These are the banned ads. How can we stop over-retouching in the U.S. for good?

In the wake of the big news that the MP Jo Swinson and the British Advertising Standards Agency has fabulously banned two ads by L’Oreal (owner of Maybelline and Lancome) showing Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington, I’m starting to think about how we — everyday women and girls — can help ourselves out of this body-hatred spiral without totally disconnecting from culture altogether.

How about an approach as multifaceted as women themselves? I’ve been working on issues of women’s and girls’ body image and media messages for about 16 years, so I have some ideas from my own experience:

1) Short-term measure: Ban bad ads and pass the Healthy Media and Youth Act. It’s true, the L’Oreal ads and their ilk should not be out in the world misleading women and girls about the results of their products. Such ads tell us that we need to buy products and get cosmetic procedures (some of which are damaging and/or terrifying) to look more and more “perfect”. (NOTE: You are already perfect.) We should outright protest and ban ads that are overly photo-retouched and demand before-and-after images from advertisers that we can PUBLISH.

But really, women and girls are not dummies. We know that our government (not one to shush our lucrative beauty and fashion industries) or the media (profit-driven interests) to protect women and girls from harmful messages that destroy our self-esteem. It’s probably not going to happen without some legislation and cultural coercion.

Enter the Healthy Media for Youth Act (H.R. 2513). H.R. 2513 would authorize grants to promote media literacy and youth empowerment programs, to authorize research on the role and impact of depictions of girls and women in the media, to provide for the establishment of a National Task Force on Girls and Women in the Media. Shall we all get behind this legislation? Yes, let’s do it!

2) Longer-term strategy: Educate ourselves with some solid media-literacy skills instead of just “turning off the TV” and closing the magazines, and never using the Web. The media coverage of this issue makes women sound like naive victims who can’t think for themselves. Like this:

So, we need to work hard to make these images less powerful in our own psyches by understanding the insidious nature of photo-retouching and how it affects the way we look at our own, sometimes-bumpy, skin. And we need to reject what we see.

(In case you’re wondering, About-Face is doing it: Every year, we teach at least 1,100 students in their San Francisco Bay Area classrooms about the truth about ads and media. We’re working on a curriculum for nationwide use.)

Of course, just turning your head and “not letting it get to you” is easier said than done, especially for those of us who are already injured by media messages that make sure we never feel good enough. That’s why we also need strategies 1 and 3.

3) Person-by-person resistance: Celebrities! Help your sisters out! We need actresses’, celebrities’, and models’ help as our allies. They need to understand that a) we’re not against them and b) more women than they know would see their movies/buy their stuff even more if they seemed to be on our side. Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Portia de Rossi, and Cindy Crawford have done a great job of criticizing insane photo retouching, and we need more celebrities to demand minimal retouching instead of full Photoshop makeovers so as not to mislead young women.

So that’s the plan I’d like to put forward.

But you know, I have a couple more points to make. Back to corporate interests for a second.

What really bugs the crap out of me — and what girl advocates should watch for — is the response from L’Oreal. Their PR machine is calling the Julia Roberts image an “aspirational picture”. This just speaks volumes about how ad agencies and advertisers talk about and think about images of women.

“Aspirational.” Meaning that we should keep aspiring (and aspiring, and aspiring, while buying more L’Oreal products) to skin that is literally as perfect-looking as a Photoshopped image. And we wonder why microdermabrasion and facelifts, and Botox injections are so popular. We are Photoshopping our own flesh.

In short: Watch the words used by the beauty industry carefully. They can make “fear of being ugly” sound like “hope of being beautiful!” pretty easily.

So let’s put our blame in the two places it belongs: corporate interests that need squashing, and our own, sub-par critical-thinking skills that we should improve, keep it away from our own faces and bodies.

— Jennifer