Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Airbrushing in the Media

I wrote this in 2009 and interviewed Jo Swinson MP regarding the anti airbrushing campaign. Unfortunately it never got picked up by anyone so, 2 years on, here it is:

Pop culture fans may have realised that Barbie, with her smooth skin, impossible anatomy and perfect coiffure, celebrated turning fifty this year. Not that you’d know it to look at her. Her face is free of wrinkles, pores or spots; her body as firm and pert as the day she first graced the shelves of toy stores way back in 1959.

Barbie, we could argue, is the ultimate in airbrushing. Her smooth features say no to “flaws”, her unlikely physiology says the unreal is the ideal. And in the month when Barack Obama suggested the controversial botox tax – charging more money for non necessary cosmetic surgery operations, over in the UK, MP Jo Swinson has proposed to her party that airbrushed images in ads and mags should come with warnings, indicating to the reader where images have been digitally “enhanced”. She also more radically asks that all airbrushing in images aimed at children should be completely banned.

Swinson’s 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 the 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 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 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 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?

Swinson is proposing a ban on all airbrushed images aimed at under 16s, and warnings or notifications on images that have been airbrushed which are aimed at adults. “I want to make people think twice about these images as an interpretation of reality,” she 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 in the USA, 80% of women and 92% of 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. The media and the images we are exposed to affect us in many strange and subtle ways, from making us want to choose this cleaning product, to thinking that one body type is an ideal, compared to our own.

The beauty myth goes this way. We open a magazine and see a digitally altered image of a beautiful woman. Societal codes have made us believe that she is successful and happy, because she is beautiful. We want to be successful too, but we feel like we can’t be, because we don’t look like the image in the magazine.

“Thin models contribute to the societal ideal that is then communicated through friends, family and even the health service that being thin means you are successful, happy and healthy,” explains Halliwell. “But this isn’t necessarily the case, especially when you consider that on average models are 20% underweight, and the medical diagnostic for anorexia is being 15% underweight. This is made more problematic in that women are super critical of their bodies, but aren’t allowed to admit to dieting or exercise regimes.”

As all international readers will undoubtedly recognise, this is not just a UK problem. The rise of women worldwide wanting cosmetic surgery, from botox to boob jobs, can be linked to our airbrushed culture. Have we reached a point where we have become so isolated from the reality of women’s bodies that we see airbrushed images as representing what is “right”, and aspire to copy it? The cosmetically altered body more closely resembles the airbrushed body than the women’s bodies we are born with.

So where can we find solutions? The first, Swinson argues, is the banning of airbrushing of images aimed at children, and having mandatory warnings on all airbrushed 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 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’.”

Halliwell agrees. “There is a lot of evidence that media literacy interventions work, reducing the classic examples of the effect of women feeling bad about their appearance due to images in the media. Media literacy shows young women that media images are not appropriate comparison targets. By having these discussions we shift our evaluation of ads, it gets women to talk about what they feel about what the ads are saying, which can then help reduce ideal internalisation and disordered eating.”

And perhaps even more importantly than media-led solutions are those that we can find within ourselves, and act out in our own homes and peer groups. An even greater impact on body image is the way we talk about bodies, weight and appearance amongst our friends, colleagues and family. If those around you have a negative body image, then this can affect the way you view your own bodies. This is particularly true of the mother and daughter relationship, with research suggesting that if your mother has self esteem and body issues, then you are likely to pick up on that, and experience the same worries.

“Our relationship with our appearance is complex and is influenced by a number of factors” says Prof Rumsey, “our culture, family and peers all play a part in developing how we view ourselves and therefore, can help us develop a positive relationship with our appearance, but can contribute to dissatisfaction”.

So what can we do? Well, we can celebrate our appearance, our shapes, sizes, colours and styles, and we can learn to really help ourselves overcome the negative messages we hear about our bodies, and rejoice in our beautiful diversity. Try to question it when someone criticises a celebrity’s weight, or tell your mum to put the calorie counter away. Tell your friends how beautiful they are and tell yourself the same.

The fact remains however that you can’t always stop your mum from worrying about her weight, or convince your friend that she’s a goddess. But media regulators can do something about unrealistic representations of men and women’s bodies. And with more and more young women suffering from low self esteem and the continuing rise in eating disorders in teenage girls, it’s time they did something about it.

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