Reality v Photoshop

Brad Pitt Ultra Face Closeup Photoshoot

Photoshopped Brad Pitt

“In the old days it was lots of make-up, very careful selection of models and good lighting and countless takes with cameramen and lighting engineers, who made sure the absolutely perfect take was got. Now it can be done more quickly, people can manipulate and change, airbrush and digitally enhance the image afterwards.” Ian Twinn of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers.

Photography is no longer dominated by the evidential, as Nicholas Mirzoeff rightfully said. It is possible-overly accessible-to manipulate visual images digitally, thus photography today is not just about pure photos, rather a construction of art, an ‘ideal’. The construction process employs airbrushing and other advanced image editing techniques. The processes are laborious, deliberate and I hate to admit breathtaking. The final images are so perfect, believable and widespread it’s easy to forget how these images don’t justly reflect the average woman. Women’s culture as a result is an adulterated, inhibited medium where reality and fantasy are blurred. This has been successfully blurred so far that we as women find it difficult to distinguish what is real and fake, thus we buy into the advertisements helplessly enticed.

Dalnet states, “…the images that are presented in advertising are designed to create an illusion, a fantasy ideal that will keep women continually consuming. The influential power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic and beauty industries and their advertising strategies target this…” (Dalnet IRC, 2002).

Below are some examples of everyday beauty and fashion advertisements where photoshop is the ‘norm’ and sets an unreal ‘ideal’

According to Wolf, in the chapter entitled ‘Culture’ of the ‘The Beauty Myth’, the advertisers who make women’s mass culture possible depend on making women feel bad enough about their faces and bodies to spend more money on worthless or pain inducing products than they would if they felt innately beautiful. (p.84) The mass media specifically targets women to believe that they can achieve this ‘ideal’ if they buy the products and women being depicted. From a young age we are conditioned to believe we must spend enormous amount of time, energy and most importantly money above to achieve these ‘ideals’.

However, these images are not even real. They have been carefully constructed, edited for hours on end using high-tech wizardry, a manufactured image of youth and beauty. Yet we still continue to compare ourselves to these beautifully airbrushed models and strive to be like them in the hope that we too can be deemed beautiful. If we don’t meet these standards we are to feel guilty: a failure. But failure is inevitable. We will always fall-short of these over-enhanced looks because the women being depicted are not real, they are the misleading results of advertisers and Photoshop.

According to Thompson and Heinberg (1999) “print and electronic media images blur the boundaries between a fictionalized ideal and reality. Therefore, these “ideal” images that are represented in the mass media are not only unreal but also very misleading” And I definitely agree. The sheer repetition of clear skin, thinness and beauty, gives the impression of these ‘ideals’ being a ‘natural’ thing and therefore achievable. In reality, they’re unrealistic and dangerous.

Jean Kilbourne, a feminist author and filmmaker who is recognized for her studies on the image of women in advertising, has made four films in the past forty years-the Killing Us Softly series is a deep exploration of how advertising depicts women and how the images we are being sold is damaging not only to our culture but to our children. The documentaries focus on the effects of advertising on women’s self-image and the objectification of women’s bodies. The documentary was first released in 1979 and has since been updated and re-released several times, most recently in 2010. This proves that the issues surrounding ‘ideal’ feminine beauty in advertising is still as unrealistic and damaging today.

However, the pursuit to create and achieve an image of “ideal beauty” is not at all a new phenomenon. You can see it in Renaissance times, Greek statues and in Leonardo Da Vinci’s obsession with symmetry in his paintings. Symmetry is often linked to ideal beauty, hence the successes of Angelina Jolie!

Angelina Jolie and symmetry

Angelina Jolie and symmetry

The problem with the image of “ideal beauty” that has been created over time is that it is unattainable and is growing to be even more unattainable due to technological advances making it more difficult than ever to differentiate the real from the fake. With the introduction of digital airbrushing, you almost never see a photo of a woman that is considered “beautiful” that hasn’t been retouched. Women are photoshopped to look thinner, bigger, taller, smoother and younger. Advertisers give us a ridiculously unattainable image of beauty, women are never seen to have any scars or blemishes-in fact they have no pores. Wrinkles and getting older as an outcome is completely out of the question as far as beauty standards are concerned. When in reality: “To airbrush age off a woman’s face is to erase a woman’s identity, power and history” (Beauty Myth, p.83)

Digital retouching reigns especially in the fashion and beauty industries. Retouching allows advertisers and designers alike to create an image of “ideal” beauty, the greater the image the greater the sell. However, some images due to their unrealistic nature have gained unwanted attention. Some beauty and fashion advertisements have been so false in the representations of women that they have been banned.

