Retouched reality: Altered photos warp beauty

While it’s nothing I like to admit, I spent a great deal of my childhood watching television. There wasn’t much I liked more than watching old sitcoms before going to bed.

This is probably directly responsible for me being convinced for nearly a decade that the 1950s were populated by functional, white families with happy relationships and pleasant lives. The truth is that I saw a doctored image of reality sold to consumers who the media claimed wanted fantasy.

On a completely unrelated topic, has anyone looked through Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health lately? All right, perhaps those two subjects do have some comparative value.

Photos in those magazines and in any number of images we see every day are drastically altered through digital means – although retouching has been a reality for celebrities for decades.

Andrew Mendelson, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple, said, “A huge chunk of what you see is [retouched] – hair color, skin, weight.”

While an experienced photographer can manipulate light, positioning and background to create an ideal photographic result, a line seems to be crossed when technology is used to change the physical structure of a person.

Many are quick to dismiss the influence of images of atypical beauty, attained through digital means. Others disagree, like Dr. Lisa Rhodes, the university’s acting director of women’s studies. “There’s no way to overstate the power [these images have],” Rhodes said.

Many entertainers occasionally disapprove of the retouching of their photos. Singer Faith Hill has expressed frustration with photo editors who routinely erase any remnants of a dimple she has on her left cheek.

Model Tyra Banks regularly mentions cellulite she has that is always digitally revised. In 2003, actress Kate Winslet received international headlines for her public rebuke of an edition of British GQ, which had a substantially edited photo of her on its cover.

“I’m not six feet tall and I haven’t just lost 30 pounds,” Winslet said to an NBC correspondent.

Although there are a handful of celebrities who question the validity of the printed versions of their images, Mendelson said that most often, “someone isn’t going to fight if the edits improve [his or her] looks.”

For the first time, men are facing objectification, too.

“Men and boys are just as dissatisfied as girls [with their bodies],” J. Kevin Thompson, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida who studies body image, told the Los Angeles Times in August.

Still, as history has proven, discussions of beauty affect women more. Like so many other areas, women’s rights constantly appear to take two steps forward and one step back.

Rhodes, the women’s studies director, said, “Women made major advancements in the 1920s and the ’60s and ’90s; then we saw regressions in the 1930s and ’80s and, well, now.”

Natural societal shifts aside, entertainers and models hold a great deal of power over the well-being of our society. “Technology has made people more aware of retouching,” Mendelson said. “Consumers,” he added, “need to think critically about all images and news.”

That said, no one can deny being influenced by these images of fantasy. To recover some sense of reality, celebrities need to take an active role in retaking integrity and truth in our images of beauty.

In 2002, then 44-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis posed for More magazine without any photo-editing. I’m holding off on her fan club membership, but I have a lot of respect for a woman – who previously admitted to using Botox and liposuction – who re-evaluates what image revision means to her and society.

It took me too long to figure out the 1950s had more than nuclear families and hot apple pie. The increasingly blurred lines between fantasy and reality in advertising and modeling may have far worse consequences. In many ways, I fear that society’s image of beauty is in the retouched hands of celebrities.

Christopher George Wink can be reached at

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