There’s a new dystopian sci-fi event coming soon to screens near you—and no, I’m not talking about The Hunger Games. I’m calling it Photoshop: The Final Frontier. And, unfortunately, it’s taken the leap from speculation to reality.
For something that comes standard in an expansive set of computer utilities, Photoshop (when used with reckless and patriarchal abandon) has been proven to have negative social effects on the very audiences it’s targeting as potential consumers. Among these, as a very partial list…
- Three out of four women feel worse about themselves after leafing through a fashion magazine for only three minutes. Three. As in, self-esteem plummets with the amount of temporal investment required for a microwave chocolate cake in a mug.
- Photoshopped bodies appear in teen magazines, where 78% of 17-year-old girls already report body dissatisfaction. What’s more, 47% of elementary school girls (meaning ages 5-10!) say magazine pictures make them want to lose weight.
- People of color, from Beyoncé to Gabourey Sidibe to Neil deGrasse Tyson, are subject to whitewashing: lightening skin tone to conform more neatly with the Western, Eurocentric beauty hegemony. This in a society where skin bleaching, eyelid surgery, and “ethnic” hair care strategies are already doing their damnedest to make POC appear “more white.”
- Artificially slimmed-down bodies are impossible without the magic of a cursor, but these bodies are placed in women’s health and fitness magazines (okay, Women’s Health and Fitness magazines) and advertised as the totally obtainable “after” image. We go to more and more drastic lengths to obtain these fantasy results, crash dieting or engaging in unhealthily intense exercise regimens. Which, as we know from research into orthorexia, exercise bulimia, crash dieting, and the fact that diets don’t work, is wildly detrimental to health, whatever the magazine covers say.
So if studies, facts, statistics, and general common sense all tell us that Photoshopping our bodies into vaguely alien-looking plastic-people is a generally terrible idea, why is it standard business practice for the advertising industry? Because… well, not to get too Econ 101 on you, but because capitalism.
You know, capitalism? That handy economic system where profit is driven by a free-market economy in which whatever sells can be distributed at incredible prices to support the accumulation of wealth?
Here’s the thing: in our world, shame sells. Body hate sells. The diet industry (weight loss plans, pills, supplements, shakes, surgeries, and all the rest) sells, and sells, and sells, to the tune of $60 billion every year. Yup, every year.
Wonder why you feel worse about yourself after looking at endless images of tall, thin, white, symmetrical, pore-less models? Then notice, every time you open your browser or turn on the TV, the promo for the latest root/flower/seed/unicorn blood that melts fat like candle wax. Bam. That’s the one-two punch.
This isn’t to say that all advertisers are deliberately driving a Photoshop-sized hole through our self-esteem for profit. There’s our screwed-up, one-dimensional, stretched-to-the-breaking-point beauty standards to consider, too. Advertising firms are made up of humans, and it’s hard to find a human completely unaffected by the social pressure to slim down and shut up. (And be five foot nine, able-bodied, and white. You know, if possible.)
I’m not blaming any one company, firm, or person for this phenomenon. We aren’t responsible for how we’ve been socialized, just like we aren’t responsible for certain levels of cultural privilege we may or may not be born with. But, just like with privilege, we are responsible for the impact of our actions, and of our inaction. Faced with a sociocultural monster like this one, it’s that inaction that’s most destructive.
So what can we do to fight inaction with activism? A few suggestions to get you started…
1. Understand When a Product Invents the Flaw It Fixes
Show of hands: how many of us even knew what our pores were before those commercials convincing us we could shrink them with expensive creams (and Photoshop, to hide the fact that said creams invariably do nothing)? Same goes for forehead wrinkles, vaginoplasty (yes, really), or whatever can be the hell wrong with our underarms now.
Women make 85% of all consumer purchases in the US. However gender stereotypes make you feel about that, it’s a fact. If we decide we don’t want, need, or even have the ability to look like Photoshopped models, companies will have to adapt their business models to thrive in the new consumer landscape. And even if the change isn’t immediate on a cultural scale, it will be on the personal. I can’t begin to tell you how much more progress I’ve made on my writing when I decided time spent worrying about my uneven skin tone could be better spent on revisions of Chapter Twelve.
2. Take Political Action
Don’t let my Econ digression scare you; I’m not asking for a total dismantling of the capitalist system by tomorrow. (Though people always seem to say “dismantling the capitalist system” like it’s a bad thing…) But there are political actions you can take, in addition to voting with your dollar.
Sign the Truth In Ads petition, urging lawmakers to support H.R. 4341, the Truth In Advertising Act. This proposed legislation would require all advertisers to indicate when substantial, body-altering Photoshop has been used on an image. Substantial changes, mind. We’re talking shaving off ribcages or manufacturing thigh gaps, not smoothing flyaway hairs or shopping Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar photobomb into great moments of history. Think of it as a Surgeon General’s Warning for the body image of America.
Sign the petition and share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. Urge companies who claim to support “real beauty” to do the same. Modcloth is already on board, but companies like Dove and Aerie could stand to put their cursor where their mouth is. Put the pressure on: email, Facebook, Twitter, anything. Just make your voice heard.
3. Promote Media Literacy in the Children in Your Life
We grew up in this twisted, exploitative beauty system. We’re already pretty messed up by it. But there are kids right now who could maybe, possibly, learn a different way. So share every critical thinking muscle you’ve got.
Compliment young girls—and boys—and everyone—more about who they are and what they do than what they look like. Who wouldn’t want to be valued for what they had some control over, verses some genetic fluke?
Prompt kids to find the subliminal messages in ads. “Why do you think they’re selling this product?” “What is this ad really trying to say?” “Why do you think all models look like this?” Make media literacy as important as any other school subject, and kids will get better with practice.
Photoshop: The Last Frontier might be approaching quickly, but that doesn’t mean we have to sit down and accept it. Stand up. Push back. Agitate for change. Because if we don’t, who will?