Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:September 4th, 2006 15:42 EST
Airbrushed Photographs Meet Unattainable Standards

Airbrushed Photographs Meet Unattainable Standards

By Amanda Hess

I sat intently on the floor, sprawled out on the plush, pink carpet... staring at the latest issue of my sister’s Vogue magazine. I thumbed through each of the pages, only stopping to gaze at my horoscope and occasionally at the latest Louis Vuitton handbags that I so desperately needed. Somewhere in between, “How to Make your Sex Life Better,” and “Ten Ways to Lose that Scumbag Boyfriend,” I came across a photograph taken of Britney Spears that had me utterly mesmerized. While in my state of entrancement, I realized that I had better stop because, in my mind, I was already doing imaginary crunches. It was at that moment that I longed to be Britney or anyone else that wasn’t me, for that matter. Where was the self-help section when I needed it, you know, the one that says, “You are beautiful even if you do not possess any of the qualities listed: at least 5’9”, a perfect figure, tanned body, pearly white teeth, and flawless skin.” At fifteen years old, I found myself confused about the person that I was; nonetheless, looking at those types of airbrushed photographs didn’t help me feel any better. I remembered when being fifteen years old still meant hanging around at the mall and following cute boys. Today, we are faced with something that is deceitful and unforgiving. Welcome to the wonderful world of airbrushed photography!

The history of the use of airbrushing dates back to the early 1930s, with the magazine Esquire. Back then, airbrushing was used in magazine ads in the form of cartoon men and women. The women’s photographs proved to be more successful, therefore ending the reign of the male form, at least for a while. Alberto Vargas began using the airbrushing technique because his father owned a photography studio, therefore becoming familiar with the art of airbrushing. George Petty was a gentleman who worked closely with Vargas on numerous projects. It was Petty’s technique of achieving the tone and warmth of the skin that was in demand at that time. In 1950, the popularity of illustration art was weaning and by the 1960s the Golden Age of airbrushed photography was almost extinct. Photography was in close reach of taking over where the illustration’s left off.

The main problem seems to lie in the media’s “ideal” portrayal of a woman. This “ideal” woman makes normal looking women feel badly about themselves because they feel that they do not fit in with the “norm.” The fact remains that, for teenage girls, the "ideal" women to emulate are generally actresses and models; therefore, to model one's self by their appearance can be devastating. The emphasis of beauty is placed on external appearance above everything else. Since women who are exposed to these types of airbrushed photographs are thought to realize that airbrushing occurs, women should not be affected by them. But they are.

Women-- young women especially, can become confused when they see photographs in magazines. On one end, young women are told to be proud of themselves because they are said to be beautiful on the inside and out. How can a young girl feel beautiful if they are in constant contact with airbrushed photographs and when the people they see in these magazine ads are perfectly toned, perfectly manicured human beings? It is said that a healthy weight for a woman of 5’9” is 129-169 pounds and a model’s weight with the same height is 110-115 pounds. There are many people who are furious with the false depiction of women. Many celebrities that have been depicted as being super-human have chosen to speak on their outrage about the use of this type of photography.

Two of the best spokeswomen speaking out against airbrushed photography are Kate Winslet and Jamie Lee Curtis, both whom are actresses. Jamie Lee Curtis, for example, was hoping to “shatter beauty myths” by posing for a magazine without the aid of a makeup artist, hairdresser, or a body flattering outfit. Curtis was shown in More Magazine decked out in spandex biker shorts and a sports bra. Many would say that Jamie’s photographs were unflattering, but I would say that it’s simply a little dose of reality. Kate Winslet, the star of the box office smash, Titanic, isn’t 5’9” or 110 pounds. Kate was seen on Oprah speaking out about the dangers of airbrushed photography, a subject that she is familiar with. Kate spoke out by saying, “There are so many girls out there who think that to be successful and to be beautiful and to be loved and respected means you have to be thin. And this kind of really struck a chord with me… this image is being translated to teenage girls.” Kate was photographed in GQ magazine, where she was depicted pencil-thin, wearing black panty hose and covering her subtle breasts. Kate was outraged at her appearance that she believed was falsely depicted. It feels liberating to hear celebrities speak out about the effect that digitally altered pictures have on the female youth of America. If the celebrities who are being airbrushed do not speak out in anger in regards to airbrushing, then who will?

Dove has recently taken a step forward and has actually started a campaign known as, “The Campaign for Real Beauty.” Their commercials feature women of different races and body types.

