Monday, December 12, 2011

Media and Young Women

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.


Kristina P. said...

That link Melanie posted really made me look at things in a whole new light. I've always known that almost all pictures are Photoshopped. But I never knew how much.

Amie McCracken said...

That toggle thing is cool and creepy. I think the main thing is to be open with your children and make sure everyone knows the difference between healthy and celebrity.

An Ordinary Mom said...

That is disturbing. It goes right along with this video I recently watched.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Sometimes, the thought of raising three (or four?) daughters intimidates the heck out of me, and this is a big part of the reason why. Wow.

Jordan McCollum said...

Wow. Wow.

The first site listed in the credits of Dartmouth's page is a site called (or In addition to 20 shots of celebs before and after retouching (Amy Winehouse.), they have shots of celebs without makeup (though you have to wonder whether the makeup photos are also retouched).

Usually you see these things are in tabloids and it has this voyeuristic aspect, but when it's "scientific" ;) ....

The really weird thing is seeing a movie star retouched (specifically George Clooney and Owen Wilson), and then seeing the before shot and you're like "Oh YEAH, that's what they look like in movies/on TV, etc."

Anonymous said...

My daughter who is almost 12 already complains about her "huge thighs." To put this into perspective, during her last check-up this summer she was in the 95th percentile height and 55th percentile weight (due to the fact that she grew 2.5 inches in an 8 month period). But she is developing, and some of her classmates still have the bodies of little girls, and my sweet, skinny daughter interprets this as "fat." And I don't think it's just teens ... I can't say that I'm over this body image issue myself. I just try to hide it from my daughters. Maybe I need to try harder.

TisforTonya said...

I think you & Melanie have just provided me with the "wow moment" for my fitness & health activity in YW next year... scary how skewed our perception of beauty can be!

Anonymous said...

This "perfect body" thing is an epidemic as deadly as any disease. No one can live up to it, so no one can live with it. It's part of the reason why I adore Dove because of their campaign for real beauty. I appreciate that as a person who struggles with what it means to be beautiful. I'm not perfect. No one is. We shouldn't kill ourselves trying to believe otherwise.

Mari said...

Annette, This is great that you are bringing this up. There is so much damage caused by this impossible standard that is held up for our girls (okay, in my case, girl) and for us as women. Beautiful comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We are all different. And that is wonderful. I always loved the line in a version of My Turn on Earth that I saw years ago. When they were singing about everybody getting a body, one girl pointed to another girl who had a bigger build. The first girl complained, "How come she got more?"

By the way, the name of the BYU Professor is Diane Spangler.

Stephanie Black said...

Thank you for posting this, Annette. We have a man in our stake who is in the advertising industry, and he's done firesides on this very topic--showing how much those beautiful photos are retouched and that even models don't look like models--NOBODY looks that perfect. It's sad that this is held up as the idea of beauty. At girls camp this summer, I heard from a first-year counselor that she had a twelve-year-old worrying about calories--like how many calories were in a piece of fruit. It's so scary to think that a sweet young woman might already be feeling the pressure to be thin at that young age.

Julie Wright said...

Thank you for the link. This is fascinating and I'm sending it on to my daughter. Something that I recently realized was while I was looking at pictures of my family over the years. I used to wear a lot of makeup in my eary married years and while going through my pictures, my one son commented on how much prettier I was now. He said I looked weird in the made up pictures. It was interesting and I really looked at those pictures and thought the kid had a point. anyway . . . thanks for the link. It'll be good for Kenna to get this.


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