Beauty vs. Truth: The Photoshop “Debate”

Posted 28 JanuaryIdeas, News, Trends

Every so often, there’s a flurry of activity in the ongoing controversy over newsstand magazines’ longstanding practice of airbrushing or Photoshopping cover models. Lately, we’ve seen the debate — if you can call it that — flare up over “Girls” star Lena Dunham’s cover for Vogue, and a Jennifer Lawrence photo that was used for the cover of Flare magazine in 2011.

The issues raised by these covers are pretty simple: magazines with target audiences of young women are creating unrealistic expectations among them in terms of beauty/body proportions by using technological trickery to alter their cover subjects’ actual appearances. That’s straightforward enough. It’s the question of motive where things get a little fuzzy.

To those searching for nefarious intentions, it must look cut-and-dried: these magazines and their advertisers perpetuate a culture of female insecurity to maintain a steady stream of consumers for their clothing, handbags, beauty products, etc., as well as the magazine itself. If women’s role models are consistently presented as thinner and generally more gorgeous than women in general, a never-ending chase ensues to capture whatever standard of beauty the industry has established. That’s pretty straightforward, too, but it’s not that simple.

How do I know? I used to be part of the problem.

For two and a half years in the early 00’s, I designed a newsstand women’s interest magazine, whose title I will not mention. In that time, I was directed to perform feats of digital surgery — some minor, some maximally invasive — to every cover image we published. Angelina Jolie, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez: none of them was considered beautiful enough to leave alone, as nature, professional lighting and a team of stylists, hairdressers and makeup artists had intended. They all needed “enhancements.”

The nature of those “enhancements” varied, but they all followed the same theme of making those women more sexually alluring: redder lips, smoother skin, more voluptuous figures, and so forth.

Here’s what I considered the most egregious example: the Mischa Barton cover (with the publication name intentionally blurred out).

mischaI haven’t been able to locate the original photo to illustrate the full extent of our labor over the unfortunate Ms. Barton, but one look at her chest should reveal the depths to which I sank on this one. Never mind the foolish whiteness of her eyes and the unexplained highlight above her hip (I recall working on that for some time but I can’t remember what the intended effect was supposed to be). Here’s what I remember about her chest.

Our publisher — tellingly, the only other male in the company — rarely got involved in the editorial process. Not so when it came to covers. He usually entered my office with a printout of the cover and a ruler, standing over my shoulder while I adjusted the photo and layout to make sure, for example, that the model’s eyes cleared the top two inches of the page (the amount of the cover that popped up on the newsstand, behind whatever had been shelved in front of it), or that the word “sex” was similarly placed. His was not a prurient interest in the appearances or sex lives of the magazine’s readership. He cared about what sold. He’d have happily swapped in the word “tax” if it moved magazines.

On this occasion, we’d finished with his other changes to the layout and photo — her skin, eyes, hair and such. Then, almost as an afterthought, he remarked, “She looks unhealthy to me. Can we make her chest bigger?”

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that I could have convincingly lied my way through it, claiming that you couldn’t add information through Photoshop (which is true, but irrelevant in this case). I did take pains to explain that, in my opinion, it was well known that Mischa Barton was a thin, wispy slip of an actress who just wasn’t endowed to the same extent as some of our other cover subjects, and, surely, the readers would understand that.

Obviously, my argument went nowhere, and for the next hour, we two men sat in a cramped office while I used Photoshop’s liquefy filter to gradually inflate Mischa Barton’s chest. At several points, it seemed to me that we’d gone too far — no one would believe that this represented the woman’s true proportions. And at every one of those points, he said, “Let’s go a little further.” I finally had to pump things up to Dolly Parton-sized measurements before he saw the absurdity of it and declared the cover finished.

I don’t know if Mischa or her publicists ever saw this cover or would have cared about what had been done to her. We rarely, if ever, heard a word of approval or dissent from any of the women who graced the cover. That never surprised me; we were small fish in a very, very big pond.

But here’s the rub: this magazine supported itself on newsstand sales alone. It sold a few ads, but the revenue was negligible, as was the subscription revenue. Never before or since have I encountered a newsstand magazine with a similar strategy. It’s no longer in print, but it had a run of more than 25 years. Someone was buying this thing. A lot.

I don’t mean to use sales as an excuse for what was done. Had the cover subjects been left alone, maybe sales would have diminished and maybe the magazine would have folded sooner and maybe that would have been a good thing for the cause of women. But that’s a pool that we all have to jump into together: other magazines need to stop the airbrushing and consumers need to punish the magazines when they don’t. No one’s allowed to break ranks.

As for me, I left the magazine not too long after this cover hit the newsstands. I’d like to tell you that I was sickened to be part of a system that consistently bet and won in the game of commoditizing female insecurity (take a look at the teasers for a window into the kind of content readers could expect once they got past the cover; that’s truth in advertising). But I honestly didn’t think about it that much. When I accepted the job, I understood what I was getting into. I needed the work, the money was good…there’s almost never a third part to that equation.

What bothered me most was the aesthetics of what I was doing. It’s not that it wasn’t morally right; it just didn’t look right. Is there any part of that photo of Mischa Barton that resembles reality? I hated looking foolish as a designer because of nonsense like this. I can’t comment on the modus operandi at Vogue or Flare, but I’d be willing to bet that few editorial professionals spend much time debating the rightness of what they’re doing as much as the quality of the results.

What is our level of social responsibility as a profession? Or does that very question serve to indicate how deep in the weeds we’ve let ourselves get?


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