Editors note: This blog post was originally posted Nov 1, 2011. We are sharing it again for our visitors to consider how airbrushed photos (whether your own, or those in magazines) impact your well-being and sense of self. What makes your physical beauty exceptional? Ironed out pimples, wrinkles, and freckles? Or is it, “the span of [your] hips, The stride of [your] step, The curl of [your] lips?” as Maya Angelou proposes in her poem Phenomenal Woman.
And, while we re-post this in honor of day 2 of the #KeepitReal Campaign opposing a photoshopped standard of beauty in magazines, we have to also remember that photoshopped images *everywhere* of women are damaging. In fact, young people’s over-identification with rigidly defined gender roles and photoshopped beauty standards as portrayed in the media are proven to be a major cause of low self-esteem and consequently negative health and educational outcomes. ~Pia Guerrero
I admit it: I’ve Photoshopped myself. Some of my Facebook photos have had their contrast and lighting settings tweaked and four them have been properly Photoshopped, either professionally or by myself. Sometimes, I took photos of myself in mirrors at such bizarre angles that I’m still not sure how I managed to pull off without breaking my arm. At 15, I thought it was “artistic,” and more importantly it made my self-proclaimed “flaws” less noticeable. In desperate moments after seeing a recently uploaded picture of another girl’s equally oddly-angled, retouched photo, my jealousy would lead me to dress up just to take a few–okay, fine, maybe about 30–photos of myself to post on MySpace to try and feel less inferior.
Growing up I was no self-absorbed, vapid young girl; I hated reality TV with a passion, was heavily involved in community service and social justice groups in school, and even led and created a few. I barely ever touched magazines because I preferred books; my heroine was not Paris Hilton but passionate women who made a difference in the world through either their hearts or intellect. My favorite place was the local bookstore, not the nearby mall. Yet with the sudden popularity of MySpace back in 2005, I almost felt like I became a different person. I still did well in school, but time I once spent buried in a book in my free time was now spent staring transfixed at my friends’ photos on MySpace. I envied how photogenic they were, so completely oblivious to the fact these pictures were digitally altered.
Now, the purpose of revealing all of this isn’t to simply embarrass myself in public, but because I believe there should be greater transparency concerning Photoshopped images not just in the media, but also in our personal lives. Recently, I’ve been feeling like a hypocrite. As friends know, I can go off about the media’s negative influence on our self-image and spout out the most obscure statistics about it. Yet I feel like I’ve failed to take personal responsibility by posting digitally altered photos (or even pictures that don’t truly capture how I really look) on my social networking sites. Nowadays, I do it far less than I did when I was 15, but I still find myself sometimes uneasy about the pictures I post.
I’m not going to put myself down too much, though, and I don’t want our readers to be hard on themselves either. Self-compassion is far more empowering and effective than harsh self-criticism. I know the real reason I Photoshopped my photos because I, like most teens and young women, struggle with self-image issues from time to time. We live in a world that glorifies appearances so much so that it’s become okay to surgically and digitally change how you look. For goodness’ sake, it’s even “okay” nowadays to Photoshop photos of toddlers. There’s an underlying societal belief that it’s better to appear “beautiful” than to, quite frankly, be yourself.
Yet wanting to look good in itself is not a problem, and in fact, it’s wonderful. The problem comes when we pretend to look a certain way without making it clear the image is contrived. As a result, we perpetuate the problem. Like the fashion industry and the media, we encourage people to try to achieve an unattainable look. Our attempt to achieve a certain image can lead us to post pictures that are truly just products of our great retouching skills, which can influence others to do so as well. It’s a vicious cycle. It is one I’m trying to stop.
People need to realize that many pictures you see on sites like Facebook aren’t totally reflective of reality. Judging by the many websites and YouTube videos that teach even the least computer-savvy people how to alter their pictures, I’m guessing even more people are doing so at increasingly younger ages nowadays. I hope by sharing my own experiences, I might inspire people to not compare themselves to these false images, as I frequently have done and sometimes still do. Men see these photos unaware they have been manipulated and think “this is what a real woman looks like.” Consequently, a real woman never measures up. We need to be conscious of the effect our own photos have; it’s not just the magazines anymore. With the popularity of social media and how easily accessible it is to anybody, we are also responsible.
Earlier I mentioned how at 15 years old, I’d spend hours browsing through random girls’ MySpace or Facebook photos, unaware of the “wonders” of airbrushing and Photoshop. As a result, I sought to unsuccessfully achieve a look that could never be imitated, and kept it to myself. I am open about this now because I believe I am not alone, and I want this to be the first step toward increased transparency. I read an article that the American Psychiatric Association now requires physicians to ask girls if they use Facebook when evaluating them for depression and body image issues. That speaks volumes about the power of social media on our mental health; it’s more than just a fun diversion to pass the time. It’s now become a means of helping young people establish or ferment an identity that can often have harmful effects if used inappropriately.
I’m going to guess that you or someone you know has probably had my experience. And, to be even more frank, if you digitally manipulate your photos to look like the false “beauties” you once felt inferior to without making it clear you have, you’re unintentionally helping contribute other girls’ and women’s insecurities. I’m not saying *we’re* the problem. It’s far more complicated than that. But let’s try not to contribute to the problem by being a little more transparent. At the very least, we could write captions under our photos if they have been altered. We may not have a lot of control over how the fashion industry has chosen to represent females, but we do have control over how we choose to portray ourselves. Let’s try to be the change we wish to see in this world.