Thursday, August 05, 2010

In defense of retouched photos

There's this mood in fashion writing lately that almost gets it right but then doesn't. It's a sort of post-feminist, ultra-earnest attempt at celebrating "real women's" beauty, while not sacrificing the great fun it is to look at pictures of unusually attractive people in unusually expensive clothes. Interspersed between the usual fun images of 20-year-olds in jumpsuits or harem pants are Very Serious Posts (or Articles) about the harm done to women and girls by unrealistic images in the media. Rather than taking the full leap and denouncing the superficial, or (and this would be my preference) taking a light-hearted approach to fluff and fun, focusing on the clothes themselves rather than the no doubt charming Estonian girls hired to wear them, these writers go halfway, being at once indignant about the nefarious Fashion Industrial Complex and themselves propagators of the very images and ideas to which they ostensibly object.

This tepid revolution's latest manifestation is an anti-photoshopping campaign. Ads and spreads are fight-the-power called out for depicting women with what are surely smaller waists or smoother thighs than nature provided. Victory in the battle if not the war gets declared when a fashion house or magazine admits to having nipped a bit off the model. But why?

The difference between an airbrushed Gisele and the real thing is minuscule compared with that between Gisele and the average woman, or even the typical good-looking young women of roughly her dimensions. Anyone who's seen such women in real life can verify that yes, they look like that. It's tough to imagine a crash diet or any other self-destructive impulse emerging from a lifetime of exposure to photoshopped images that wouldn't have been just as easily inspired by unretouched images of precisely the same young women.

If that's the case, one might ask, what purpose does retouching serve? As I see it, the smooth, doll-skin of ads and such is to create an otherworldly quality. It also serves to remind all but the most gullible consumers of these images* that even models don't measure up. Rather than making us despair at unattainable standards of beauty, we could use it as an opportunity to be able to say 'ooh, shiny!' without taking it personally, which is to say, to enjoy dressing up or pretty pictures or whatever without feeling that there'd even be a point to us trying to match up, feature by feature, with what the image depicts. But photoshop just strikes me as a silly objection, because it implies that Real is somehow a possibility. As though if what we saw resulted "only" from photographic angles, makeup, and the model's own refusal to "eat a cheeseburger," then that would be some kind of authenticity. I think if we're going to fight for anything, it should be for the images to look less natural, perhaps just show the clothes on cartoons or robots, and allow the focus to shift, as much as possible, from bodies to clothes.

*And the very young, who, Tavi excepted, aren't so sophisticated. I think the US already has more than enough age-based legislation, but it might not be a terrible idea to limit one's tween daughters' exposure to fashion mags. Of course, what with the Internet, this gets more complicated, but it also opens the door to more clothes-centric and less body-centric alternatives that didn't exist when I was young and impressionable.

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