This image could be harmful to your health
You can’t avoid the magazines. You can try, but the images are everywhere: the grocery store check-out aisle, the book store, the corner newsstand. And almost every single one–especially those magazines that are household names or otherwise extremely popular–has a digitally altered celebrity or model on the front. I don’t have an objection to mild uses of Photoshop to smooth out that nasty-looking zit on your chin or something similar. Photography is a form of art, after all.
But when the models are sculpted by software, when they are more digital than human, when there is no possible way for the clothes/perfume/whatever to be reflective of what actually happens when a real human uses or wears that product, then I call foul. It’s false advertising, if nothing else. It also really, really messes with our heads.
We are told this is what we are supposed to look like, the ideal we are supposed to achieve. This is the gold standard for femininity or masculinity. It’s total bollocks, of course, but we’re still drawn in. Very few humans have the physiological proportions to be these models, and none of these models actually look like the images in the magazines.
Even a casual flick through any women’s fashion magazine will reveal a plethora of young, tall, long-legged, large-eyed, and clear-skinned women with typically Caucasian features. But the more obvious and consistent feature shared by the models is that they are also very thin. Not only are the models naturally thin, but digital modification techniques are now routinely used to further elongate legs and slice off kilograms and centimetres from waists, hips, and thighs, as well as to eliminate any other blemishes (Bennett, 2008). Thus the media-presented ideals are artificially rendered even less realistic and attainable for the average girl or woman.
Lots of people have implied that these overly thin models–not a small portion of whom have EDs themselves–play a role in the causation of EDs in the general population. Certainly it’s a factor, especially in perfectionists. I would disagree that the media actually causes EDs, but as a significant environmental factor, we can’t ignore it, either.
Countries around the world have proposed legislation that would require the labeling of digitally altered images and advertisements. The thinking is that if we knew the images were fake, if it were thrown in our faces, then we would give the images less (ahem) weight. But new research by Tiggemann et al. shows that these labels are not as helpful as policymakers had hoped. In fact, they’re a big, fat failure.
What the researchers found
The researchers asked 120 undergraduate women between 18 and 35 to view 15 full-page fashion magazine advertisements with images containing either no label, a generic warning label (“Warning: This image has been digitally altered”), or a specific warning label (“Warning: This image has been digitally altered to smooth skin tone and slim arms and legs”). They were placed in the bottom right- or left-hand portion of the ad in 11-point, clearly visible font. The researchers also had a control group that viewed ads involving products rather than bodies (ie, an ad for a car that didn’t have any people in it). After viewing the ads, the women were asked a series of questions about mood and body dissatisfaction, including their current state of body dissatisfaction as well as their general state of body dissatisfaction.
The women who looked at the ads with models scored higher on current body dissatisfaction than those who looked at the product ads. However, the severity of body dissatisfaction didn’t differ based on the presence of either warning label. The women felt just as poorly about themselves even when they knew the image was fake. In fact, the women judged themselves more harshly when they knew the image was digitally altered. The thinking process was, perhaps, that if these seemingly perfect models need digital help, then imagine how much “help” I will need to look even remotely similar.
One variable that did appear significant was a factor called social comparison. It’s basically how frequently you compare your body to those around you (many of us, myself included, are extremely guilty of this). Interestingly, those women that scored highest in social comparison had significantly worse body image after viewing images with warning labels.
The researchers performed a second set of similar experiments that basically confirmed the above results.
The authors concluded:
It seems that, rather than acting to interrupt or prevent social comparison processing as intended, viewing images with warning labels encouraged greater social comparison than that which would ordinarily occur when viewing thin idealised images. Perhaps the labels served to draw relatively greater attention to the model’s body, as opposed to the image as a whole. This logic is consistent with the finding that trait appearance comparison moderated the effect in an unexpected way: the specific warning label resulted in greater body dissatisfaction for women high on appearance comparison.
Part of what might be going on is the fact that most people already know that advertisers have Photoshopped the hell out of the images. Cognitively, we know they’re fake. But in the split second between viewing the images and our higher-level cognitions kicking in, we get the emotional hit of “not good enough” that no warning label is going to take away. The labels also cause us to look more closely at the model’s body, trying to see what parts aren’t “real,” and scrutinizing every bump for possible evidence of alteration.
Simply put, we need much more diversity in advertising, both in body size and shape, as well as ethnicity, disability, and other factors. I want to open a magazine, look at an ad for jeans, and at least have a clue of how they might look on me, not some underpaid veritable clothes hanger.