The Photoshop Backlash: Beauty is in the Eye of the Editor

Does it matter if graphics editing software erodes a woman’s self-esteem or should companies fight for their right to airbrush for greater impact? Is it time to temper the application of this technology in order to preserve humanity?
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Does it matter if graphics editing software erodes a woman’s self-esteem or should companies fight for their right to airbrush for greater impact? Is it time to temper the application of this technology in order to preserve humanity?

When Photoshop was first developed in 1988, it was a revolutionary raster graphics editor. (For non-design nerds, that means it was a program that allowed the average user to paint and edit pictures while also saving them in a variety of formats, i.e. JPEG, PNG, GIF and TIFF). 

Software as a Verb:

In the almost quarter century since it’s public release in 1990, Photoshop has become the industry standard for manipulating photos and images. However, with great editing power comes great editing responsibility, which is something that’s become a hot topic of conversation in recent years with the overuse of airbrushed photos—primarily of women—in most forms of media.

Somewhere around the turn of the millennium, Photoshop went from being a noun to a verb. Impossibly perfect pictures of women had long graced the cover of men’s’ magazines like Playboy, Maxim and Stuff, but mainstream outlets were now starting to use the software to make already beautiful women even more attractive. (As if that were really necessary.) After all, if people like Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston or Demi Moore—each of whom had been named one of the world’s “Most Beautiful People” by People Magazine—need to be fixed “in post,” what hope is there for us regular female folk?

The Science & Psy-ence:

Not only do critics fault Photoshop with weakening the self-esteem of women by establishing unrealistic beauty expectations, but many also think the overuse of certain techniques—like spot healing, refining, sharpening and thinning—might also spark impressionable young women to take dangerous measures to achieve the same effects in real life.

According to Rader Programs, an eating disorder treatment facility, 69% of girls in one study said that magazine cover models influence their idea of “the perfect body shape.” Plus, 80% of women answered a People Magazine survey saying that images of other women on TV and in the movies make them feel insecure about their own body image. Despite knowing most commercial images are altered—after all, a Google search for “Photoshop fails” yields over 11.3 million results—the average woman still holds herself to impossible standards and some are willing to hurt themselves in order to try and achieve perfection.

Thankfully, there are people like Seth Matlins—a former advertising executive—and his wife, Eva, who started the Feel More Better movement, which boasts the slogan, “Leading The Fight Against Whatever Hates On Your Happy.”

“The average woman has 13 thoughts of self-hate everyday,” Matlins said in an interview with “When I think about my babies — boy and girl — having thoughts of self-hate because of an ad that’s trying to deceive them to sell a widget? That’s not cool. Not cool with me.”

Movement to End the Manipulation:

Feel More Better's Matlins is so sickened by the Photoshop epidemic that he’s trying to get legislation passed to reduce the use of “images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics” of people in advertisements. Democratic Rep. Lois Capps (CA) and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL) introduced his bill in 2013, with Ros-Lehtinen commenting in the same article for, “These fake, impossible, and digitally altered bodies have been contributing to serious, deadly health issues like eating disorders for too long. When at least 30 million Americans are suffering from eating disorders, we can’t simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The advertising industry has not and will not self-regulate without pressure from the public.”

JCPenney's real mannequin series

JCPenney's real mannequin series

That’s not to say all hope is lost when it comes to self-regulation. After all, this past April, as part of the TODAY show’s “Love Your Selfie” series, department store chain JCPenney launched a window display featuring mannequins of all shapes and sizes. Not only that, but the models were based on real people with unique body types.

The mannequins’ real-life counterparts include: “Dawna Callahan, who uses a wheelchair due to incomplete paralysis; Neil Duncan, a former Army paratrooper who lost parts of both of his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan; Ricardo Gil, who has dwarfism; Desiree Hunter, a 6-foot-1½-inch college basketball player; and Beth Ridgeway, who is plus-size.” The mannequins are currently on display in JCPenney’s Manhattan store and will be up through the end of August.

JCP is hardly the first company to challenge the airbrushed norm, though. Back in 2004, Dove launched their Real Beauty campaign (pictured at top), which featured real women with real body shapes posing in their TV and print ads. The campaign won advertising's highest honor - the Cannes Titanium Lion Grand Prix.

 In 2010, Jessica Simpson graced the cover of Marie Claire magazine completely au natural. In fact, the cover text read: “No makeup, no retouching, no regret!”  Seventeen Magazine made a public “no Photoshop” pledge in 2012 after an eighth grader started a petition, which asked for the mag to use more images of real girls and earned over 80,000 signatures. This past winter, Aerie, American Eagle’s sister store for lingerie, launched a campaign with real girls and women instead of digitally manipulated models.

As recently as this past July, singer Colbie Caillat used the music video above for her newest single, “Try,” as a response to society’s idealistic beauty standards. 

“For the ‘Try’ video I didn't prep or starve myself and over-exercise,” Caillat told “And then I didn't get my nails done, I didn't get my hair done. I didn't get a facial. I didn't have a stylist.” Though all the women in the clip first appear in full hair and makeup, as the song progresses, they slowly remove all the glitter and gloss, revealing their true selves, Caillat included. The daring visual, which currently has over 16 million views on YouTube, accompanies the song perfectly, especially when we hear the Grammy Award-winning artist sing the final lyrics: “Take your make-up off/Let your hair down/Take a breath/Look into the mirror at yourself/Don’t you like you?/Cause I like you.”

We like you, too.

Status Update:

As of July 24, 2014, Seth Matlin’s petition to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez calling for the regulation of Photoshop in advertising is still in need of more than 13,000 votes on, so those who feel strongly about this issue can still use their voice, join the fight and sign the petition. 

For now, it seems the anti-Photoshop movement will continue to strive for as long as companies embrace an airbrushed establishment. 

More than ever, with various media outlets and a growing number of celebrities again seeming to embrace natural beauty, it appears Photoshopping-for-fashion could soon be dethroned by realism. 

Are flaws in trend? Whether you’re Vanessa Hudgens refusing to retouch a Bongo campaign or a 25-year-old woman attempting to take the most "flattering" duck-lipped selfie, the goal doesn’t always have to be perfection. 

Sometimes the best things come with #nofilter.

Infographic: “Women Are Dying To Be Thin – Are The Fashion Industry And Media To Blame?” (Credit: Rader Programs)