When I was in my teens, I had a subscription to “Seventeen” magazine. Each and every month, the magazine would arrive in my mailbox and provide me with some of the “best advice” a teen girl like me could ever need.
“Seventeen” taught me how to win over that boy in my class and how to shop for the coolest vintage jeans. It also taught me how to follow diet culture and fit unrealistic beauty and body standards.
Not much has changed in the mainstream print media since then. But the way we advertise to teens and youth day to day is becoming a larger concern.
According to a 2017 study, advertising can have a pervasive effect on children and adolescents. The average American young person can watch anywhere from 13,000 to 30,000 ads per year on TV alone. And these images can be overwhelming and strongly influence what youth consider desirable or “normal.”
Case in point: A 2008 review found that the media’s portrayal of a specific thin ideal may contribute to negative body image in women and girls. Considering how much our use of social media and the internet has increased, it’s no surprise that the way people feel in their bodies has become more nuanced.
People have strong opinions about who’s responsible for promoting unrealistic beauty and body standards. Many have said Photoshop plays a large role in our self-esteem. In response, a Congressional representative introduced the Truth in Advertising Act in 2014, requesting that the Federal Trade Commission report on how faces and bodies were being digitally altered.
The goal was to regulate how much advertisers could digitally alter images and keep things honest. But the bill was never enacted — its current status is listed as “died in a previous Congress.”
The motivations behind the act haven’t gone away, though. Many people who support it say altered images in beauty ads are misleading and are contributing to the national rate of negative body image.
Research is still in its early stages, but some studies point to social media’s effect on body image. People often judge their appearance negatively in comparison to those of their peers.
Melissa A. Fabello, PhD, a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics and eating disorders, says, “If we really wanted to have a lot of feelings about this, like if we are concerned about the Photoshop issue at its core, then […] we should be pushing for an industry-wide revamping of the ways in which Photoshop is used.”
She gives the example of mascara brands using fine print to explain that the model may be wearing extensions and therefore the performance of the product may vary.
“The other question people get really stuck on is: At what point is it that we’ve [Photoshopped too much]?” she says. “Is flattering lighting — playing with brightness and contrast — OK? What about a blur effect for a gauzy, dreamy quality? Color correction? If we want to have a serious conversation about Photoshop, we need to consider all of its functions — not just the ones we’ve decided are ‘going too far.’”
In 2014, Aerie, American Eagle’s underwear brand, announced that it would no longer be airbrushing its models. So did ModCloth.
Dove recently partnered with Getty Images and Girlgaze to create Project #ShowUs, the world’s first inclusive picture library of women, with the goal of breaking beauty stereotypes. The library includes 5,000 images of women by women, which have been made instantly available to Getty Images, where brands can license, view, and use them.
Amanda de Cadenet, founder and CEO of Girlgaze, has noticed a change in the industry, but she isn’t convinced one movement can completely overhaul beauty stereotypes.
“I don’t think any one thing is going to change [beauty stereotypes] per se. [Our campaign] will help move the needle. I don’t know quite how much, but I know that we did. I think that is what counts. It’s like progress, not perfection.”
While Girlgaze doesn’t actively use Photoshop, de Cadenet believes we can’t blame everything on Photoshop. Despite all the recent reports that body dissatisfaction is ubiquitous and can take a huge toll on our mood, self-esteem, and relationships — and even the activities we pursue — body dissatisfaction has been normal for a long time.
If television shows like “Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian” and “The Biggest Loser” are marketed as wellness programs, then it’s no wonder the pressure is always on. It’s no wonder children as young as 5 express body dissatisfaction and a belief that they should be thinner — or even ask questions about diets like keto or Weight Watchers.
“You know what the most important thing is?” de Cadenet says. “It’s what your home looks like and how your immediate family feel about their bodies and how your family views beauty. No, it’s not just Photoshop.”
“Capitalism is what determines what type of bodies go into the advertising we see, because capitalism is determining which bodies are desirable,” says Sonalee Rashatwar, MSW, LCSW, MEd. “Capitalism is also informing the rigid, narrow confines of what is beautiful and what’s attractive.”
This means brands will absolutely determine which bodies and people get to be visible, Photoshop or no Photoshop.
Fabello agrees. “The idea of having a body-positive campaign — and I say that in quotations: ‘body-positive campaign’ — is that it’s a capitalist move. They know what consumers want to hear,” she says.
She also believes that brands can never be truly body positive.
“Brands, by definition, are seeking to make money off of a consumer. It’s impossible to call a campaign, with aims to make a financial profit, body positive. The politics are misaligned. Inclusive? Sure. Politically radical? Never.”
At the end of the day, they’re still trying to profit from visibility and inclusion.
Which echoes de Cadenet’s goals for Girlgaze: representing and highlighting perspectives and people who aren’t centered in mainstream outlets.
“It’s really important that however we can, we bring people into the space with us,” de Cadenet says. “Whoever gets access, bring people in with you.”
Girlgaze continues to highlight Generation Z photographers and directors, including marginalized folks such as women of color, people in larger bodies, disabled people, and trans and nonbinary people. The Girlgaze Instagram account has more than 200,000 followers and takes an active approach to responding to trolls.
“When I think about youth and advertising campaigns in general, I think of the importance of media literacy because that’s one of the few things that you can use as an educational tool to combat misinformation,” Rashatwar says.
“[Without teaching] individuals at a younger age body acceptance and an understanding [of] body worth and the appreciation of self-love, we develop into adults who have a hard time accepting things like acne scars or our cellulite.”
Media messages can be powerful and widespread in our culture. De Cadenet believes these messages can have a long-lasting effect, especially if they’re reinforced in the home.
“If […] you grew up in a home where you saw your own mother hating her body and she was always dieting and commenting on other women’s bodies, or you saw her restrict her eating or exercise like crazy, yeah, you better believe you’re going to go out in the world with a fractured sense of self about yourself, right?”
Photoshopping and airbrushing are so tied to the beauty-industrial complex that the answer to body positivity cannot be “Ban Photoshop!” Understanding social media’s role in body image and how eating disorders function is even more complex.
It’s hard to know where to draw the line between what requires regulation and what requires education — but the freedom of human connection and expression may help make up for that.
De Cadenet wants to raise her daughter to have her own identity but also give her the autonomy to make choices and the tools to be aware of the media. She will often see her daughter editing, deleting, and then adding images to her own Instagram feed.
“They all kind of have the same aesthetic, which I find really interesting. To me, that’s her visual language and identity.”
If more brands could showcase the idea that self-worth is not determined by appearance, the numbers on a scale, or the color of your skin, and if we could all play a part in stopping the cycle of fitting into a mold and instead encourage everyone to embrace imperfections and messiness from the inside out, then we might start seeing beauty not only in what’s not Photoshopped but in unique expressions everywhere.
Ama Scriver is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. You can follow her on Instagram.