Thursday, April 26, 2012

Real or Retouched? Distorted Perceptions of Beauty

I’ve written before about the impact of digital retouching on our perceptions of what is real and what is beautiful.  Fortunately, youth are becoming savvier about how fake some of the images are in the media they consume. Yet I think we all underestimate the degree of re-touching and how much of it actually goes unnoticed. 

When I talk to teen girls about this,  they are aware that Photoshop can be used to change eye colour, darken or lighten skin tones, and hide blemishes.  However, this doesn’t stop them from comparing themselves to models in magazines, feeling inferior, and saving up for their own hair extensions, spray tans and make up that holds the promise of a flawless complexion.  Girls don't always see that in addition to the faux tan there is an altered bone structure, impossible thinness or a compilation of features from more than one model. 

When the illusion is not recognized, these images simply seem aspirational … they prompt girls and women to work a little harder to achieve a new standard of beauty. A standard where the bar rises more and more out of reach each year. 

When the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty first launched the Evolution video that I wrote about here,  it sparked a global conversation (and several million youtube hits) that still continues today.  Six years later, I am using this resource with a new generation of young girls to help them understand the resources and artifice that go into creating this illusion of beauty.  

But, despite increased attention being paid to the use of retouching in marketing photos, the effects are still being felt. The Real Truth About Beauty Research conducted by Dove found that only 9% of Canadian girls and 3% of women are comfortable calling themselves beautiful.

According to Sharon MacLeod, V.P. of Marketing, Dove has made a commitment not to distort any of their images to create an unrealistic or unattainable view of beauty.  They make a genuine attempt to demonstrate that beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colours and ages.

I don’t expect companies to stop wanting to sell their products so I have always appreciated Dove’s approach.  They don’t seek to convince women or girls to feel badly about themselves in order to be motivated to buy their products. I've been sent examples of other companies that have taken the lead from Dove and have made similar marketing changes – I think this is fabulous and shows the power of consumer advocacy. 

Today Dove launched a new creative campaign that demonstrates how extreme retouching can go virtually unnoticed… even by those of us who are shrewdly aware of it’s widespread use.

The photo at the top of this page shows an upside-down image of a normal looking woman. It is accompanied by upside down text to entice readers to turn the photo around. This works better in print, so I will save you the trouble of tilting your laptop or standing on your heard... you can see the flipped picture to the right.  When the photo is flipped, we can see that the woman's appearance is actually extremely distorted, with both her lips and eyes upside down. The accompanying text reads "Does retouching distort your perception of reality?"

When I first looked at the original photo, I really did not know that it was retouched; but after viewing it upside down… I wonder how I could not have seen that.  This makes it very apparent how impressionable girls and young women may not be aware of the majority of photo retouching that they view.

The new ad campaign launched in this morning’s edition of Toronto’s Metro and is available through an interactive and shareable application at  Visit to see more examples of extreme photo re-touching and tell Dove what you think and then continue the conversation at home.

Talk to your children about how photo re-touching distorts their perception of reality and how comparing themselves to something that isn’t real will always leave them feeling they are not good enough. Here are some tips to keep the conversation going:
  • Get outside to a local music festival or sports event and do some people watching together.  Take in the very real and very diverse beauty that surrounds us every day and notice how different this is to what girls are being told is beautiful. Challenge these notions.
  • During your daily life, make a point of admiring people of a wide range of physical appearances – admire them for their natural beauty and admire them for their efforts, talents and personality traits. 
  • Look at old family photo albums together and appreciate the beauty of past generations. Talk about how ideas of attractiveness change over time. Notice how inherited genetic traits get passed down from our ancestors and express gratitude that we can't Photoshop away this special gift of memory and history.

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