“Seeing is believing”?    Think again!

When it comes to the images of models and celebrities depicted in the media, particularly in glossy magazines, virtually all of them have been retouched  (airbrushed). This means that we are being deliberately presented with unreal images of 'beauty'. This undeniable truth leads us to ask the question, are we aware that we are being manipulated in this way….stated more strongly….  Are we aware that we are being lied to? 

Today’s society is obsessed with beauty and youth. Multitudes of beauty, anti aging and cosmetic surgery industries and services have sprung up to pander to our seemingly limitless obsession. So much so that it has become the accepted norm that celebrities, models, public figures and Joe Public routinely alter their bodies (surgically or non surgically), limit their food intake (often severely) and spend millions of pounds on beauty products, all in pursuit of perfection.  Perfection, as depicted by the images the media in all its forms bombards us with day after day. This means that the media is enormously powerful; its influence can determine what individuals and ultimately society itself desires and pursues.  Understanding the power of media images brings the everyday practise of airbrushing images into sharp focus.

A few weeks ago, at the launch of her latest swimwear collection, Elizabeth Hurley made the following statement "I like a certain amount of retouching, like anybody…. We all like to get rid of spots and shadows under our eyes."  At about the same time Madonna's appeared in Vanity Fair with unnaturally smooth arms, arms that are known to be much more muscular.  In contrast, Kate Winslet (2003) openly protested about the ‘excessive’ alterations of her image (cover of GQ), an image that made her appear much slimmer than she is in reality.  Her agent added "Once you shoot them, the magazine has them and can do what they will with them, and the actor is really not part of that approval process".  It’s unrealistic to suggest that Madonna was not in total control of the whole process.

The recent controversy regarding Dove’s ‘Real Woman’ marketing campaign, concerning whether or not the pictures had been retouched and if so, how extensively, once again brought  the practice of image alternation into the limelight.

The 12 May 08 issue of New Yorker alleged that Pascal Dangin (renowned in fashion world), retouched the Dove “Real Women” images, thus damaging the brand’s foundational premise that ‘older’ female beauty did not require enhancement.

"I mentioned the Dove campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual 'real women' in their undergarments," stated the New Yorker. . "It turned out it was a Dangin job. ’Do you know how much retouching was done on that?' he asked. ’But it was great to do, a challenge to keep everyone's skin and face showing the mileage but not looking unattractive".

In response Unilever, Dove’s parent company stated that Dangin only worked on the Pro Age campaign, and then only to carry out “post –production” work e.g. dust removal and trivial colour correction and that “both the integrity of the photographs and the women's natural beauty were maintained."

All things considered, any practice that changes the appearance of an image whether to make it more acceptable, beautiful or younger is retouching and in doing so, they are presenting fictional imagery as truth.  Whether you support or violently oppose retouching as common practise, the truth is that almost every media image, aimed at marketing a person, product or service is doctored and is thus a distortion of reality.

"I have a big problem with saying that photography is a good medium with which to record reality, because I know it isn't” says Nick Knight in an interview with the Independent.  Nick has numerous global advertising campaigns under his belt including the Independents special RED issue in 2006, which saw Kate Moss's skin transformed from white to black.

Knight continued “… There is a photographic element that most, although not all, of my work goes through. Manipulation is a slightly charged word, though, because it implies deceit. A skilled photographer totally manipulates the reality they have around them”.

In response to the recent controversy surrounding the use of extremely thin catwalk models, the British Fashion Council's Model Health Inquiry investigated the practice and concluded that it would "perpetuate an unachievable aesthetic (beauty)”. It could also be argued that retouching at current levels also "perpetuate an unachievable aesthetic".