I was very into beauty transformations growing up, from playing dress up to coloring my friends’ hair or doing makeup for my synchronized swimming teammates. I was obsessed with the scene in “Clueless” in which Cher, whose “main thrill in life is a makeover,” restyles her friend Tai. I loved the idea that we’re all capable of change, never confined to a single look.
As an adult, this creativity led to a career in photography.
I was first drawn to modern beauty portraiture in 2012. This emerging trend often featured before and after images as a means of displaying the subject’s dramatic evolution from stripped down and “natural” to glam and gorgeous. These were presented as empowering, but the implied message, the one I couldn’t shake, was this: Your “before” picture is simply not enough.
The “after” images were all about achieving perfection: perfect makeup, perfect lighting, perfect posing, perfect everything.
Photo manipulation has been around as long as photography itself. Retouching for aesthetic purposes has existed since 1846, so the ethical considerations around photo editing aren’t new. And they certainly aren’t simple. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: Do we have poor body image because of retouched images? Or do we retouch our images because we have poor body image?
I’d argue the latter is true, and it’s caused an insidious cycle.
“It is anti-feminist. It is ageist,” she said. “It is fat-phobic... It’s robbing you of your time, money, comfort, integrity, and self-worth.”
I mostly agree with this sentiment. But it’s also important to distinguish between airbrushing as a source, or a symptom, of the problem.
Standards of beauty have always existed. Ideal features have varied throughout history and cultures, but there’s always been pressure to appear physically or sexually desirable. The male gaze, and male pleasure, come at a price. Women have paid for it with their suffering. Think corsets, lead-filled makeup, arsenic pills, extreme dieting.
How do we free ourselves from this cycle? I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m quite positive banning airbrushing would be an exceptionally difficult task, and it would hardly put a dent in the burden of beauty culture. Here’s why.
More access to editing tools doesn’t necessarily mean more impact
I was in film school in 2008 when one of my classmates took a headshot of me and transferred the digital file to his laptop to open in Photoshop. I watched as he quickly and casually used the “liquify” tool to slim my face. I had two simultaneous thoughts: Wait, do I really need that? and Wait, you can do that?
Adobe Photoshop, the industry standard for photo-editing software, has been available since the early 1990s. But for the most part, the cost and learning curve make it somewhat inaccessible for those who don’t work in digital media.
We’re living in a new world now. Today, it’s commonplace for people to edit their photos without learning how to use Photoshop — whether that means adding a filter or going further to manipulate the image using an app, such as Facetune.
Facetune was released in 2013. In many ways, it democratized retouching. It simplifies and streamlines skin smoothing, eye brightening, teeth whitening, and body and face reshaping.
Instagram and Snapchat even have “beautifying” filters that can transform your face with the tap of a finger.
Nowadays, it’s easy for the masses to fulfill their dreams of fitting into Western beauty standards, at least online. In the past, this was mostly only available through fashion and photography professionals.
So, yes, retouching is more common in our Instagram-influenced world. But it’s difficult to definitively state whether our relationship to our body is better or worse.
There isn’t much evidence to suggest that beauty standards themselves have become significantly more oppressive or problematic as a result of increased access to these editing tools and exposure to altered, airbrushed images. According to a BBC article on social media and body image, research on this topic is “still in its early stages, and most studies are correlational.”
What society deems attractive or desirable is deeply ingrained in our culture and projected onto people from a young age, from family, friends, television, movies, and many other sources.
Would removing or restricting photoshop actually help solve our society’s body image issue? Probably not.
The blame we place on photo-editing tools isn’t proportionate to their effect
Despite their potential to perpetuate a harmful cycle in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, photo-editing tools don’t cause diagnosable illnesses such as body dysmorphia or eating disorders. A combination of genetics, biology, and environmental factors mainly bring that on.
As Johanna S. Kandel, founder and executive director of The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness, explained to Racked, “We know that images alone do not cause eating disorders, but we know that there is a lot of body dissatisfaction when you’re inundated with these images that you can’t ever attain because they’re not real.”
While things like filters and Facetune can trigger symptoms and take a toll on one’s self-esteem, it’s inaccurate to say there’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship between these editing tools and a psychological disorder.
If we oversimplify the problem, we’re unlikely to find a solution.
It’s hard to distinguish when editing has been taken ‘too far’
The concept of wanting our photos to be flattering — while entirely ubiquitous and understandable — can be a bit of a problematic idea in and of itself.
