Little Photoshop of horrors
Fashion is all about fantasy. When we open a fashion magazine we enter a world full of beautiful, tall, elegant creatures, women who don't look like you or me.
But these days, there's something a little nightmarish about this dream world. The glamorous images we see in magazines are increasingly retouched, creating women who are as artificial as the digital characters in the blockbuster movie Avatar. We all know that ordinary women don't look like models. The problem is that, now, even models don't look like models.
Fashion photography isn't photojournalism, and there's nothing wrong with enhancing the colour, light and shade of an image, or removing stray hairs and shadows. These images are all about artifice, after all.
But when it comes to dramatically altering women's faces and bodies, it's another story. We see a celebrity in a casual photoshoot, looking fresh-faced and natural, but what we may not realise is that everything from her skin to the size of her bottom has probably been transformed on a computer screen.
In some cases, however, the Photoshop work is all too evident, creating impossibly skinny women with waxen skin. One of the industry's worst offenders is Pascal Dangin. In 2008 he was the subject of a surprisingly gushing profile in The New Yorker magazine, which described him as "the premier retoucher of fashion photographs".
French-born Dangin, whose regular clients include US Vogue, Vanity Fair, Louis Vuitton and Disney, sees himself as an artist. "I can change someone's character just by doing work on their eyes," he told The New Yorker.
His critics, however, point out that after his treatment, women often look like bland, expressionless waxworks and, in many cases, they no longer look like themselves. When Drew Barrymore appeared on the cover of the March 2008 edition of US Vogue, the usually radiant star had been turned by Dangin into a barely recognisable, shiny-faced zombie.
The New Yorker profile described him at work, retouching the photo of an unnamed famous actress. "Ultimately he had minimised the actress's temples, which bulged a little, tightened the skin around her chin and excised a fleshy bump from her forehead."
But some women are becoming more aware of this artifice. The actress Kate Winslet was one of the first to draw attention to it back in 2003, when she publicly complained about the slimming of her legs on the cover of GQ magazine. And the practice has become even more pervasive since then. In 2007, the cosy American women's magazine Redbook put country music star Faith Hill on the cover. A few weeks later, the whipsmart women's website Jezebel.com posted the original, unretouched photo of Hill, which showed just how much had been changed.
The magazine had smoothed out Hill's face, adjusted the angle of her neck, made her entire body look thinner and elongated her arm. The original photo showed a vibrant, real woman whose eyes were scrunched in an appealingly genuine smile. The image on the cover looked like a plastic doll.
The story hit the mainstream media in America, and the Redbook editors were challenged on TV. Their explanations were feeble, to say the least. Redbook editor-in-chief Stacy Morrison told NBC's Today Show that "in the end, they're not really photographs. They're images".
Jezebel regularly highlights dodgy Photoshop work in a section entitled 'Photoshop of Horrors'. "US Vogue is pretty bad, especially the covers -- no one looks real," says Jezebel deputy editor Dodai Stewart, who recently posted a selection of what she thinks are the worst Photoshop disasters of the decade. These included Campari narrowing Jessica Alba's waist for an ad campaign and Kelly Clarkson getting slimmed down on the cover of Self Magazine -- with the cover line 'Total Body Confidence'.
The extreme Photoshop disasters are one thing. But, Stewart points out, more subtle image adjustments can be even more damaging. "It becomes very nit-picky," she says. "Changes such as smoothing hair or colour correction make sense, but when a magazine or ad slims thighs or extinguishes neck wrinkles, not only is the image being constructed impossible to match or reproduce in real life, but the thought process behind it gets sicker. It's saying that a woman is beautiful ... except for this and this. [It's saying] that tiny, naturally occurring aspects of the human body are flaws meant to be scrubbed away."
Those who work in the media often say, "Well, everyone knows these images have been Photoshopped", but in the real world, that's just not true. And this is especially true of younger women. Does the average 16-year-old looking at photos of glowing, glossy models really know how much tweaking made them look like that?
The answer is, probably not. The image of women being presented to young girls is increasingly unrealistic. "Those young kids looking at the magazines, they're dreaming of something that doesn't exist," Philippe Paschkes, a Manhattan stylist and makeup artist, recently told Newsweek.
But it seems as if a backlash has begun. In December, a crowd gathered outside Ralph Lauren's New York flagship store to protest against what even the company itself admitted was "the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body" in one of its advertisements.
In the UK, the Liberal Democrats have proposed a ban on "overly perfected and unrealistic images" in advertisements aimed at under-16s. The party would also like to introduce cigarette-style health warnings on ads aimed at adults, indicating how much alteration had taken place. In France, politician Valérie Boyer, a member of Sarkozy's party the UMP, wants similar warnings to appear in magazine photo shoots.
And some magazines are adopting a new attitude on their own. The April 2009 issue of French Elle featured eight famous women, including Eva Herzigova and Sophie Marceau, photographed without make-up and without Photoshop.
Australian teen magazines Dolly and Girlfriend have both run campaigns highlighting the differences between digital images and reality. Girlfriend marks retouched images with a stamp saying "Reality Check" pointing out that the image has been digitally enhanced and that "it took four hours and 10 people to get this one perfect shot".
Dolly, meanwhile, stamps unaltered images with the words "Retouch Free Zone".
Of course, Photoshopped images aren't the only problematic element in magazines and advertisements. For a long time, many people have been concerned about the effects of models on ordinary women's and girls' self-esteem, and this is made worse by the fact that high-fashion models have become thinner and less diverse in their appearance over the past few decades.
Studies have indicated that young women feel worse about themselves after looking at photographs of models. Happily, some magazines are making an effort to include a more diverse range of women on their pages. When US Glamour magazine printed a photo of a model with a protruding tummy, the response was so positive they have vowed to continue featuring larger women.
In January, Brigitte, one of Germany's most popular women's glossies, stopped using models altogether in its fashion and beauty shoots. When they announced this plan late last year, they received over 10,000 letters and emails of support. The 'model free' fashion magazine sounds like a gimmick. And yet, when you flick through the few model-free issues that have appeared so far, you realise it really does make a surprising difference.
While nearly all of the women are conventionally attractive and under 40, they're full of charm and life. They may be pretty, but they have laughter lines and saggy upper arms. They look glamorous and chic, but they also look like real people. These photos leave the reader feeling good.
Fashion will always be a world of fantasy and beauty -- that's why we like it. But it's possible for magazines to offer escapism without distorting their readers' images of what real women look like.
Beautiful women come in many different sizes. And maybe someday, the likes of Pascal Dangin may have to recognise this.
Because right now, it seems as though we've had enough fake plastic females.