Walk into any convenience store and you are instantly met with a wall of magazines featuring celebrities and models, the glossy photos showing off their perfect faces and bodies. The ideal of physical perfection with which we are constantly bombarded is not just hard to achieve; it is in fact impossible. Nobody looks like the models you see in magazines – not even the models themselves. As Cindy Crawford succinctly put it: “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” Of course, fashion and celebrity have always been about an ideal of perfection and glamour, and about idolising the rare few who can live up to it. “I don’t design clothes,” Ralph Lauren once said. “I design dreams.” But in the past two decades, the industry has seen a major change. New technologies now allow photographs to be manipulated freely and with increasing subtlety, so that the industry’s ideal of beauty can develop beyond even the limits of the human body itself. Models can be made skinnier, their breasts and buttocks more perfect, their lips fuller and redder than those of any existing person, without anyone possibly being able to recognise the results as tampered. Kate Szatmari, a professional retoucher who has worked on photos of Kanye West, P.Diddy, Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne, told CBC’s Street Cents, in an interview for a pioneering programme on the subject, that she makes changes to every single photo given to her, and that her touch-ups include “lengthening and thinning out” models and celebrities and “trimming off any fat from the body.” Representatives from Elle Canada, LouLou and Toro Magazine all admitted to Street Cents that their standard retouching practice includes “the removal of cellulite, the softening of wrinkles, the removal of blemishes . . . the altering of skin tones, the removal of veins and blood vessels . . . reduction of pores [and] removal of scars.” Now H&M has, in a recent ad campaign, taken this to its logical, and inevitable, conclusion: dispensing with human bodies altogether and just pasting the models’ heads onto computer-generated bodies. H&M are the first to get caught, but it’s hard to believe they are alone.
The effect this impossible ideal has on society, especially on some of its most vulnerable members, is predictable. A 2002 Health Canada survey revealed roughly 40% of girls in grades nine and ten admit to perceiving themselves as too fat, and 30% admit to dieting. The real numbers may be higher, and are just as high in young children. An American study found that 37% of children in grade 3 to 6 had already tried to lose weight and 7% scored in the anorexia nervosa range. Eating disorders are by far the leading killers of young women, while deaths from plastic surgery are on the rise. The magazine industry is entirely uninterested in the moral problem raised by its practices, or in the social harms that result from them. Street Cents reported that out of the dozens of magazines they investigated, only two, Toro and CosmoGirl, give any sort of credit to photo retouching. The reporters said that not a single retoucher they spoke with felt any ethical concerns about his or her work. Numerous campaigns have tried moral suasion to get the industry to use more realistic images, but none has had any impact.
We might think that, however unfortunate the situation, there is little the government can do, other than imposing a draconian regime of censorship that would be at odds with our democratic ideals. But this is simply not true. Last year, Britain’s Liberal Democrat party, as part of its “Body Confidence” campaign, endorsed an innovative proposal to require that magazine images be labelled according to the alterations they have undergone. An organisation called All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, made up of models, photographers and others unhappy with fashion’s “size zero status quo”, is actively promoting the idea. People in the industry resist such regulation by insisting that they are only responding to the demands of the market – that it is the public who decide what are the standards for beauty.
Advocates of labelling say the public is being asked to “decide” based on an outright deception. And labelling is not censorship. On this proposal, if magazines wish to continue tampering with images, they will be free to do so. They will just have to admit it. Consumers can decide based on full and accurate information whether they want to look at images of actual human beings, or of digitally-created entities who have all the reality of James Cameron’s Na’vi. Such labelling is all around us: our laws require nutrition labels on food, warnings on cigarettes, and ratings on movies. DVD cases now spell out, in often amusing detail, all the possibly-offensive content contained therein.
The movie rating system might be held up as a reason to resist further such regulation. Movie ratings have had a largely-lamentable effect on films, taming their content and effectively restricting artistic freedom. But magazine adverts do not strike me as a form of creative expression that we need to worry quite so much about. I personally doubt labelling ads would have a dramatic impact on either the ads themselves or their impact on society, but they couldn’t hurt. At the very least they would send a signal about the sort of society we want to be, and the sorts of values we endorse.
Image: Pablo Picasso, Nude in an Armchair (1929)
Full disclosure: This is not an accurate representation of the female body