Why do we need to project a certain version of ourselves to others, especially on social media? Where do we draw the line? Is the magic of professional hair and makeup OK? Is attractive lighting acceptable? What about lenses that soften the skin? Posing that hides our perceived flaws?
These vital, nuanced discussions need to take place. But sometimes it feels like the issue is less about the use of Photoshop and more about the excessive use of Photoshop, as if it’s fine as long as it appears to be natural.
But if anything is edited, is it actually “natural”? This sentiment is similar to the idea of understated makeup. Natural beauty is exalted in our culture as something to strive for, something inextricably tied to virtue.
As author Lux Alptraum wrote in a piece on “real” beauty, “There is, in theory, an optimal amount of effort that deftly balances looking attractive with not caring too much about your appearance, but where that perfect mix is can be pretty hard to pinpoint.” Striving for this perfect mix can be exhausting. Even subtle ideals can be unhealthy or damaging.
Until we really dive into the intricacies of this conversation, we won’t get to the root of the issue. Instead of focusing on what amount of photo manipulation is problematic, it may be time to talk about the decision-making behind it, and how the editing and retouching makes people feel.
The ability to change one’s appearance in a photo may bring some people joy or confidence. One example is a person who has gender dysphoria who uses editing tools to alter their face or body that help them present as whatever gender(s) they identify. On the other hand, someone may look at their seemingly perfect, retouched bikini photo and keep finding more flaws to obsess over.
Just as images have the power to uplift and empower us, they also have the potential to do harm. But the root of the body image issue starts with our culture.
The argument for banning photo-editing tools often doesn’t tackle the issue of diversity
Companies like Dove get a lot of credit for ditching Photoshop. While it is a type of progress, there’s a sort of palatable realness to what they’ve accomplished.
They play the game but keep it safe. They use body positivity in major campaigns, but it often feels more like a selling tool. We don’t, for example, see bodies in their ads that are deemed too fat, because they still need to appeal to the mainstream to sell their products.
In short: People of color and people who are fat, transgender, and/or disabled are extremely underrepresented in media, even when photo-editing tools aren’t used.
Representation and inclusivity are incredibly important, which is why companies should make it their mission to be an advocate for all people and actively promote diversity. That means doing a lot more than casting a few models who look different than the usual.
The commodification of this important movement stands in the way of an authentic solution to issues of representation.
We need to examine our relationship with these images
Images certainly have an impact on our brain. In fact, our brain typically retains more of
Social media is a big part of our personal and work lives, so on an individual level, we should take agency over the photos we consistently view.
Equally important is the way we teach ourselves and our children to be media literate. According to Common Sense Media, this means thinking critically, being a smart consumer, and recognizing how images make us feel. If we’re often feeling upset and anxious after scrolling through social media, something needs to be adjusted.
We can’t force harmful images to go away entirely, but we can promote healthier representations of bodies by amplifying unique voices and practicing self-love and respect. Wishing for a world without the pressure to look your best (and to want to look your best) in photographs seems pretty unrealistic.
However, it’s possible to unpack and examine these issues. The better we understand the smoke and mirrors, the less likely we are to be severely affected by them.
We’d put more of a dent in the body image crisis if we simply asked why
Why do people, particularly women, feel the need to adjust our appearances? Why do those who work in digital media feel the need to alter our appearances without consent? Why do we need bigger eyes, thinner noses, fuller lips, and smoother skin? Why are we taught to uphold these standards of beauty while our mental health suffers?
Women are ridiculed for their imperfections but also mocked for using photo-editing apps or filters on social media. We’re expected to never age, but plastic surgery is still a taboo subject.
This is a feminist issue, a complex issue. We won’t solve it by taking away access to editing tools and blaming individuals for just trying to survive within a system rigged against them. We live in a culture that often breeds insecurity and shame instead of self-love and confidence.
There’s a stark difference between the heavily retouched images in fashion media and selfies with an added face filter or new lighting. One is fed to people from a young age and contributes to the idea of a “norm” standard of beauty. The other is a personal choice that is, quite frankly, nobody else’s business.
We need to address the systemic issues without placing personal blame on women who’ve essentially been brainwashed into believing they’re not good enough.
Ultimately, we as women are up against it. And until we find a way to topple the standards of beauty that have oppressed us for so long, banning these types of tools and apps will likely have a limited impact.
JK Murphy is a feminist writer who is passionate about body acceptance and mental health. With a background in filmmaking and photography, she has a keen love of storytelling, and she values conversations on difficult topics explored through a comedic perspective. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of King’s College and an increasingly useless encyclopedic knowledge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.