Beware those impossibly tiny waists and never-ending legs: Looking at too much airbrushed beauty in glossy magazines can be hazardous to your health.
That, at least, is what campaigners working against eating disorders insist. For years, they have complained that the waiflike, size zero models favored by fashion houses promote an unhealthy dieting culture. But digitally trimmed celebrities and models, they say, are much worse: Many people don’t even realize what they see is neither real nor attainable.
Now the British government is taking up their cause. Next month, officials are sitting down with advertisers, fashion editors and health experts to discuss how to curb the practice of airbrushing and promote body confidence among girls and women. If the campaigners get their way, fashion ads and magazines in the UK may soon have to label retouched photos to warn people that the perfect bodies they see are but digital fantasies.
Coming just after London Fashion Week, which is under way, it’s the latest initiative in a long-running battle to force the fashion industry to show more diverse — and realistic — kinds of beauty.
“The trend does seem to be more and more ‘extreme Photoshopping.’ Everybody’s just moving towards Barbie dolls,” said Hany Farid, a professor specializing in digital photo forensics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “I don’t think there’s a single photograph in those [magazines] that’s not retouched. They’re all manipulated to hell.” Editors and ad managers have been making use of technology to improve the appearance of photographed models for some time. Before, it was taming the occasional stray hair or erasing a blemish. These days much more extensive trickery is approved without anyone batting a lash: flabby stomachs are tightened, necks and legs are lengthened, and bosoms are reshaped. The result: a flawless body shape no amount of dieting or cosmetic surgery can achieve.
Health professionals say the government must regulate such practices to stop the relentless pressure on young girls and women — but many others are dubious about the idea that we need the government to tell us what’s real and what’s not. Besides, hasn’t advertising always been about selling dreams, and can a disclaimer change the fashion industry’s aesthetic? London-based fashion photographer Mark Nolan said that while he avoids and disapproves of extreme airbrushing, magazines are driven by what readers want. The government should stay away from policing the market, he said.
“I think they should back right off. The media is driven by the consumer,” Nolan said. “Magazines should be an icon for looking your best. [Readers] know what they get are the most glamorous, the best-looking girls. It’s always been that way.” Experts who work with young people with eating disorders, however, want the fashion industry to take up some social responsibility.
“We know these images by themselves don’t cause eating disorders directly, but they certainly are an influence on people, particularly those already ill, or seriously at risk,” said Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat, a British charity for tackling eating disorders that’s behind the campaign to tackle airbrushing.
Digitally sculpted models are particularly harmful to girls trying to recover from an eating problem, she said.