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Archive for July, 2012

Unpretty, from TLC

Excellent piece by Rose Woodhouse over at LoOG on the limits of Seventeen magazine’s pledge to limit alterations to some images, a response to a petition campaign that has now moved on to target Teen Vogue (Daily Mail). Woodhouse outlines how far Seventeen‘s pledge does not go: (1) the magazine will still use photoshop, but with some limitations, (2) there will still be significant tools at photographers’ and editors’ disposal (i.e. lighting and makeup) to make images quite distant from anything real world attainable, and (3) advertisers – a significant portion of contnet – won’t be subject to these mild restrictions.

On the list of possible dystopian worlds, living in a world where unreal images are regularly and without warning represented as real is on the list – perhaps even more troubling, public complicity, pressure even, in (re)producing these images and participating in this dangerous fantasy world. I use the word “dangerous” advisedly. Photography is a powerful tool that is so often used to represent the truth or near-truth that unidentified fakes benefit from the expectation of accuracy. Unless one knows the photos are not accurate representations and also the extent of the inaccuracy, constant exposure to this fantasy land of impossibly thin, wrinkle-free, and blemish-free hyper-constructed body images is bound to cause harm.

A Times piece on retouching school photos set off a few scary dystopian alarm bells for me, No Boo-boos or Cowlicks? Only in School Pictures.

Mr. Tracy need not have worried. When the big envelope of photos arrived, Oliver’s blemish was nowhere in sight.

The practice of altering photos, long a standard in the world of glossy magazines and fashion shoots, has trickled down to the wholesome domain of the school portrait. Parents who once had only to choose how many wallet-size and 5-by-7 copies they wanted are now being offered options like erasing scars, moles, acne and braces, whitening teeth or turning a bad hair day into a good one.

School photography companies around the country have begun to offer the service on a widespread basis over the past half-dozen years, in response to parents’ requests and to developments in technology that made fixing the haircut a 5-year-old gave herself, or popping a tooth into a jack-o’-lantern smile, easy and inexpensive. And every year, the companies say, the number of requests grows.

The piece goes on to mention that demand for the school photography retouching service increases as one goes up grade levels.

What is to be done?

There are five interventions that I’ve read about that seem particlarly worthwhile. First, state required linkages between modeling and the body mass index. For instance, due to a law passed in May this year, in Israel,

Models must prove that their Body Mass Index (BMI) is higher than the World Health Organization’s indication of malnourishment (a BMI of 18.5) by producing an up-to-date medical report — no older than three months — at all shoots to be used in the Israeli market. [via NY Mag]

A second intervention is warning labels on photographs. The Times reported on a five level retouching metric developed by Hany Farid and Eric Kee.

From left to right, five levels of retouching (via NYT)

“Dude, her head’s bigger than her pelvis” via boingboing

Warning labels strike me as particularly fair as opposed to outright state imposed bans because there’s an element of censorship in the outright state ban. Commercial speech is a different animal from other kinds of speech, but the argument that an antidote to troubling speech is more speech, not less speech, resonates with me. I can see this Ralph Lauren series with models whose heads are wider than their waists as art that speaks to body image pathologies in our society. My third intervention, along the more speech lines, would be requiring originals being published in accessible databases. Hopefully exerting a soft pressure on the industry to tamp down on the wildly altered images.

A fourth intervention sits firmly in this gray space surrounding commercial speech, free speech, state censorship, and bans: empowered advertising standards authorities, either through self-regulation or state supported. The ability to classify an ad as a misrepresentation of what a cosmetic product can do (versus what sophisticated digital editing suites can do) seems fair to me.

And finally, a fifth intervention, which may have deserved to be #1, parenting. Parents Should Tell Kids Picture-Perfect Celebs Aren’t Real, Psychologists Say. But if the parents are ordering photoshopped images of their own children we’re headed for dystopian, dangerous fantasy land.

I Feel Pretty/Unpretty, from Glee

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