Airbrushing for all?

// 25 February 2010

In a world where women are systematically confronted with endless images of airbrushed female “perfection”, I heaved a large sigh whilst shopping in Boots yesterday. A simple trip to print some photos turned into body insecurity 101 when I was handed a receipt for “25p off” their new facial retouching service for photographs. My heavy eyes turned to the promotional poster which promised to “remove blemishes, smooth skin tones and reduce the appearance of wrinkles”.

Is there no respite? Should I even be surprised? Airbrushing and picture retouching has taken off at an alarming rate in the past ten years, with the introduction and availability of digital photography for all. People retouch their own snaps at home, so why shouldn’t Boots cash in on the same service?

Personally, airbrushed images make me deeply uncomfortable, on both a public and private level. Representations of femininity cannot be dismissed or underestimated when they’re so pervasive. Even if you choose not to read fashion magazines (in which every other page tends to be an airbrushed advert promoting overpriced tat) you can’t avoid adverts at bus stops, on television and on hoardings. Such images are unavoidable and being constantly presented with unrealistic representations of what human beings actually look like can be damaging to everyone, resulting in impossible expectations, insecurity and pressure to ‘conform’. Rubbish.

I also find the increasing desire to airbrush or edit personal photographs slightly odd, too. Why would you want a photograph of a place or a person that bears little resemblance to the actual reality? Surely it’s the details and idiosyncrasies that make each person and place unique and special and interesting? In my humble opinion, airbrushing out wrinkles or spots only serves to reproduce and contribute to the plethora of generic images that already exist in the world. Why can’t we face up to our shared reality?

When I raised this issue with a photographer friend of mine who takes pictures of the rich and famous, he confirmed that virtually all the photographs they take – even of models! – are edited, airbrushed and “touched up”. Rather than lamenting the unfortunate consequences of such representations for us normal folk, he claimed that contemporary photographs, such as those featured in advertising campaigns and magazines, didn’t really qualify as realism, in any sense of the word. Instead, he argued that such images have now become more like paintings, in terms of the work that’s applied to each one. He wholeheartedly agreed that existing pictures were not reflective of reality, retorting instead that it was madness to think otherwise.

Despite this, I still believe that perpetuating this pretence is not helping anyone. For Boots to now offer this service to the average consumer sends the message that your appearance is not acceptable unless it’s been doctored to death. Where does it end?

Do you agree? Or do you embrace this new ‘service’ as positive and progressive?

Comments From You

Ally // Posted 25 February 2010 at 7:53 pm

I like the idea of this service! From the last 5 years I have a total of about 5 pictures of me, all of them taken while I was drunk. I have had 2 long-term relationships (one of a year, one of 2 and a half years) and a current relationship of 6 months, from which I have no photos. If I could edit out blemishes, and wobbly bits I might have some physical memories of many times in my life which I currently would find unbearable to look at. I don’t think its fair to expect people to bare-all for the sake of someone else’s self esteem.

Jessica Burton // Posted 25 February 2010 at 11:05 pm

As a feminist who is also a photographer I have thought about this a lot.

For photographers or students of same it is indeed completely obvious that photographs, even (especially) ones that have had no changes made to them whatsoever, are completely fictional, surreal. They always have been. Digital “touching up” is merely a new version of dark room tricks.

However, for over a century the majority opinion is that photographs somehow have at least an element of “truth” or “reality” to them and so looking at trends in photography is socially important.

We have an unprecedented level of image bombardment in our current culture, a bombardment that perpetuates and indeed creates negative, detrimental and dangerous attitudes towards women.

So I have to agree with you that this Boots service is a new low in the airbrushing/advertising saga.

However I have to say that I am photographer who believes that the majority of image making is deeply problematical, if not actually unethical. It’s a weird position to be in – I don’t take that many photos.

As to taking personal photos and then touching them up in Boots so that they do not reflect the reality of what was there: I am not as surprised by this as you. They didn’t even *see* the landscape they were snapping, let alone remember what it really looked like. Of course the average consumer wants the red eye, freckles and pesky lampposts removed. I recommend the book “Mediated” by Thomas de Zengotita for further discussion on that.

Helen S // Posted 26 February 2010 at 9:20 am

I’ve had several of these money-off vouchers from Boots recently (since my wedding last year I’m still in the process of printing photos) and I always chuck them away. For me, photos are there to look at and remind me of happy times, not to be studied so closely that (heaven forbid) you spot a wrinkle or blemish. One of my favourite sayings when looking at old photos is ‘wow, how young we look’, and I’m ok with that. But then again, I’m one of those people who would never have cosmetic surgery and I’m not bothered by the thought that as every day passes I’m getting older.

As for Boots, I got the impression that they’re pushing their facial retouching service either to promote it to the vain among us, OR that this service isn’t making the money they thought it would. I think this service has been available in Boots stores for a year or so.

Octavia // Posted 26 February 2010 at 10:31 am

“He wholeheartedly agreed that existing pictures were not reflective of reality, retorting instead that it was madness to think otherwise.”… regarding your photographer friend, I agree, most images in magazines, adverts, etc, etc, are not reflective of reality and, yes, most people are aware of this to some extent. Yet, and this is where it all gets very messy, for despite knowing that these images are manipulated to within an inch of their lives, society still holds up these make-believe pictures as a benchmark for how you ‘should’ look – yes, all photos of women are airbrushed, but if you don’t look like that then you’re a FAILURE!

I’ve heard of teenage boys being put off when they see their girlfriend’s cellulite for the first time because they’ve been brought up to believe women are largely blemish-free, that a woman with cellulite is so rare it warrents column inches in a tabloid.

It’s really odd, on the one hand we all know airbrushing goes on, but anything OTHER than airbrushed ‘perfection’ (i.e. reality) is becoming abnormal and flawed.

Kristin // Posted 26 February 2010 at 1:05 pm

My question is, do they give these facial retouching discount vouchers to men as well as women?

This isn’t quite the same thing, although it did give me the body insecurity 101 feeling – when I recently bought lipstick and mascara I was handed a little sachet of ‘anti-ageing’ cream as a going away pressie. I’d find that annoying at any age.

I think retouching is not intrinsically a bad thing, but now it is all just getting really silly. And depressing.

Hannah // Posted 26 February 2010 at 7:33 pm

I received a flyer advertising this service last summer through the post because I have a Boots card. It was pretty shocking, I think I emailed thefword about it. It consisted of a folded sheet with a picture of a normal face, with a few smile lines, which you could lift up to see the same face, wrinkles erased. Accompanied by some awful text that I can’t quite remember now, the effect was pretty shocking.

I agree with the general feeling on here, some retouching is ok. The debate here reminds me of the introduction of digital cameras – is it wrong that we now take 10 pictures of ourselves and keep the one we think best? Should we accept what we ‘naturally’ look like in that sense and keep the first one? Of course not. But I find it a bit disturbing that people might want to photoshop their entire personal photograph collections.

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