Before and after retouching, done with Adobe Photoshop. Notice the changes I made, which are common among the fashion industry - her eyes have been brightened, makeup applied, her teeth have been whitened, her arm and face have been thinned out. Her hair has been made to appear glossy, and lighting affects in photoshop have been applied to contour her face. The bra strap on her right shoulder has been erased.
The media holds an immeasurable amount of power in society. It dictates what we see and what we know; it forms ideas in our heads. This channel of information is flooded with images of “perfect” people, showing us what our bodies should supposedly look like. Magazine covers, Instagram posts, billboards and advertisements – everywhere we look, there are images; images of tall, gorgeous women with flawless bodies and perfect hair; images of men with perfectly sculpted, muscular bodies. After being exposed to these images for so long, people become envious; envious of their spotless, even skin, their shiny hair, their perfect figure, their perfect teeth. I’ll admit that I have fallen victim to the same green-eyed monster; I can’t count how many times I have aspired to look like the women I constantly see in the media. But here’s the problem with that: a lot of the people you see in those images don’t actually exist. Not in the way we see them, anyway. The models in those photos are often retouched to the point where their bodies are distorted to naturally unattainable ends. The problem affects both men and women – ideal body images are projected onto everyone. However, women tend to bare the greater brunt of the issue, as the female body has always been a battleground in society. The constant bombardment of unrealistic images in the media is largely responsible for the destruction of the greater female population’s self-esteem.
Allow me to take you through the process of retouching a photo in Adobe Photoshop, so you may understand just how drastic the transformation is. Anyone with a decent understanding of the software can accomplish this; it’s really not that hard. However, my point here is not to teach you how to retouch an image – it’s to make you realize just how extensive the process is to get from a photo of a model with a normal appearance, to the aliens you see on magazine covers.
First of all, light and color are corrected. This will probably involve adjusting the skin color of the model to look more “radiant.” Then, the spot healing brush and clone stamp tools are used to remove acne, wrinkles, stretch marks or any other imperfect blemishes. Next, the body and face is reshaped using something called the “warp” tool. This is when legs and arms are thinned out, waists are pulled in to look skinnier, faces are stripped of any features that are too round, and breasts are enhanced. It can also be used to make eyes and lips look bigger. Next, a simple brush and burn tool can be used to acquire that oh-so coveted contour effect on your face, as well as make your lips look fuller and glossier. These tools are also used to accentuate and digitally “tone” muscles, simply by casting fake shadows in specific places on the body. Cue the fake six-pack abdominal muscles. A simple adjustment of exposure can make the model’s eyes look brighter. Finally, a carefully calculated blur filter allows skin to be completely smoothed out, eliminating the body of any and all pores.
Today, women in the media are retouched to look as thin as possible, with tiny waists, long legs, large breasts and a shapely behind. Aspects such as glowing, flawless skin, shiny hair, and sparkling white teeth are also tossed into the equation. I don’t know how society decided that this was the ideal figure of womanhood, but somewhere along the way, this is what we ended up with. And these women – in magazines, on Instagram, in advertisements or wherever else – are praised for their beauty. After all, they are models. And if we take a closer look at that word, “model,” we’ll find the problem right there. The word “model” literally means “a standard of example for imitation or comparison.” Whether they’re movie stars or super models, they are publicly displayed as the standard of beauty to live up to. They are viewed as the most desirable women in the world. But the images of these “perfect” women that we see throughout the media have created an unrealistic model for all other women to aspire to.
Scarlett Johansson before and after retouching. Her skin and hair color have been completely changed, fake makeup has been applied to her eyelids, her eyes have been brightened, and her two freckles have been removed.
Upon seeing photos of these women – devoid of stretch marks, scars, fat rolls, under-eye bags, wrinkles, cellulite, or any other imperfections – we say to ourselves “Wow, she is so perfect.” And then we turn to look in the mirror, where we proceed to pinpoint every single aspect of our body and appearance that is perceived as a “flaw” by society. When we take a photo with our friends, our immediate response upon seeing the photo is to make a quick decision whether or not we look good or bad in the photo – does my face look too fat? My thighs look huge. My smile looks weird. My hair is messy. And we retake the photo. And retake and retake and retake, hoping that in one of those photos, we will appear as gorgeous as the women on the cover of magazines.
People tend to forget that the models in the media are not actually perfect. In fact, there’s no such thing as “perfect.” The people you see on the cover of magazines don’t actually exist. Nobody is completely devoid of any and all “flaws.” The human body is not made to look like a Barbie doll. Women, you are made of flesh, blood and bones. You are not made of plastic.
Women put themselves through psychological, emotional and physical hell trying to look like the models on magazine covers. We routinely practice lengthy beauty routines and apply pounds of make-up, suffocating the pores on our skin. We go through extensive, painful hair-removal procedures. Some women diet to try and get thinner, and then some fall victim to eating disorders.
A friend of mine recently received breast-enhancement surgery. She claimed that having a relatively flat chest made her feel unfeminine. “I don’t feel like a woman,” she told me. I supported my friend on her personal journey, but I do not support the society that made her believe that her flat chest was unfeminine. It is the same society that made her believe that beautiful is a synonym for “thin” or “skinny.” And it is the same society that caused her to struggle with anorexia for many years in the pursuit of being “beautiful.”
Kim Kardashian, before and after retouching. Notice that her waist, legs and arm have been slimmed, her skin smoothed over, and her face has been thinned out.
