Writer and bloggy friend Melanie Jacobson (hey, I spelled her name right!) recently linked to a page relating to a study at Dartmouth that I found both fascinating and disturbing.
The page had rows of photographs that had been touched up digitally. Above each row is a toggle button allowing the viewer to click between the original photo and the after, touched-up version.
I had several reactions. First, it's amazing what technology can do today.
Second, even though I already knew that photos we see of celebrities are enhanced, this was the first time I saw to what extent that's true. And, um, turns out that the stars don't look like themselves.
Third, the longer I clicked back and forth, the more uneasy I became. This is largely thanks to the fact that I have three daughters, and two of them are out of grade school and quickly turning into young women. The images of beauty and body images they see around them every day, everywhere, must have an impact on them.
The potential effects are frightening. Even if they don't end up with something as serious as anorexia or bulimia, it's hard to escape the pressure to meet society's vision of beauty: the hair, the makeup, the clothes, the body.
Recently our stake held a standards night where a BYU professor (apologies for not remembering her name; she was amazing) spoke about this very thing. She started out showing pictures of what's considered beautiful in other countries: neck stretching with rings, the old practice of foot binding in China, and so on.
Then she showed so-called "beautiful" women today, and charts showing that beauty pageant winners, over time, have ended up with lower and lower BMIs, to the point that they're now in the very unhealthy, almost starvation-level ranges.
Her point, which she made so well: Is our vision of beauty any less unhealthy than neck-stretching rings or foot binding? No. We see models with their collar bones sticking out, their ribs showing, so thin they're unhealthy. And our girls feel pressure to emulate that image.
While looking at the pictures at the link Melanie gave me, one thing made me particularly sad: several pictures were beautiful just the way they were. I'm not talking about getting rid of George Clooney's gray hair. Or giving a man teeth. I'm talking about "fixing" a sweet little boy's face so his skin had a perfectly even tone and no shine. Of "fixing" a male model who would probably make teen girls swoon . . . but whose mouth was slightly crooked, so he wasn't "perfect." Or of (seriously!) raising Angelina Jolie's left eye.
I quickly called my daughters in to look at the photos, hoping that they'd realize just how unreal they are. That they'd know how, when they see their favorite singers or actors in a photo, it's all pretend. No one really looks like that. And that's okay.
We also looked at the famous Dove commercial that shows digital retouching in action. I hope the message sank in.
The whole thing reminded me of the trip my husband and I took to Finland a few years back. The magazines at grocery store checkout lines looked different than what I was used to.
My initial reaction was that, man, those are really unprofessional photographs. But on second look, it dawned on me that no, the photos were professional.
They just weren't touched up.
One woman didn't have porcelain-smooth skin. Maybe a man had a shiny spot on his forehead. Or another model had crow's feet. They were real.
Every time I entered a grocery store after that, I eagerly looked at the photos and found them refreshing. Yes, the images were probably somewhat out there: makeup artists, fashion designers, lighting, and probably even blowing fans were still part of the photo shoots. But the people in the pictures were allowed to look like real human beings, blemishes and all.
I have a theory, although I have nothing to back it up: I wonder if the young women (or all women, for that matter) in Finland have slightly better self-images than those in the States. (That is, unless they're bombarded by US images, which is likely.)
If you're interested in looking at the pictures, here's where you can toggle between the before and after pictures on the Dartmouth site. As I said, it's fascinating and disturbing all at once. And if you're a parent, it's a great conversation starter.
Edited to add: Thanks to the comment from An Ordinary Mom, here's another video about this topic that's well worth your time to watch.