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On banning ads, photo-retouching, and (shock!) personal responsibility

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

10 thoughts on “On banning ads, photo-retouching, and (shock!) personal responsibility

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  1. Finally an article that touches on what I have been trying to teach to other body image blogs: That the solution to a healthy body image lies within ourselves.

    Even if we banned photo retouching, beauty products and procedures all together, that is still not going to stop girls from comparing themselves to the naturally gorgeous women walking down the street every day, and watch as the men ogle those women which will trigger them to feel bad about their bodies. That’s where my body insecurities as a teen came from, not from magazines or the TV screen, but from peers who were effortlessly attractive.

    We cannot just lay back and demand the beauty industry to change to our liking. It’s never going to happen and even if it did, it certain won’t drastically change the number of eating disorders, suicides, and teen plastic surgeries undergone every day. Each individual person has the power to overcome and ignore the messages being thrown to us from media sources, and that is the only way to gain the self esteem we need to keep going on every day. The sooner we take responsibility over our body image, the better our society will be.

  2. agreed, EXCEPT I do actually think we can demand the beauty industry change, and I do think we can make it change (with the help of the law). But like you said, that alone won’t do it! It’s just that there’s more training than you’d think to help people learn to ignore and overcome the messages! Otherwise we at About-Face wouldn’t be working so hard on this issue!

  3. “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.”

    Absolutely agreed. Personal responsibility can work wonders when it comes to our own body images – we have the choice not to engage when the media sends us these messages, and it’s incredibly empowering to raise our hand to them and say “No thank you. I don’t need this.” – Whether it’s makeup, magazines, or even fragrances which have basically identical marketing strategies as cosmetics.

    We can often start off buying these products believing they can make us more beautiful and perhaps thus more liked. While this CAN be true among SOME social groups, one must question which KIND of social group they wish to be involved in, and also what kind of PEOPLE they wish to attract. Yes, I may be able to walk out the door in Prada gowns, (if I could afford them!), L’Oreal makeup and some Versace fragrance and get stares, compliments and even interest from people who want to be around me more. But what kinds of people would those be? All they know of my is my appearance. They don’t know of anything I hold dear to me: hard rock music, literature by the Brontë sisters, keeping fancy goldfish, or my fondness for collecting My Little Ponies. When I think of the kind of people I want to attract, it is definitely NOT people who give a damn about makeup and dresses.

    I WANT to attract people who don’t care about fashion. Considering things like this, I feel, is important when considering how we dress, and truly feeling we don’t have to conform to some “attractive norm”, but are not only FREE to be ourselves, but encouraged to be ourselves in favour of attracting who we wish.

  4. Samantha, such great points. I love it. True enough. Sometimes my own family members say “You could be so much prettier if you…” and I’m thinking “For whom? Why?” I like what you said a lot.

  5. Thanks, Megan. 🙂 I kept trying to figure out how I wanted to say it, so I’m glad it resonated with you.

  6. Really glad I’ve found this site while doing an extensive research on eating disorders for my paper. Thanks for running it, will follow you!

  7. Thanks for this, I couldn’t agree more on the importance of media literacy in this day and age. I shudder to think of all the media I consume without even noticing, every day! I was pleased that complaints about airbrushing have actually got somewhere here in the UK, people have been reporting it for ages now.

    I found that if you have the boldness to do it, people can be really pleased if you help them out in person with this. Recently I saw two other women waiting to try things on in a lingerie shop, comparing different perceived flaws in their own bodies to a wall-sized pinup photo. I didn’t think their insecurity was any of my business, until one said ‘See, if I had a body like THAT [the photo] everything would be fine.” I could see from retouching classes that it had been altered in a dozen subtle ways, so I told her, and she and her friend spent about 5 minutes asking about different kinds of retouching and when I left told me I’d made them feel much better.

    I think it’s important that those of us who can spot this stuff (in my case because I’ve been taught how to do it myself) don’t let the people around us compare themselves to it and think it’s real. It helps break the assumption that everyone else is striving for it too, and makes it feel normal to question it. Sometimes so many things have been altered that we might as well compare ourselves to a pencil drawing.

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