Body confidence and culpability

I’ve been having an interesting debate with someone on Twitter this morning (Charlotte Vere, founder of Women On; “an independent, non-partisan think tank that aims to transform the debate around women”), and wanted to share because, frankly, I cannot understand how my sparring partner is justifying her opinions anymore. 140 characters is limiting in this regard. While it produces some very appealing soundbites, you don’t get to explore complex matters in appropriate depth. So I’m reverting to the blog, and I invite my fellow debater to comment if she wishes.

It started like this, from her:
“Body confidence? Banning photoshop won’t help.”

I checked whether she was just being provocative because it seemed like an incredibly weird position to take, especially for a woman who supposedly “campaigns for women, but not at the expense of men”.

No, she meant it.

And so began the discussion.

Over the course of the morning, between my meetings, I’ve been responding to her defence of photoshopped images of female bodies and faces in the media. Her argument, it seems, is that women are responsible for our own body confidence, cosmetics and dieting are in no way a bad thing, and the media has no effect on any of these things. Images of ideal beauty have been around since the year dot, and worrying about your body is just a teen “time of life thing”.

To avoid overlaying my bewilderment to the source material, here are the original tweets:

Me:  do you really believe that about photoshop or was that a provocative comment? I can’t tell.

Her: Yes, I do. Banning Photoshop is ridiculous and nothing to do with giving people ‘confidence’ in their bodies

Me: but what, then, do you believe is undermining their confidence in their bodies in the first place?

Her: ’twas ever thus. The solution is in education and building self esteem, not focussing on bodies in magazines. [cont] When I was in my teens, girls and boys obsessed about how they looked. There was no Photoshop then. It is a time of life.

Me: there were, however, idealised & ‘perfected’ posed images. Photoshop is the next step in that. Now the images are impossible. [cont] women have long aspired to an impossible goal. I’d argue for more diversity in female images in general for healthy self-esteem [cont] also the problem is not a teen problem. The diet/cosmetics industries wouldn’t be booming if so niche.

Her: They have always been impossible for us mere mortals. Always.

Me: that’s my point. Who is this immortal woman and why have we created her? She only serves to undermine real women.

Her: She only undermines real women who lack confidence and THAT is my point about body confidence. It is not about banning Photoshop! [cont] What’s wrong with cosmetics?! What’s wrong with dieting?! It is up to you if you chose to use/do either.

Me:  firstly there’s nothing wrong with cosmetics. There is something wrong when women feel the *have* to hide their natural face

Her: Most women I see in the street clearly don’t feel that need!

Me: secondly, where do you think confidence comes from? It’s about our standing against society expectations and ideals. [cont.] and the media creates society’s expectations and ideals so should be held responsible for the consequences in confidence

Her: Nope. Confidence comes from managing our own expectations. You have to understand who you are and what makes you special. [cont] Again no. ‘The media’ as you call it is a hodge podge of different ideas and you can pick and choose which ones you embrace.

Me: no woman is an island. Our own expectations are also built through our interactions with society. [cont] women are told what society values (young, “beautiful”, flawless) & we aim for that to be valued too.

Her: Sure. Her interactions with her society, her family, her community … the list is endless. Banning Photoshop is not the answer! [cont] ’twas ever thus. Society might idolise one thing or another. Most people don’t waste time on trying to be that thing.

I later referred her to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, because I didn’t want to paraphrase such excellent proof of my argument.  She replied “I am good thanks. Something tells me I would not agree.”  A shame, I feel, surely we should spend more time reading things with which we disagree than those who already sing the songs we do?

Luckily someone else stepped in and joined my side of the debate, because I was running out of energy to continue.  The upshot for me is that (and here she sets out her stall)…

Photoshop relies on our innate trust in the truth of photography (“the camera never lies”) and sells us a lie.  If we see a cartoon, or hear something described, we know to question it (or some of us do anyway), but when we see an image it is sold as a truth – it certainly never has a big warning sticker that says “this photo has been subject to photoshopping. This woman doesn’t really look like this at all, she actually looks pretty much like you”.

