Thoughts on Body Image & the Media

If this most recent Victoria’s Secret ad doesn’t call for some action, I don’t know what does. Apparently they have not learned any lessons from their long history of Photoshop Fails.  Here’s the latest offender:

Victoria's Secret Photoshop Fail

Victoria’s Secret Photoshop Fail

The image itself is absurdly, laughably bad – that’s the only good thing about this situation. I find it rather sad to think of how many people this must have funneled through for approval, and yet it was still posted to the official VS facebook page (and amidst +1000 comments decrying the Photoshop injustice, they didn’t take down the photo.) It raises a lot of questions. Do they think real (human) women want to look like this? Did they think this image would increase sales? Does VS provide adequate vision care for their employees, particularly the graphic artists? Did they not have enough Photoshop licenses, and thus this photo was edited in Microsoft Paint?  Is this some kind of joke? I truly don’t know what they were thinking.

Not as if this photo has shattered any illusions for me – I’m not surprised that VS airbrushes its models far beyond what’s physically possible, but I was surprised that they posted such a clearly terrible photo and do not seem to care what message it sends.

A couple of months ago, a VS catalog from 1979 appeared on the internet. Of course times (and brands) change, but this is a major shift. Can you imagine modern day VS posting anything resembling their 1979 models on their website today?

Victoria's Secret Catalog 1979

Victoria’s Secret Catalog 1979 – Photo by Retronaut

Photo retouching is nothing new — in fact, slight deceptions in order to flatter subjects in art have been around for centuries. Most people, if given the chance, would probably elect for at least a bit of retouching to gloss over photographed flaws. According to Glamour magazine, nearly 60 percent of their respondents felt it was fine for a woman to tweak her personal pics – 23% of 25-29-year-olds and 41% of 18-24-year-olds already do (Source:  Retouching: How Much is Too Much.) In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a couple of Photoshopped pictures – mostly inserting backgrounds via green screen, but rest assured, all the photos still look like me!  (Once, for fun, I played with changing the proportions of my body – and to be fair, it didn’t look much better than the VS photo posted above.  But then again, I didn’t post it online as an advertisement and I’m not a trained graphic artist working for a major company, so…)

Photographers sometimes get bent out of shape when they approach this discussion. I hear you: Photoshop is frequently used for fixing other aspects of a photo – like the lighting or focus – or creating composite images. Good photographers only fix the minor flaws, like a smoothing out a zit or erasing a stray hair. Photoshop gets a bad rap for altering reality, sometimes deserved and sometimes not. But the real question here is, when we’re talking about Photoshopping people, how far is too far?

THE TOLL OF “THINSPIRATION”

Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening.  For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Pinterest‘s disclaimer on “thinspiration” searches

Girls everywhere are looking for “thinspiration” — collecting images of stick-thin models in order to encourage themselves to exercise more and lose weight. (Also known as thinspo, fitspo, fitspiration) When I did a quick search on Pinterest, the viral social site even put a disclaimer about eating disorders at the top of the search. There’s been much ado about banning such content from social sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, etc. But it’s a hard problem to police – you can search for a multitude of terms (thin, fitness, size 0, bikinis, etc.) and come up with simliar results. The social site isn’t the problem — it’s the motivation driving girls to post these things under the guise that they are encouraging.

It’s not even just a female epidemic – increasing numbers of young men are falling prey to eating disorders as they try to live up to the sculpted, mega-muscled male ideal. They’re skipping a lot of meals or pounding out hours and hours at the gym for some of the same reasons young ladies do — to gain control over their lives and to achieve an ideal.

Get Fat on Lorings Fat-Ten-U Corpula Foods

“I’d feed that girl some Fat-Ten-U pills from 1895.” Well, maybe not… Photo by Library of Congress – thanks to Chuck Coker

People see a photo of a very skinny girl whose ribs are poking out. Some say, “I’d like to feed that girl some cheeseburgers!” Others defend the physique and accuse others of jealousy. Neither of these responses are very helpful, in my opinion. Force-feeding someone is not actually healthy behavior, FYI. Accusing others of envying a (clearly) Photobotched physique is kind of like saying, “You’re jealous of Spiderman.”  Maybe, but HE’S NOT REAL (sorry to break it to you.)

