When my wife worked at a women’s magazine, there was an issue where the publisher wanted a Gillian Anderson cover. So the staff went looking for pictures of Gillian Anderson. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find any pictures that were exactly what the publisher wanted. So they improvised. The staff took a photo of Anderson’s body and added to it someone else’s more substantial cleavage.
This was done in the days before Photoshop. Back then, making a cover model more bosomy required calling up a lab with specialized equipment and paying upwards of $100 an hour. Now, of course, you can slim your model down or smooth out her wrinkles or even give her someone else’s chest with a simple drag of the mouse. Or you can lighten the model’s skin, as Elle did when they put Gabby Sidibe on their cover as reported by Jezebel.
Replacing breasts or lightening skin can seem, at best, tasteless, and at worst, deceitful. And yet, artists have manipulated the human form for many, many years. For instance, consider this Rubens painting, which he called “The Little Fur,” from 1638. It’s an image of Rubens’ second wife, Helen Fourment.
As John Berger pointed out in his book, “Ways of Seeing,” a real woman’s body couldn’t possibly twist like that. In the painting, Fourment’s legs are twisted and displaced in relation to her torso. If she were really standing in that position, she’d have to be made out of rubber, or else her top and her bottom would have to be disconnected. The effect is that her body appears to be impossibly dynamic, torqueing around its hidden genitalia, the “little fur” around her explicitly concealing, referencing and drawing attention to what it conceals. The painting is, then, not so much a document of Fourment’s body, as it is an idealized, sexualized dream of her body — a dream in which her sexuality virtually explodes the body itself.
As Amanda Fortini points to in the New Yorker, there is a long history of such dream bodies in art and concludes that there is no real reason to get upset about Photoshop retouching. As she says, “How many adult women actually take the images in fashion magazines — artificial as they are, feats of makeup and lighting and camera angles, even without retouching — at face value?” She argues that women know that the images in fashion magazines are not real, so there isn’t any real deceit, nor any real harm in the alterations. On the contrary, Fortini says, what is needed is a more open acknowledgement of the fakeness of photos. Fashion images should be seen as art or illustration — “an open fiction, a candid fantasy. If we could ditch the idea that these images bear any resemblance to reality, viewers might not feel conned or played for fools.” The altered Gabby Sidibe image is no different than the Rubens image: both are artistic representations, not reality, and should be acknowledged, viewed and appreciated as such.
There are a few problems with Fortini’s argument, I think. First, it’s not at all clear that women, or especially girls (who Fortini rather callously dismisses in the article), know the full extent of image modification. People probably know there is some retouching done, but when they look at a picture of a celebrity, are they actually thinking that she is sporting someone else’s cleavage? Or that her head may have been moved to someone else’s body, as seems to have been the case with one America Ferrera cover shoot. Do they know that even supposedly “candid” images of celebrities shot on the street are retouched? A general sense that the images are not entirely accurate (which many people probably have) is somewhat different from really viscerally knowing that the images in the magazines have nothing remotely to do with any physical human body.
Even if people do know that the images in magazines aren’t real, that doesn’t necessarily mean that knowledge will lead to power. Just because you know something is fake doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect you. After all, if fiction weren’t affecting, no one would bother to read it or watch it. People knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a story, but it nonetheless convinced many people of the wrongness of slavery. People knew 24 was just a TV drama, but nonetheless it became a centerpiece of many pro-torture arguments. People cry when something sad happens in a book, and they laugh when something funny happens in a movie. Is it really impossible to imagine that a person might compare themself to an image — even a fictional image — in a magazine?
Fontini argues that before-and-after Photoshopped images are only popular on sites like Jezebel because of prurience. People like to see stars looking like normal folks. But that simply confirms the fact that even women who know that perfected images are fake can also find them unsettling or oppressive.
One commenter at Jezebel responded to this before/after photo above, declaring “Oh my gosh! The first thing that I thought when I saw the Megan Fox picture was…..”HELL YES! I am SOOOOO normal it’s ridiculous!” Surely this woman had never thought that Fox’s skin was actually flawless. But even with that knowledge, there’s still a relief in seeing the evidence that you are, as the commenter said, “normal.”
Endless images of impossibly thin or flawless bodies or the constant insistence that only light-skinned women can be pretty can affect how you see yourself, regardless of whether you think those images are real. This is why the American Medical Association’s plea for more realistic images in magazines makes sense. As the AMA says, “A large body of literature links exposure to media-propagated images of unrealistic body image to eating disorders and other child and adolescent health problems.”
So, then, should adolescent girls be kept away from that Reubens image, lest they try to stand like that and dislocate their hips? Why, if we have had images of fantasy bodies for hundreds of years, would we suddenly start to worry about them now?
First, the fact that there have been sexualized, idealized images of women for hundreds of years is not a sign that the problem doesn’t exist. On the contrary, one could argue that that legacy is the problem itself. The fact that the new technology of photoshopping has history and tradition behind it means that we should think harder about the ethical implications, rather than ignore them.
And while the Rubens painting is similar to fashion photoshopping in some ways, it is also very different. Rubens’ image is meant to capture, emphasize and celebrate the subject. The painting is exaggerated, but that exaggeration is in the interest of capturing something that Rubens sees in his sitter — her energy, her dynamism. It’s about her sexuality too, definitely, but it’s her sexuality. Indeed, the sexuality animates her. It’s in her whole body, and in the way the body turns around herself. It can’t be chopped off and put on Gillian Anderson.
Most Photoshopped fashion images, on the other hand, don’t have much (if any) interest in the women they are (however tenuously) representing. The goal is not to capture individuality, but to erase it, and to turn every woman into one woman with the same skin tone, the same body shape, the same legs, the same cleavage. Even when body parts aren’t actually digitally swapped, the effect is to make all women infinitely, interchangeably fungible.
The fact that Photoshop creates fantasies of women’s bodies isn’t in itself unethical. What’s unethical is the fantasy that is created— a dream of women’s bodies as vivisectable, exchangeable things, best appreciated when severed from themselves.
Noah Berlatsky is the editor of the comics and culture website The Hooded Utilitarian. He writes for the Atlantic, Slate, and Splice Today.