Photoshopping is just part of the problem.  If the images in our media better represented us as humans (rather than projecting an aspiration as if it is norm), I would be happier.  And I genuinely believe we would all be more confident. We would however see a substantial drop in spend on cosmetics, fashion, cosmetic surgery, diets…. and I guess that would in turn hurt the advertising spend of these companies with, guess who, the media that use the aspirational images in the first place.  Interesting that…

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5 responses to “Body confidence and culpability

  1. Great blog post. My thoughts are ‘thus’:
    1) Repeatedly using “’twas ever thus” does not add weight to an argument. The point itself is weak and the floral delivery does not disguise this.
    2) While I appreciate the point that people have always been obsessed (and displeased) with their bodies – the notion of celebrity has been around ever since we discovered art – I hardly think it is a reason to celebrate airbrushing. Education is absolutely the answer, but to say that the media – in particular fashion magazines – filled cover to cover with images of beautiful people has no affect is plain stupid. It is is one thing to look at images of beautiful people, but for these beautiful people to have been altered to make them more ‘beautiful’ is ludicrous. Of course this is going affect those looking at them! It is one thing to use lotions and potions or diet and exercise to look (and feel) better, it is quite another to do so under false hope – THE PEOPLE YOU’RE STARVING YOURSELF TO LOOK LIKE DON’T EVEN LOOK LIKE THAT! What on earth are these images doing to our brains? Its just awful.

    Women are beautiful enough without having inches strimmed of their hips or enhancing lips by a computer.

    “campaigns for women, but not at the expense of men”

    more like

    “campaigns for women, just as long as men don’t mind”

  2. In addition, just because ‘photoshopping’ is a new technique, doesn’t mean doctoring didn’t happen before the release of photoshop. Playing with colour, lighting, makeup etc could make somebody look remarkably different on paper, even if they looked hideous in real life. (just look at http://thislooksshopped.com/2010/01/27/this-is-how-your-grandparents-were-photoshopped/ to get an example).

    In terms of body image pre-50s, and far before the days of photoshop, corsets were used. Broken ribs were norm just to appear to be the ‘ideal shape’.

    While banning photoshop, or at least requiring a ‘this is photoshopped’ tag, may not stop body image problems, it would definitely be a step in the right direction…

  3. So, while I think banning photoshop wouldn’t do any good now (we’re already at the worst point. Unless they started photoshopping in extra ribs and bones or something, I really don’t know how much worse it could get), anyone who claims photoshopping hasn’t helped to damage the self esteem of many, many men and women…well. Wow.

    Despite the fact that this road (from yours and Luke’s point about posed pictures before photoshop existed) is one we’ve been travelling for a while, the current trend for touching up pictures has led to companies like H&M simply creating *entirely digital body images* to use for selling lingerie and swimwear that is supposed to show our bodies at close to the most primitive level.

    Does it show us *our* bodies? No, instead we’ve reached the point of computer-generated hips and thighs. It’s not even ”oh Britney’s had 2 kids and still looks perfect” (oh wait, photoshop) now it’s literally an impossible-to-attain image.

    Also, it goes swings the other way, away from the thigh gap, skinny photoshop ‘ideal’. “plus sized” models are photoshopped too. Perfect ‘curves’ except, no woman with particular body fat ratios can attain perfectly toned curves, our bodies don’t work like that.

    To paraphrase the wonderful Tina Fey, thanks to the media women today are expected to have “Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a Californian tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old-boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits”

  4. I use Photoshop professionally and might tweak a family photo to improve the light, hide a bird sat behind a head or remove a zit on a nose – but the overuse of Photoshop in media magazines has created a fantasy land of unrealistic expectation. Take a browse through http://www.psdisasters.com/ and apart from the entertainment factor you will note Marie Claire carrying a photo of Eva Mendes on its cover where her head has been attached to someone elses body – it’s not even all her and been fiddled with, it’s someone elses body entirely. The number of times this happens because the mag can’t the celeb to do a photo shoot is staggering. This is an absolute disgrace. It happens to men as well of course, but the overall effect is so much less as the volume and reinforcement by society is so small.

    Anyway, well done for challenging the editors views.

  5. Very interesting post and comments. But I think the point that’s missing (and I did a bit of a skim read the above so apologies if I’m the one that’s missed the point…) is that there is a difference between reality and illusion which makes the ’twas ever thus’ arguement twaddle. Yes Luke, women wore corsets and suffered broken ribs, but those broken ribs were real, as was the suffering. Fundamentally women ‘chose’ to wear corsets (or arguably succumbed to societal pressure). Cosmetics and dieting are real, and they can alter the way we look and feel in real life. But Photoshop creates images of illusion, which purport to be real. They portray the unattainable as reality. Women can no more attain these unreal bodies than we can live on the moon (and even that is more likely). So ask yourself – if every estate agent window showed luxurious moon pods for sale, you bought one and then ended up in a 3 bedroom semi, wouldn’t you be thinking “hang on a minute – why are they allowed to advertise and sell me something that doesn’t actually exist?”.

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