Social Issues


Social Issues

“You don’t have to rely on a healthy body image or self respect anymore. Now that’s the power of Fotoshop.”

So states filmmaker Jesse Rosten’s terrific parody of digital beauty, and the computer programming on which it relies. It’s a fabulous sendup of a topic that’s been scrutinized for years – the mythology of feminine beauty that’s promoted on magazine covers and in television advertisements.

“Why eat healthy and exercise when you can just look like you do?”

Naomi Wolf’s groundbreaking book, The Beauty Myth, which looked past the advertisements and movie posters to reveal how women are manipulated by unattainable ideals of feminine beauty, is now 20 years old – her updated version of the book turns 10 this year.

Photoshop was only a year old when Wolf first published The Beauty Myth. Few photographers used the program, and it hadn’t developed its most powerful tools to manipulate images. In the years since, however, it has become the standard imaging program used by virtually every photographer, designer and publisher in the world. It can liquify body parts to change their shape or sizeclear up skin, and change the color of individual strands of hair. What’s more, manipulating images in Photoshop is far cheaper than investing in the photojournalism that filled most magazine covers 20 years ago, so on today’s newstand readers are confronted by a crowd of pretty faces and perfect bodies that spent more time on computer screens than they did in front of the camera. The images of beauty for both men and women presented by the media today are far less grounded in reality – and in greater need of mythbusting – than when Wolf wrote her groundbreaking book.

Rosten’s satire kicks off what promises to be big year for coverage, and uncoverage, of the female body. Wolf has a new book coming out in May – Vagina: A Cultural History. My friend, science writer Florence Williams, also has book arriving in May that’s certain to, um, pique a lot of interest – Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.

But, while I find Rosten’s video hillarious and accurate, I’ve also been troubled by the way Photoshop has become a verb meaning to manipulate images with the intent of misleading viewers. Almost every published photograph is processed through Photoshop and the vast majority of them are honest depictions of the scenes and people the photographer was recording. Subjects shown in an unfavorable light in photographs routinely claim that the images were “Photoshopped,” and that’s probably true – the image was almost certainly processed through the standard imaging program. But that doesn’t mean it was manipulated with the intent of bamboozling its viewers. Certainly the advent of digital photography has made it more common for images presented as honest records of what was before the lens turning out to be fabrications created in computers. But, while the digital age’s tools to manipulate images are far more powerful than the ones used before pixels replaced grains of silver, photographs have been altered to mislead since the invention of the Daguerreotype. So perhaps, rather than saying dishonest images are “Photoshopped,” we should just call them what they are – visual lies.

For those interested in the manipulation of women’s images, I find this short video by JAGORI powerful and to the point. You can make dishonest images with Photoshop’s fancy electronic tools, or you can just pick up a pencil and an eraser.

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