Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Airbrushed ads are banned! And a chat with Jo Swinson

this originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook at http://www.thefreshoutlook.com/index.php?action=newspaper&subaction=article&toDo=show&postID=6479

Last week Jo Swinson MP’s campaign against airbrushing in advertising gained success as L’Oreal and Maybelline ads were banned for not offering a true representation of the product’s results. I spoke to Ms Swinson and psychologists from the Centre of Appearance Research in 2009, around the time of the launch of Ms Swinson’s campaign for a more realistic portrayal of women’s bodies in advertising. Here’s what she had to say.

Ms Swinson is aiming to work with the advertising industry to develop some limits when it comes to re-touching. Her argument is simple: by exposing young men and women to airbrushed images we are presenting them with an unrealistic representation of the human body. She hopes that by raising the public profile of the effects of airbrushing, the media will be encouraged to “portray women as they are, images of women looking good but without this ideal narrow fixation on thinness and particular shapes that we have at the moment”.

The evidence does suggest that unrealistic representations of women’s bodies can have damaging effects on body image and self esteem. Psychologist Dr Emma Halliwell has conducted extensive research into the ways body image and self esteem are affected by media imagery. She believes that: “Ultra thin models can lead to body dissatisfaction, low mood and low self esteem in women who are vulnerable and who have internalised the idea of being thin as being ideal. Increasingly we are growing up in a culture where we see being beautiful as being thin.”

Airbrushing is everywhere in the media. Women’s shoulders are made smaller and narrower by the magic of photo manipulation; arm hair is carefully erased; cheeks and eyes are made brighter and hair gets an added lustre. The result? An ad or fashion shoot is created featuring unreal woman. And because we use “enhancing” technology to change the image, the implicit suggestion is that the altered body and face is also the perfect or ideal body and face.

“Throughout time we have looked at pictures of beautiful women,” explains Ms Swinson. “But this idealisation of extreme thinness is something new, and the current media ideal of a woman’s body is a shape most women can’t achieve. This is then made so much worse by airbrushing to extreme levels.”

The problem with airbrushing, both Jo Swinson and psychologist and Co-director of the Centre of Appearance Research, Professor Nichola Rumsey have argued, is the way that digitally altered images perpetuate the beauty myth. They, quite simply, contribute to the pressures on all women, and increasingly men, to achieve the “perfect” body.

“We are increasingly under pressure to conform to these ‘perfect’ faces and bodies we see in the media. This discrepancy between what we actually look like and what we feel we should look like has been identified as one factor in why young people, especially young girls but increasingly young men, feel dissatisfied with the way the look,” argues Professor Rumsey.

The perfection airbrushed images demand is impossible. Women can’t match the software’s paintbrush. Yet we are allowing airbrushed images to dictate what women should look like even though we know that the images themselves are not even real. As Cindy Crawford famously quipped, even Cindy Crawford doesn’t look like Cindy Crawford. So how is anyone else going to?

“I want to make people think twice about these images as an interpretation of reality,” Ms Swinson explains. “A public debate around this issue is so important, as it allows us to really ask: what is ideal? Is it health, is it a body shape, is it confidence and inner beauty? We want to say that airbrushing no longer has to be the norm, celebrating a more natural beauty.”

The issues are beginning to reveal themselves at younger and younger ages. Research conducted by the Girl Guides has found that girls under 10 equate beauty with happiness. According to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, 90% of women and girls were dissatisfied with their body. Although it would be fatuous to just blame airbrushing for women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, it would be as equally disingenuous to say it plays no part at all.

So where can we find solutions? The first, Ms Swinson argues, is through working with the advertising industry to put sensible limits on manipulating images. But airbrushed images are only part of the problem in a culture where, if we’re not looking at Charlize Theron’s perfected torso, we are looking at a red ‘circle of shame’ highlighting Julia Roberts’ body hair.

One solution lies in encouraging greater discussion on body image and self esteem issues through media literacy as part of social and health education.

“With proper training available to teachers we would encourage classes to look at the media, maybe use before and after photos to learn about airbrushing, engage with journalists and have more discussion about this issue with young people,” explains Ms Swinson. “Many young women and men feel insecure about their bodies; these lessons would help young people to gain the skills to deal with these pressures, to teach them that people in the media aren’t ‘perfect’.”

The re-touching of these ads tell us that being two of the most beautiful women in the world is not enough to match the industry’s exacting and exaggerated idea of beauty. Their banning is the first step towards saying that we have had enough of this damaging portrayal of women.

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