Let’s be clear: Exercise is not bad, and collecting new exercises to try or encouraging quotes are not bad things either.  But idolizing thin, sometimes even skeletal, models will ultimately discourage any efforts to exercise or get healthy.  Likewise, thinness isn’t inherently bad – some girls are naturally skinny with a high metabolism, and even more girls have put in a lot of hard work to get toned. However, thinness should not automatically equate with healthiness. If thinness is gained through unhealthy means like an eating disorder, that’s obviously unhealthy. Naturally thin girls might not have the best nutrition or might not be physically fit, relying only on metabolism to keep their figures.

Here’s what I think: “Fat” is a pretty subjective term, and “thin” does not necessarily equal healthy.  I think that’s a key message that is slowly catching on, but it needs to be reinforced.

Both extremes are a problem. Obesity is clearly a growing health issue, but so are eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. And while there is no one “ideal weight” for everyone, there is a range of healthy body types. Is there a happy middle – a place where we can celebrate healthy bodies of differing shapes & sizes without bashing the looks of other people? Even unhealthy people don’t deserve to be “bashed” – they should be encouraged to develop healthier habits.

I’m so glad that internet troll called me a “fatty.”  It inspired me to make better life choices. -said no one, ever.

I think it’s important to help people feel good about themselves, especially the things they cannot change about themselves. Is that even a possibility in today’s advertising landscape?

THE ROLE OF ADVERTISING IN BODY IMAGE ISSUES

Photo by !anaughty!

Advertising at its core seems to be based on the message that “you lack {desirable trait}.” In previous decades, maybe the desirable trait was to have pin-up curves. Maybe today the desirable trait is to be thin and toned. In either era, advertisers capitalize on that message of “you’re not good the way you are, so buy this!”  They are selling a fantasy, but some fantasies are more unobtainable than others.  Ad fantasies have one thing in common:  lack.  “You lack {desirable trait}, so buy {this product}.” So in a way, telling people that they are inherently beautiful is counter to the most of the advertising industry. Yet just like there is more than one kind of beautiful body, there is more than one way of selling stuff.

With all the hullabaloo about the media’s effects on body image and self-esteem, I don’t understand why more ad departments haven’t jumped on this bandwagon. By continuing on their path of promoting unhealthy and unrealistic body images, they risk alienating a lot of customers who have started to realize the truth. Some companies have started to change: they feature healthy or “plus size” models that actually somewhat resemble real customers. Some companies in the exercise & fitness market gear ads more towards being strong and healthy rather than just losing weight. I wish the idea behind Dove’s famous Campaign for Real Beauty would catch on more quickly in other companies.

Since we’re picking on VS already, let me use them as an example. Sure, I get the VS catalog and I shop for scents or lotions at their semi-annual sales. But I don’t consider myself a loyal customer. Why is that? Because I don’t look like those girls in the catalog, and frankly I don’t know anyone in my life that does. I don’t identify with those models. I know that if I buy clothes from VS, they will not look the same on me as it does on them. Isn’t that the whole point of seeing clothing on a real person, to be able to visualize how you might look in the same garment? Thus, when the “real” person in the photo has been changed in (clearly) unrealistic ways, it loses most of the point. I’m not trying to discredit the models – I’m sure they are very beautiful in real life. But do we really have to pretend that they look exactly like their catalog photos? We know better!

BUT IT’S NOT ALL THEIR FAULT

Soapbox

Photo by MonsieurLui

Can I get on my soapbox for a second? As the consumers, we have to bear partial responsibility for this. We’re the ones who keep tuning in to toxic portrayals, who keep buying their products, who keep silent about their methods. Everybody is looking for happiness, and we have all mistakenly looked to what the ad execs feed us for answers. Some people (overweight or not alike) think that a thin body will solve all their problems, and the rest of us aren’t always honest with them about that. All too often, a thin body is never thin enough – that perception leads to eating disorders. I know a lot of happy people, and their happiness is not based on dress size.

It’s a personal responsibility too, and I’m including myself in this. We need to stop giving authority to others to make us feel bad about ourselves. Hopefully doctors, who actually do have the authority to tell you exactly what’s healthy and what’s not, don’t make you feel this way. Why do we give other people this much authority over our feelings of worth?

