her opinion, retouched images are what women want — that’s what sells the magazines.

“Portraits like the one we take each month for the cover of SELF are not supposed to be unedited or a true-to-life snapshot,” Danziger said. “We allow the postproduction process to happen. This is art, creativity and collaboration. It is…meant to inspire women to want to be their best. Did we publish an act of fiction? No. Not unless you think all photos are that.”

These edited photos may have harmful consequences on the people exposed to them.

One study found that vulnerable consumers, specifically adolescents, might not realize that the pictures in media depict an illusion of perfection. Many studies have tracked positive correlations between exposure to the “thin ideal” in media images and disordered eating or other body-image issues and dissatisfaction. According to a study released by USA Today (Prevention of Eating Problems with Elementary Children, Michael Levine, USA Today, July 1998), 47% of girls in the 5th to 12th grades reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures, and 69% of girls in that age range reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.

Regardless of the reason, up to 24 million men and women in the United States suffer from an eating disorder (The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” 2003.), and an even larger amount suffer from disordered eating, eating pathologies, and negative body image.

As a result, the media industry is being pushed to include health warning labels on images that have been retouched using any software. One parliament member in France is proposing a bill to require health warnings on any photos that have been digitally altered. Similarly, one U.S. congresswoman recently presented the “Truth in Advertising Act of 2014,” which would not only require media to label retouched photos but also the FTC to draft a strategy to reduce images that have been altered to materially change people’s physical characteristics. Two researchers at Dartmouth college are developing a software that would potentially detect the severity of retouching used in photos.

But is a health warning the right way to combat negative body image? I tend to side with the stakeholders who argue that men and women actually have a well-developed understanding of the media and its potential role in influencing self-image. When I look through magazines, yes I see pictures of thin, impossibly beautiful women. But the key word there is impossible. I look at the pictures, and I know that all of them have been edited and touched-up multiple times before they ever will make it to print. Putting a health warning on something isn’t going to magically fix the problem. If we are going to fight to promote healthy body image, then we need to focus on the “thin ideal” plaguing our nation through many social, cultural, and political forces — not simply through the media.