Photoshop: all bad or just another type of cosmetics?

07 Jun

The use of photo-editing software has become ubiquitous, from the professional Photoshop adjustments in magazines and advertisements to the iPhoto enhancements used on Facebook photos to the “purikura” effects in Japanese photo booths.

These tools are used to “improve” digital photographs–they make models and celebrity spokespeople look flawless and establish unattainable levels of perfection, but they can also polish the photos people take of themselves, giving those people the agency to curate images of themselves. For example, purikura is standard in the photo booths that are popular across Japan; it (automatically) smooths and lightens skin and makes eyes bigger and rounder, as seen in the juxtaposed photos below[1]:

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 9.24.25 PM

Curating the right set of images to publish on Facebook and other social media sites puts pressure of people to strike the right pose, have the right kind of beauty, etc. If people can create the perfect versions of themselves through Photoshop, it must be tempting to make those changes more permanent through cosmetic surgery, especially when the bulk of media images are Photoshopped, falsely telling everyone that’s the “natural” standard. Sometimes, Photoshop can be ridiculously extreme (check out a bunch of mangled Photoshop adjustments in Jezebel’s little Photoshop of Horrors section), but most images just embody (unrealistic) beauty standards without acknowledging the digital transformations that created such so-called perfection (that’s Jennifer Lawrence below, if you didn’t recognizer her[2]):

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.37.57 PM

Most research on the effects of Photoshop has found that it negatively impacts self-esteem and increases rates of eating disorders. Does it have a purely negative impact by creating images of unattainable physical perfection, or does it also have some positive impact by allowing women to take control over their own self-representations? Davis argues that the choice to have plastic surgery should not be automatically looked down on, as many (most?) women make the conscious decision to take control over their bodies through cultivation[3]. I’m curious as to whether people who use Photoshop as a body-work tool feel positively about it, like they might feel about alterations through makeup, cosmetic surgery, etc.

Bordo points out that even if people are making these choices on their own, there are societal forces at work telling everyone that they should look a certain way, influencing their body-work decisions. She quotes Focault, who wrote that all that’s needed to keep people in obedience to beauty norms is “just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself”[4]. With the rise of Photoshop, it’s even easier for us to manage our self-images and shape them to the ideal, but how do we handle the difference between those photos and our real-life bodies?

I really appreciated this article on the blog Already Pretty about how getting comfortable with being photographed can be healthy for people, as “the photos we take of ourselves and each other are great reminders that magazine and online photos we see of the rich and famous have been altered beyond the humanity threshold”[5].

[3] Kathy Davis, “Remaking the She-Devil: A Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty,” Hypatia 6.2 (1991); Kathy Davis, Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003).

[4] Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 27.

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Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


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