The reasons why women aspire to be physically beautiful are somewhat of a mystery. In the end, I think it comes down to something quite simple. Beautiful women are coveted. They are desired by men and envied by other women. Perhaps it is somewhat of a primal instinct, the want to be coveted by men. Or maybe it’s an idea that society has drilled into our brains for centuries: you must be beautiful in order to find a good husband; otherwise you’ll die an old shrew. The media has shaped not only women’s perception of beauty, but men’s as well. It creates an expectation in the male brain – they desire the gorgeous women they see in magazines. Those women are the “hottest,” the most attractive. They are the women that every man wants. They are the most coveted.
Carol Conaway, a professor in the Women’s Studies department at the University of New Hampshire, shared her view on the matter: “Men are attracted to the images of "perfect women" and begin to compare their partners to what they see in media. Media standards for "beauty" are shown to support various industries, such as the fashion, hair products, and sex worker industries. None of these industries serve to enhance womens' self-esteem and self-worth. In media products, there are no examples of realistic women.
To be fair, a few faces in the fashion industry have slowly started to make steps in the right direction. In 2014, Aerie, a lingerie branch of American Eagle, launched an ad campaign composed entirely of unretouched photos. Aerie released a statement saying that they were trying to “challenge supermodel standards.” The campaign is called Aerie Real, and has since grown into something of a movement, featuring real girls in all their glory – fat rolls and tattoos included.
Sports Illustrated recently released their annual swimsuit edition with “plus-sized” model Ashley Graham. The release created a lot of hype, as it is the first time Sports Illustrated has put a size 16 model on the cover. Many people believe that this is a major leap in the pursuit of a society that is geared more towards body-acceptance and self-love. Graham is a huge advocate for positive body image; however, a lot of controversy has stirred around the release of the cover. Though Graham publicly stated that she is completely unretouched in the photos, many people are unconvinced. Though it appears the overall shape of her body has not been altered, there is not a single stretch mark or inch of cellulite on her in site. In regards to being featured on the cover, Graham stated, “To actually be on the cover, I didn’t think that Sports Illustrated was going to take that risk. But right now what they are doing is they are setting the standard for what everybody else – magazines, designers, people in Hollywood, should be doing.”
I sat down with senior UNH student Sara Aybar and asked her about her thoughts on how women are portrayed in the media, and the affects it has on our society. She chimed in on the Sports Illustrated controversy. “It’s fantastic,” she told me. “It’s a giant step for women all over the globe. But when I see the photo – I also notice that she has no stretch marks, no scars from a scraped knee…no pores.” Both Sara and Graham are right – Sports Illustrated has taken a step in the right direction by featuring a model on the cover that is bigger than the size of a twig, and by allowing to Graham to flaunt the natural shape of her body. But we still have a long way to go.
Aybar shared with me her own personal struggle with body image: “When I was in sixth grade, a girl in my study hall turned around to me and said, ‘Wow. You really need to pluck your eyebrows.’ I’m Turkish, so yeah, I was naturally born with thick brows. I hadn’t thought too much about it before. After that comment, I started plucking my brows. I started pulling at them when I was nervous or excited – subconsciously trying to get rid of the ‘excess’ hairs, the imperfections. After years of doing this, my brows stopped growing naturally anymore. Now I fill in the spaces I pulled or plucked too hard and no longer grow back. To be honest, it makes me terribly sad that such a simple comment could encourage me to physically distort my natural image beyond repair.”
Now consider this for a moment – what exactly convinced that sixth grade girl that Sara’s eyebrows were too thick? The media, and the societal norms that it creates, are most likely at fault here. Thin, shapely eyebrows are one of the many aspects commonly portrayed in images of women in ads and magazines. Exposure to these images, even at such a young age, probably convinced this girl that eyebrows really are meant to be thin and shapely. Consequently, that belief implies that thick eyebrows are ugly or unfeminine. We can’t entirely blame the young girl for her view of how a body should be – like so many others, she was mislead by unrealistic depictions of women in the media.
In regards to the impact of excessive and early exposure, Professor Conaway commented, “these unrealistic images destroy women's self-confidence and self-satisfaction. Even young girls begin emulating these images when they are before the age of ten years old. If women don't have realistic role models they feel defeated and unworthy of praise or love.”
This issue affects people of all ages – young girls and senior citizens alike. The problem is widespread – women of every shape, size and age group are photoshopped for publication in the media. Thankfully, some women with powerful voices are speaking out – actresses Keira Knightley, Jennifer Lawrence, Jamie Lee Curtis, MMA fighter Rhonda Rousey, and super diva Beyonce have all refused to be retouched for magazines and ad campaigns at one point or another. They often release original, untouched photos to fight back against images that have been retouched without their consent. These celebrities understand the negative impact that exposure to unrealistic, retouched photos has on the women in our society.
Aybar left me with a powerful sentiment about the lengths to which women go through in the pursuit of being beautiful, “Shave. Wax. Trim. Cleanse. Wash. Paint. Pluck. Exfoliate. Moisturize. Curl. Straighten. Line. Fill. Color. Flatten. Tighten. Shrink. Stuff. Cover up. Fix. Adjust. Contour. Blend. Highlight. Matte. Gloss. Shimmer. Prep. Spray. Restore. Revive. Remove.
And after all of that, you still don’t look like the girl in the magazine.”
Well no, you still don’t look like the girl in the magazine, and you never will. Remember – she isn’t real. She is a fabrication of digital alteration. But you are real, and you are beautiful. And you are not beautiful despite whatever “flaws” you may have as dictated by society, you are beautiful because of every imperfection you have. Every scar, stretch mark, or blemish on your body makes you uniquely human. Your imperfections are beautiful, and so are you. Never let a magazine cover tell you otherwise.