On March 27, two congresswomen introduced the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, a bill that would restrict the commercial media’s use of Photoshop. The measure would require the Federal Trade Commission to investigate digital retouching in ads with an eye toward curtailing it. Supporters—lobbyists from the Eating Disorders Coalition in particular—say what you’d expect: that computer-enhanced images hurt people by sustaining unrealistic beauty ideals, that young girls are especially vulnerable. They liken the “bold-faced lies” told by this model’s elongated leg or that one’s pixelated six pack to flagrant product deception. “We can no longer sit by and allow this to happen,” said Truth in Advertising advocate Seth Matlins on Thursday. “Ads that take Kim Kardashian’s body and make it Miley Cyrus’s” should prompt “regulatory action.”
I’m sympathetic to this cause, but I’m unsure whether cultural attractiveness standards belong in the category of things the government should monitor. First, there are the difficulties in definitions and enforcement: Would all Photoshopping be outlawed? (That seems extreme.) What about alterations that make the image more appealing, like softer lighting? Can you separate digital revisions that perfect the “composition” from those that erase “flaws” in the human subjects?
Also, would Photoshopping guidelines make a difference? The problem with many ads is not that they take normal human beings and stretch them into El Greco–like seraphim. It’s that they chase down the 1 percent of men and women who already possess otherworldly DNA and hold them up as yardsticks for the rest of us. Forbidding a photographer from widening a (real) 2-inch thigh gap into a (fake) 3-inch thigh gap seems to miss the point. Worse, it might make us complacent about all the work that’s left to do on how advertising agencies treat women’s bodies.
One thing that would help HR 4341’s case: empirical evidence showing that Photoshop standards have an impact on the general public’s body image and eating disorders. So far, that kind of evidence is missing. In 2009, French politicians proposed a law that would label retouched images with “health warnings.” (It stalled in committee.) The same year, members of Britain’s Liberal Democrat party tried to ban Photoshop for ads aimed at kids under 16. (No dice.) So maybe, if this bill passed, it would have some value as a social experiment. But at what cost?
In a world of limited time and resources, Photoshop seems like a strange drum for the Eating Disorders Coalition to beat. Diseases like anorexia and bulimia are largely understood now to be biological in origin, although cultural conditioning can definitely trip certain wires. There’s a lot of research linking media exposure to dieting and body dissatisfaction, but only a handful of studies directly implicate ads in eating disorders (and even those caution that the offending images likely triggered pre-existing drives). Given that the specific genetic causes of eating disorders remain so mysterious, and the treatment so hit-or-miss, lobbying money might be better spent on research than on making sure the thin, beautiful women who appear in magazines are naturally thin and beautiful.
I would love to live in a world cleansed of all photoshopping funny business, in which consumers found things to admire in men and women of all shapes and sizes, and no one felt depressed because their skin didn’t emit radioactive levels of radiance (and no one exploited that depression to sell skin cream). But advertising takes place in the collective brainspace reserved for cultural fantasies. You can’t want what you already have. I’m just not sure there’s a way to promote products without somehow making people feel inadequate, and I think the better solution is for us, as consumers, to be smart about the advertorial messages we consume. So, when you look at an American Apparel underwear ad, perhaps don’t expect unsparing physical realism. When you see cosmetic spots, repeat the following: Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline, it’s probably Photoshop. As for those with eating disorders or vulnerable to developing eating disorders, they’ll need more support than a few FTC regulations.