Is Photoshop an Enemy of Feminism?

July 11, 2012

There’s been a lot of press coverage of Seventeen Magazine’s “body peace treaty” lately, and I’ve been getting questions about it myself. What do I think about it? How much are magazines Photoshopping models into unrealistic Superbeauties? And should magazines only use “realistic” looking models?

 

Though I’ve worked in fashion for ages, I’ve also spent plenty of time around feminist debates about women’s representation in media. And I think there’s an interesting dynamic here that’s not being reported.

 

There’s no doubt that we live in a culture that is saturated with images of perfect people – both men and women. Especially women: beautiful, sexualized women surround us everywhere in a modern city, with alluring eyes, tantalising flesh, and giddy smiles that promise that we could be just as happy, just as sexy, if we could just be them.

 

Beauty and sex sell. To both men and women. Beauty pushes our feel-good buttons, the same way sugar, fat, or salt stimulate our taste buds. And sexuality drives our ambition – I’m gonna get some of that (or something close to it-maybe the car she’s on? the mascara she’s wearing?) Advertising is designed to push those levers.

 

And there’s a backlash against these perfect images, as feminists and media critics deconstruct the messages in the media. Teaching children and teenagers what goes into these images – what they are for (selling stuff) and what goes into them (lots of work creating the perfect person who doesn’t exist in Real Life) – is a very empowering process, and one that I think should be taught to everyone.

 

But there’s also a dark side, where women especially are assumed to “always” internalize these images. Feminism teaches us that we will inevitably internalize them, and tells us to feel victimized when we see them. This is a place where feminism stays securely in an old patriarchal place – that women cannot learn to see media images as objects outside ourselves – that we’re too helpless and feeble to see the difference. When I tell a person with a Politically Enlightened View™ that I’m a makeup artist, I’m relegated to the “she-hasn’t-been-educated-enough-to-know-how-victimized-she-is” space in their brain. I’ve seen it happen. You can tell by the look on their face.

 

But there’s something fishy about this view. This teaching demeans our intelligence, and polarizes women into a narcissistic tug-of-war where we are either expected to create and enjoy jealousy in others when we’re on the “right side” of this aesthetic, or where we’re supposed to feel that it’s extremely unfair that media images don’t mirror “us” in our real life state. And for teens, adults play into this. From Moms who think their kid is weird for not wanting breast enlargement surgery, to the political activists at change.org,(the press machine behind the teens protesting Seventeen), women and teen girls are still being urged to fight each other over their looks – whether they should do everything possible to attain various standards of beauty, or whether they should have a political view that denies beauty, and demand that public images of women mirror exactly who they are in real life.

 

I don’t buy it. Fashion is not politics – it’s aesthetics. It is about unabashed beauty and perfection – appreciated unironically, and without shame. It is a dream of lush, sylph-like gorgeousness – an imaginary world where all is beautiful and happy, and yes, that last ten pounds is magically gone.

 

People who create fashion images work every day to push the boundaries of how beautiful, how crafted, how imaginative, we can make our pictures look. As a makeup artist, I adore beauty – it drives me, and I have an unapologetic love of pretty. And fans of fashion love beauty as well – fashion images are like fairy tales for grown-ups. Or comic books for women. And if you don’t believe me, look at what gets pinned on Pinterest.

 

Media oversaturation as it relates to body issues is a distinctly first-world problem, and only part of that problem. Body issues came alongside a general societal wealth that allows us a surplus of food, mirrors, scales in our homes, and ample time to obsess over our “problem areas”. If only Feminist Discourse 101 included these factors in its discussions, there would be a lot more leeway for women and teen girls to have a sane response to the pressures they’re under to be so narcissistic and politically polarized over their own looks.

 

We do have a lot of pressure regarding how we look – and it’s because we have a lot of everything else too. We have an overwhelming, unprecedented choice about where we can choose to direct our time, energy, and intellects. But where should politics and fashion intersect? If the images are everywhere, is it unfair to those who don’t like them? If political activists aren’t into fashion (and many aren’t), and therefore aren’t financially supporting it, how much say should they have?

 

I do think it’s right to expect Seventeen – and other teen magazines – to not change body shapes in their magazine. I’m not sure they ever did – I’ve worked on a lot of Teen Vogue shoots, and the published pictures were almost identical to what we achieved on set with casting, lighting and photography. The only obvious thing I saw Photoshopped out of a picture I worked on was the removal of a giant bandage where one of the models had slashed her leg horsing around between shots(!). And I love that they’ve created a Tumblr where readers can see what goes into the images. When you know what goes into them, it’s possible to enjoy fashion images without getting angry or hurt that it’s not “you” in the picture.

 

But the real change that has to come is for women and teen girls to be not be taught that we have to internalize every representation of ourselves. Is that too much to ask? It used to be that we were not allowed to perceive ourselves as feminine if we wanted to play sports, and we got over that. Can we see ourselves as intelligent even if we love the most fantastical images of beauty? Our current President enjoys comic books, and was editor at the Harvard Law Review – can we give ourselves the same leeway?

 

Politics cannot trump aesthetics at every turn. We can’t make every woman who loves fashion and beauty the enemy of every woman who thinks of herself as intelligent. While having models in fashion images will unavoidably enter them into the body politic discussion as it currently exists, many women (myself included) do not see these images as an “expectation” for how we “need” to look. To use political action to “bully back” is not the answer. If you’re a woman or teen girl looking for “realistic” images of strong, healthy women whose bodies you want to emulate, they’re out there, in the form of athletes and cover models on yoga magazines. We can choose who we want to emulate on the basis of our individual likes and aspirations, and not be manipulated by politics into polarizing against each other on the basis of looks.

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  • massappeal July 12, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for this terrific essay.

    (Off-topic: ESPN Magazine’s “Body” issue is another interesting entry in the sports/beauty/male/female/body image discussion. Photo gallery starts here: http://espn.go.com/espn/photos/gallery/_/id/8136693/image/1/carlos-bocanegra-2012-body-issue-bodies-want-espn-magazine )

    • Meli July 26, 2012 at 10:20 am

      Thank you for the link – form really meets function when it comes to athletes!

  • Sue Lin July 26, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Thanks for sharing your experiences behind teen vogue! It’s interesting to know that the process and outcome was mostly similar.

    Asethetics and politics aren’t the best of friends and should probably stick to their own turfs. Pure aesthetics is a private playground of fantasy of perfection and the ideal beauty whilst politics an arena of debate and discussion. I too agree that women aren’t passive receptors of their environment. However, young girls especially require more affirmation that they aren’t, during their crucial time of identity formation.

    • Meli July 26, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Very good points, Sue!

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