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Is airbrushing a public health issue?

August 19, 2009

The British Parliament is debating regulating the use of altered photos in magazines, with the Liberal Democrats proposing reforms such as mandatory inclusion of a notice of photo alteration, and a total ban on altered photos in advertising directed at youth under 16.

Like Rachel at The F Word, I agree that this would be a positive step. As she points out, the body image that these photos promote is literally unattainable, but still held up as more than an ideal, as an expectation. And even if, in the back of our minds, we know that the model has been digitally or surgically “enhanced,” it’s still difficult to incorporate that knowledge into the viscerality of the image and our resulting hatred of our bodies. I think it would be valuable to see, alongside these imaginary pictures, a reminder that they are not a depiction of reality, nor even a depiction of someone that could be real.

But this is only a tiny sliver of the way the media shames and constrains our bodies. Is it feasible to create a sort of body positive Pop-Up Video for all every image we consume? “This actress has a professional make-up artist and hairstylist.” “This sports star is paid to dedicate his life to making his body look like this.” “We did not even think of putting a performer of color in this show.” How far can we go to expose this plot to preoccupy us with things we should not need to be?

Maybe this is a good first step. A constant reminder that the images all around us are meant to sell us the wrongness of our bodies more than any product. But until we recognize that the problem is not with these pretty pictures alone, but with the attitudes that hold up these standards, we’re putting bandaids on an exit wound. Even if we can’t show airbrushed photos any more, that does not stop us from showing only the tiniest models, only those performers whose hair and skin and breasts are closer to perfect, only those who edge up on the ideal will see the flash of the camera.

And that doesn’t solve the problem.

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