Our Airbrush Culture

Airbrushing is everywhere, like those ubiquitous bedbug commercials on New York 1. Like those commercials, it changes your perception of reality. When I stay with friends now, I'm always giving their sweetly proffered couches an appraising side glance. Sure, it looks bedbug free, but who knows? According to the commercials I see incessantly throughout the day, there is an epidemic that I could fall prey to at any moment. A few months of watching bedbug commercials and I've managed to convince myself that they are everywhere, just waiting for their moment.

Airbrushing works in the same way. We see it every day, in magazine photo shoots and advertising. However it's most pervasive and insidious use is to change women's bodies. Under the airbrushing knife the pounds shed away and the years disappear. Women appear happy and perfect, their skin clear and their bodies impossibly thin. Celebrities, already much thinner than the average woman, are airbrushed into perfection. They are cut into impossible beauty standards to fuel the beauty and diet industries, those thriving businesses that make anywhere from 40 to 100 billion a year.

The fashion industry says that retouching images is harmless and that consumers realize that the industry is built around the idea of fantasy. Most retouching, however, is not immediately obvious and the only fantasy it engenders is the fantasy of unrealistic beauty. Seeing image after image of unrealistic and unrepresentative body types can take its toll on women, who are already taught by society to put a premium on their looks. According to the Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc. research group, 1 out of every 100 women age 10 to 20 years old suffer from anorexia.

This harmful relationship with body image often begins early. Time Magazine reports that 80 percent of all children have been on a diet by the time they have reached the fourth grade. In addition, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration approximately 90 percent  of those who suffer from eating disorders are between the age of 12 and 25. While retouching makes the women in magazines look less and less like the women we see on the street and in the mirror.

Why all the retouching? There seems to be an attitude held by advertisers that women want to see unrealistic body types. However the stir over an un-retouched picture of plus size model Lizzie Miller counteracts that claim. After the photograph ran in Glamour magazine, showing Miller laughing and natural without her stomach retouched, letters began to pour into the magazine office. Unlike what advertisers and fashion magazines seem to believe, the letters weren't complaining about the photograph. They were excited. People had seen this one small photograph and had responded to its realism.

[img_assist|nid=37|title=Lizzie Miller|desc=|link=popup|align=middle|width=640|height=360]

The excitement of seeing an image of natural beauty shows just how starved women are to see representations of themselves in the media. Seeing impossibly thin women everywhere gives the false impression that most American women look this way. In fact, the average American woman is a size 14 not a size 2. The image the media reflects to consumers is terribly skewed, and leads young women to think of themselves as abnormal and flawed.

The worst part, perhaps, is that even impossibly tall, thin models are retouched to be smaller than is humanly possible. That's what happened with Ralph Lauren model Flippa Hamilton. Controversy swirled around the 5'10 model when an image was released that showed an intense amount of retouching. The resulting image angered many women's groups by depicting the model with a head bigger than her waist. Hamilton herself was shocked by the image and later admitted to being let go by Ralph Lauren because she was considered "too big".

The backlash spread throughout the media, drawing criticism to Ralph Lauren and to the practice of extreme retouching. The National Organization for Women even staged a protest outside the Ralph Lauren flagship store in New York City.  Protesters gathered outside the store during the holiday rush carrying signs bearing the extremely retouched photo. The holiday shoppers who stopped to talk with the protesters were horrified by the image, remarking that they thought it looked crazy.

Model Flippa Hamilton, Ralph Lauren ad from psdisasters.com

The backlash disproved the theory that consumers prefer these unhealthy, unrealistic images. Put together with the warm response to the Lizzie Miller photograph, it paints a picture of women desperately looking to see images that better represent themselves. A wider spectrum of body types need to be represented in fashion and media.

There have been some positive changes in this direction. The Dove Corporation continues their campaign for real beauty, using women of all different shapes and sizes in their print and television advertising. V magazine dedicated one issue as its "size issue", using both straight and plus size models side by side. Then there's the popularity of plus size model Crystal Renn, as well as the new weight guidelines for Milan runways. These are all steps in the right direction in depicting a wider, more realistic picture of women. The prevalent culture of airbrushing, retouching and remaking women's bodies needs to end.


Images from 1) www.jezebel.com and via Ralph Lauren and 2) Glamour Magazine.