I chose to test the effects on young women who are exposed to photographs of female celebrities who had been airbrushed and of the same celebrities in their natural state. The results of the experiment were expected. First, I showed my subject, Kelly Whalen two airbrushed photographs of pop phenomenon Britney Spears. 
I was interested in getting their feedback about the airbrushed photographs to formulate a better understanding about how distorted media can affect a young woman’s image of herself. In regards to the airbrushed photographs, Kelly said, “Looking at these pictures make me feel bad. It makes me realize that any amount of dieting or going to the gym would never make me look like that.” Then, I decided to show my subject two photographs again, this time the pictures showed Britney in a natural state. I had really wanted to see how the natural photographs of Britney affected my subjects in comparison to the first set of pictures. Kelly stated, “These pictures made me feel a lot better about myself. Britney has a little chub on her legs and has way worse skin than I do. I think that celebrities are put on a pedestal and that their appearance is why they are kept in the positions that they are in. These pictures are not even real, they are our ideals. If our ideal of beauty wasn’t met then why would we have a reason to respect them?” The third question that I wanted to bring forth asked if my subjects thought that young females were affected by airbrushed photographs. Kelly said, “You don’t realize that these people are airbrushed that much until you compare photographs of them without all the makeup. People feel like they have to live up to an ideal of perfection, which cannot be attained.”

Clearly Kelly was aware that airbrushing is done to photographs but yet she still is affected in some way, whether it be by going to the gym more than usual or thinking badly about herself because she does not fit the “ideal” image. Whatever the cause may be, the female youth of America are in great danger of losing their identities, a concept that in my youth, have found myself faced with.

I was sitting on the wine colored couch, my eyes fixated on the television screen. Every once in a while a figure would move in front of the screen and I would cram my neck to see the emaciated models strutting on the runway. Stick-thin legs, perfectly toned arms, and flawless skin. I was a typical fourteen year old struggling with my ever-growing awkward limbs and acne prone face, but I was nonetheless, nicknamed “Twiggy” by my family. I thrived on the whole procession of runway fashion modeling; from the way the models shook their bony hips to the manner to which they were loved and adored by many. It was then that I decided that I was going to become a supermodel no matter what it took. I was never told that it was what is on the inside that counted in regards to beauty. I saw those women holding such power as they captivated the audience; something that at fourteen years old, I had not mastered yet.  My road towards super-stardom ended just as quickly as it had begun. I attended modeling convention after modeling convention to make my dreams become a reality, but sadly, every attempt was one step backward. I was told that I had exactly what they were looking for. For a small fee of only $2,000 I could make my own portfolio with a sleazy photographer and be bound to the agency by modeling fees owed up to my ears. Wow, sign me up! My childhood should have been placed on a not to-do list. Keeping up with appearance and with the standard of acceptable, followed precisely everything that is wrong with society. These days, I cannot understand why in my younger years I had wanted to become a supermodel. To this day I still find myself flipping through the pages of fashion magazines or channel surfing through the style networks, but becoming more and more disappointed by what I see. Instead of seeing Britney Spears looking flawless and beautiful on the latest cover of Vogue magazine, I see the perfect lighting being implemented, the clothing pinned to her body, and the photographer in the background saying, “Now Britney, move a little to the left. It will be easier to “touch up” this way.” I no longer wish to become a supermodel because I am extremely content with my body. I certainly don’t need airbrushing done to my body and if I did I wouldn’t publicize in a young women’s magazine. I have become utterly disappointed at the manner to which young women have been treated in such low regards. I understand that photographers and magazine editors are only doing their jobs, but why not show women that look like women, instead of “perfect” beings that to this day I have not found.

“Perfection” in our society is categorized by unattainable standards. For instance, for every one photograph that is published in a magazine, there were 100-300 additional photographs taken. The one photograph that is chosen is taken through an editing boot camp. Blemishes and scars are edited out. So not only are the pictures airbrushed, parts of a person’s body are altered to fit the ideal of “perfection.” If the idea of “perfection” is simply an idea, then why are so many young women affected by these types of photographs?

Eating disorders have been prevalent in our society for a long while. Only recently have eating disorders been analyzed and linked to the media outlets, which reside mostly in magazine spreads. There is virtually no evidence that says that eating disorders found in young women are exclusively due to airbrushed photographs, but many physicians and psychologists believe that these types of photographs do not help the situation. It is pretty sad when children at five and six years old are feeling the need to diet. How do children as young as five and six even know what a diet is, nonetheless, wants to go on one? I would say that there is something extremely wrong with our society if young girls think they are overweight when they are not, think about going on a diet, and finally, actually implement the diet, unnecessarly. What can be done to reverse the damage that has infected the youth of America?

Women need to look inside themselves because as the old saying goes, beauty is skin deep. It isn’t an easy thing to love oneself, when “perfection” is constantly being thrown in our faces. To be considered beautiful in a fashion magazine means that you have to be airbrushed sometimes beyond recognition; legs slimmed, face tone evened out, and breast size enhanced. To set standards to model celebrities in a fashion magazine can be considered virtually impossible to achieve.

Our society places such emphasis on outside appearance that things such as personality, intelligence, and education are not the most prominent. Young women emulate celebrities, from the way that they wear their hair to finding that perfect dress that Paris Hilton wore at the MTV Music Awards. Disastrous events are likely to occur when fragile and vulnerable minds try to meet unattainable standards. People need to start thinking about the youth of America and of the damage that is being done. For a start, fire the million dollar makeup artists that go out of style in a month and cancel the airbrushing session. Then, when a superstar says, “I'm concerned with the kids out there,” people may actually believe them.