FINAL THOUGHTS

Why do I feel the need to speak up now?  After all, this phenomenon is nothing new.  To be honest, I don’t know why this particular picture sent me off on a much-longer-than-intended rant.  At first, I just wanted to make fun of the picture… but it quickly turned into something deeper.  I have had a long struggle with body image and confidence – I guess I am currently writing this in a burst of security. I’m not claiming total authority on this subject, but I’m tired of the same old message.  I’m tossing my voice in with the others – this is out of control.  This thin-is-in-at-any cost message has been around much too long, and too many people are sacrificing their health for looks. I believe that it is possible for another cultural shift to take place – I think it has already begun.

MORE ARTICLES TO READ

SIGN

We’re asking for support to pass federal legislation requiring advertising that’s meaningfully changed the human form through photoshopping or airbrushing to carry “Truth in Advertising” labels. (Sign the Media & Public Health Act petition.)

LOOK

Photoshop Disasters:  A hilarious collection of some of the worst Photoshop blunders

Browse Retronaut’s 1979 Victoria’s Secret Catalog

READ

If I was just starting to model at age 17 in 2012, I could not have had the career that I did. I would’ve been considered too heavy. In my time, the average model’s size was a four or six.  Today you are expected to be a size zero. When I started out, I didn’t know such a size even existed. (Read the rest of supermodel Tyra Banks’ message to models about anorexia.)

LEARN ABOUT “THINSPIRATION”

But banning certain kinds of images and persecuting those who find solace in them only attacks a symptom of a much larger disease—society’s obsession with thinness and fat-phobia. (Read more on Thinspo and Fitspo and why banning isn’t the answer.)

LEARN ABOUT RETOUCHING

Before lumping this into “a problem with our modern world” too fast, though, remember that it was always thus: kings and queens were flattered by their bust-sculptors and portrait-painters, and as soon as photography was invented, there were retouchers. Drawing onto negatives with a pencil to prompt prints to come out lighter, or delicately scratching away emulsion to prompt prints to darken, they removed stray hairs, straightened noses, and erased double chins from the very first. (Read more on the ethics of retouching, with historical examples.)

Comments
5 Responses to “Thoughts on Body Image & the Media”
  1. Sammy Davis says:

    I read every word of this. Thank you Natalie! This graph struck a chord most with me, your words have such strength and are resonating with many: Advertising at its core seems to be based on the message that “you lack {desirable trait}.” In previous decades, maybe the desirable trait was to have pin-up curves. Maybe today the desirable trait is to be thin and toned. In either era, advertisers capitalize on that message of “you’re not good the way you are, so buy this!” They are selling a fantasy, but some fantasies are more unobtainable than others. Ad fantasies have one thing in common: lack. ”You lack {desirable trait}, so buy {this product}.” So in a way, telling people that they are inherently beautiful is counter to the most of the advertising industry. Yet just like there is more than one kind of beautiful body, there is more than one way of selling stuff.

    Such truth that, as much as we laud the “real bodies” of yesterday, the curves of pin up girls were creating feelings of LACK in women without those body types then, similar to how the cellulite free 12 year old bodies of VS models inspire LACK in women today. Same game … different figure.

    • natfee says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, Sammy! I love how you summarized the feelings towards “real women” of yesteryear — so true. While on one hand, I love celebrating the curvy pin-ups of the past, that message of “lack” in the old advertising makes me a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it’s time for a new game… thanks for reading! ❤

  2. Bonnie Gayle says:

    Thank you for this valuable information and for being a part of the solution. I work in this field and it’s difficult because the problem is so expansive without a lot of help in the solution. 🙂

    • natfee says:

      Thanks so much for reading, Bonnie! Your comment is so encouraging – it’s good to know that other people out there have the same concerns and are trying to do something about it as well. I’m so glad to hear that you are working in this field, and I bet you have some great insights on the problem. Keep fighting the good fight! ❤

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  1. […] through this song-and-dance before.  You might be experiencing a bit of body-loathing and envy, thanks in no small part to the media, unless you are one of the few who is actually trying to gain weight.  You too experience some […]



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