Filippa Hamilton for Ralph Lauren

Filippa Hamilton for Ralph Lauren

In 2009 the image of Fillipa Hamilton for a Ralph Lauren campaign caused worldwide controversy as the supermodel’s waist and pelvis were shown to be thinner than her head-which is physically impossible.  The image added fuel to already fierce debates: the culture that uses dangerously thin models as well as the heavy use of Photoshop to alter these already minute physiques. Matters were made worse for Ralph Lauren when word got out that he had fired Fillipa Hamilton because she didn’t fit into the sample clothes she was required to wear.

In 2011 L’Oreal had been forced to pull their beauty campaigns featuring actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turligton after the advertising watchdog upheld complaints by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson that images were overly airbrushed.  Swinson who has waged a long-running campaign against, “overly perfected and unrealistic images” in women’s adverts, logged complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority about the magazine campaigns for L’Oreal-owned brands Lancôme and Maybelline.  The ASA ruled that both advertisements breached the advertising standards code for exaggeration and being misleading banning them from future publication.

L’Oreal admitted that while the image of Turlington had been digitally retouched it still claimed to show signs of ageing which “accurately illustrated” achievable results. However, Roberts who at the time was in her 40’s, is so photoshopped she looks like a girl half her age! It makes you wonder what L’Oreal are actually in denial of, is it what ageing looks like or the effectiveness of their products? This look is utterly unattainable because it’s all digital and by suggesting that their products can attain such a “perfect” look is misleading and worrying. Both Turlington and Roberts are idolised by young girls and women so this unrealistic representation of them is a major concern. What’s more shocking is that the ASA were forbidden access to the original, un-airbrushed photographs of Roberts because of an agreement with the actress. L’Oreal claim that Roberts is naturally beautiful and the retouching minimal, if that were true why weren’t the advertising regulars permitted to see it?

L’Oreal didn’t seem to receive the message as in 2012, adverts featuring actress Rachel Weisz promoting their age-defying beauty products were also banned because of it’s heavy use of airbrushing.  These examples evidence how airbrushing is often taken too far by advertisers and yet airbrushing and editing are still seen as “normal” and “necessary” in spite of their unrealistic effects.

Seeing airbrushed advertisements has become the norm, to the point it would seem unusual if a fashion or beauty image hadn’t been digitally enhanced. However “normal” the practice is, Photoshop and digital re-touching offer women seriously distorted and stereotyped ideas of what an “ideal” femininity and body is. Women are portrayed as thin, beautiful, happy, immaculate with clear complexions and forever youthful. Is the beauty industries only quest to keep regurgitating these same images, to keep women feeling insecure enough to secure a steady cash flow from them in the false hope that the products they buy will make them look like the women depicted in the ads? Or is the beauty industry simply answering to the demands that women now have cultivated from years of exposure to harmful media and unattainable media images?  Either way digital editing have reared photographs as untrustworthy and unreal, inevitably impacting are perceptions of beauty and gender.

The appearance of drag queens is often deemed extreme and hyper-feminine yet are almost identical to the feminine ideals created in advertisements. Why then should they be deemed elaborate if they are simply conforming to everyday images of ‘normalcy’? I propose that digital editing and Photoshop is a form of drag. Below are two videos which highlight how dangerous and misleading Photoshop and digital editing is.


Kilbourne, J (2002). Killing Us Softly 3 Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, Mass, Media Education Foundation

Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage.

Daily Mail (2009) Ralph Lauren apologises for digitally retouching slender model to make her head look bigger than her waist [online] available from <; [25 February 2014]

Telegraph (2012) Digitally enhanced L’Oreal advert starring Rachel Weisz is banned [online] available from <> %5B25 February 2014]

Huffing Post (2011) Julia Roberts & Christy Turlington L’Oreal Ads Banned In U.K.  [online] available from <> %5B25 February 2014]

BBC News (2011) Airbrushed make-up ads banned for ‘misleading’ [online] available from <>  %5B25 February 2014]

Daily Mail (2011) Because Julia Roberts wasn’t beautiful enough: Star among celebs whose ads were banned over airbrushing [online] available from <>  %5B25 February 2014]

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