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Airbrushing reality

By Karen Brooks - posted Monday, 3 May 2010

A recent report entitled “The Impact of Media Images on Body Image and Behaviours: A Summary of the Scientific Evidence,“ signed by 45 academics, doctors, and psychologists from around the world, places the issue of digitally enhanced images back in the spotlight. And it doesn’t look pretty.

According to this report, we’re consuming, on average, 3,000 advertising images a day that feature heavily airbrushed men and women, portraying an idealised and completely unrealistic notion of beauty. The cumulative effects of this exposure are potentially very serious.

For example, a 15-month subscription to a women’s magazine can induce psychological and physical problems such as low self-esteem, bulimia and extreme dieting in adolescent girls with low social support.
The report concludes by recommending that all digitally altered images be labeled; that none be used in advertising aimed at under 16s, that a diversity of body sizes and shapes be shown, and that media education programs be introduced.


None of this is actually new and neither does it sound too difficult to make mandatory and yet, despite pleas from various bodies, which have grown since 2007, and public criticism of the overuse of airbrushing, very little has changed.

Instead, magazines and fashion houses have very publicly used non-digitally enhanced images, or “normal women” in targeted ways to raise their own profile, stem the backlash and demonstrate that they’re in tune with their audience. But even this has backfired. “One-offs” don’t work, especially when profits are being pocketed. From “plus-size” models on catwalks, to Sarah Murdoch appearing on the cover of the Australian Women’s Weekly, to Jennifer Hawkins in Marie Clarie. All of these provoked controversy, debate and disappointment in equal measures.

Women (and men) didn’t feel relief, we felt cheated.

These shoots weren’t about addressing concerns, change or acknowledging flaws in practice – they were about fiscal strategy. 

A similar accusation was leveled at the Dove campaign for “Real Beauty”  a few years ago.

On the one hand, Dove was praised for revealing what occurs in a typical photo session, while on the other, skeptics noted that Dove is a product of Unilever, a company that sells an enormous number of beauty products (among other things), completely undermining the message behind ‘real beauty’.
It wasn’t altruism or a belief in real and long-lasting change to advertising that produced the campaign, but pandering in a superficial way to consumer demands. It was another form of commercialism.


So can the superficial become deeper than skin? Because it’s clear, it has to and soon.

According to a study done at the University of Queensland, 80 per cent of Australian women are dissatisfied with their own body image, while 90 per cent claim they know other women who are unhappy with their shape.

The Women's Forum, Australia published, “Faking It: The Female Image in Young Women's Magazines” a report which claimed that thin, sexualised and digitally-enhanced images of women were tied to women's experiences of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and poor body image. Something the UK report also identifies.

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About the Author

Karen Brooks is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Southern Cross University, a columnist with Courier Mail, social commentator and author of seven books. Her latest is an historical fantasy, Tallow.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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