Photoshopping before photos

According to Web Urbanist, “Lincoln never posed for this picture; rather, it is Abe’s head (from a less-regal seated portrait) pasted onto the body of Southern politician John Calhoun.”

Currently, the U.S. Congress is considering the bipartisan Truth in Advertising Act (H.R. 4341), a bill co-sponsored by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla. An earlier version was the Self-Esteem Act (“a bill requiring ‘truth in advertising’ labels be attached to advertising and editorials with models Photoshopped or airbrushed to a meaningful degree.”). It received wide currency following a 2011 Huffington Post editorial, “Why Beauty Ads Should Be Legislated”:

The Self-Esteem Act isn’t about judging, it’s about clarifying. If as marketers you choose to keep doing what you’ve done, that’s between you, the talent in your ads, and your consumers. Now you just need be upfront about it and declare it. If you’re not comfortable declaring it, don’t do it. It’s that simple.

Supporters include the Eating Disorders Coalition, concerned about the teens who attempt to be as thin as the Photoshopped models (aren’t). Indeed, one advocate points to the growth of such disorders in Fiji after 1995, when satellite brought them “uber-thin Hollywood starlets” to imitate, instead of the women deemed attractive in their own culture. One pleads

I’ve worked with teens who were hospitalized with eating disorders, and it is heartbreaking. Today’s anorexic girls look to photoshopped images in magazines and online for the “thinspiration” they need to starve themselves. This is slow-motion suicide. Please, let’s stop handing them the weapon.

On the other side, Simon Dumenco, the “Media Guy” for Advertising Age muses:

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure where I stand. On the one hand, I think cosmetics companies getting to use overly Photoshopped images of models and actors as “proof” of the efficacy of their allegedly youth-restoring skin creams is obviously wrong. On the other hand, I don’t trust typically tech-illiterate lawmakers or the FTC to be able to articulate what constitutes acceptable levels of Photoshopping.

How “real” are models and celebrities even pre-Photoshop? Madonna, for instance, can afford teams of personal trainers, stylists and makeup artists that can make her 55-year-old corpus look weirdly ageless. Should Congress intervene?

Dumenco’s question prompts a further one: Is the problem new? Not really; it originated with portrait painting, and peaked with the totalitarian practice of making executed people disappear from official photos (and histories). New media, as always, make things faster, easier, and more broadly distributed than ever before.

Governments sometimes use digital magic to multiply their crowds of supporters. One would-be prime minister of India used it this year to imply that world leaders stand in awe of her. Media sometimes play along. A recent feature in Washingtonian Magazine featured White House press secretary Jay Carney and his wife, ABC journalist Clare Shipman, and their children in front of a solid wall of books. Pretty impressive until the Photoshop experts took a look at that background:

MailOnline found 12 separate Photoshop edits, each involving replacing a blank space with a book, leaving readers with the impression that Carney and Shipman are better-read than they actually are.

But the job, it turnd out, wasn’t really up to the starlets’ standards:

A dozen or more cut-and-paste operations later, 12-year-old Hugo Carney’s left pinky finger wound up halfway across the room, left behind when a book jacket was cloned.

Episodes like that cause me to doubt the value of the legislation proposed. If, for example, Carney and Shipman are comfortable with a wallpaper library, impressive illusions are now socially accepted. So legislation would mainly be used to punish persons or industries unpopular with government (or with other media).

Teens? They won’t pay any attention. For one thing, anorexia was well-established long before photoshopping. It was a big problem in the 1960s when a model aptly named Twiggy enjoyed a brief craze.

What changes teens’ attitudes is a change in role models. Counting calories skipped is boring compared to counting benchmarks achieved. But the teen must already be on the way to discovering that fact, usually through caring adults, before she accepts that computer-generated fantasies are still fantasies. Only life is real. At that point, she might learn something from this:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...