I'm really tired of the incessant conversation around Photoshop. First of all, we keep writing like we just discovered the damn thing. Those articles usually fall into one of a few tropes: "OMG Julie Whatsherface Airbrushed on Cover of Vogue!"; "Suspicious Shrinking: Look What Elle Did to SuchandSuch's Waist!"; "Airbrush Accident: You Won't Believe What Happened To This Model's Face!"
Then there's the pushback. Amidst brawling for the best before-and-after Photoshop gif, a 'brave' magazine or company will step up and refuse to airbrush. Sometimes it's a one-time thing, or a publicity campaign, and usually those entities are trying to get us women to buy more of something. And those efforts are celebrated.
I call bullshit on this whole practice. Haven't we reached the point where the vast majority of media consumers understand that some amount of altering goes into pictures of models and celebrities? Obviously consumption of those unrealistic and incredibly white portraits of beauty is unhealthy for our whole society. But the answer isn't to keep beating Photoshop over the head. The answer is to fundamentally change the expectations of how women who are models and celebrities are supposed to look.
Jezebel made a major misstep this week with their bogus bounty for unretouched photos of Lena Dunham's Vogue shoot. Their $10,000 offer for photos included expectations that the originals would be drastically different from the final versions, and immediately raised the hackles of Dunham supporters who were enormously happy to see even a moderately non-conforming body on Vogue's cover. Unfortunately for Jez, the resulting photos are boringly similar to the magazine. Dunham was barely retouched (though heavily made up). And the whole situation resulted in a caustic comments section, flak from Dunham, and a big internet eye-roll.
Why? Because we're sick of having this conversation. Picking on Lena Dunham won't win you any favors outside the progressive femisphere, given her outspokenness against the body critique that's been lobbed at her since Girls first aired. And the less-than-shocking before-and-after gifs that came from Jez's debacle, as well as the still-magazine-ready pictures in the aerie campaign, reveal the truth behind Photoshop: celebrities and models who are considered beautiful enough to grace covers and spreads are unattainably beautiful just the way they are. That unattainability may be genetic, it may be the result of an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise, it may be accentuated by couture and heavy make-up. Whatever the reason, women who embody white American conceptions of conventional beauty don't really need Photoshop to perpetuate an oppressive narrative about appropriate bodies.
We - Americans, progressive women, radical feminists, creators and consumers of media - don't do ourselves any favors when we pretend that a skinny model without airbrushing is a representation of a 'real' woman's body. When we implicitly tear down Lena Dunham for being retouched on the cover of the world's vainest publication, we ignore the systems at work that made it shocking that Dunham was chosen for the cover in the first place.
And sure, calling out the flagrant use of Photoshop is a good step. But we've already taken this step. We've done it for years. Jezebel first did this money-for-original-photos thing in 2007. At the time, it was ground-breaking and important. But in any movement, there needs to be a plan of action to move the campaign forward. Now that we've been attacking Photoshop for years, and media-savvy consumers* ostensibly understand that magazine women don't exist IRL, we can't be satisfied with just another anti-Photoshop publicity campaign. Because doesn't it seem even more insidious when aerie positions young women who are unusually beautiful as their representation of the 'real'? If we're interested in seeing real change to how womens' bodies are represented in the media, the time has come to demand more than just normative beauty without airbrushing. We need to see a spectrum of beauty so a new generation of daughters will be raised to understand that Photoshop is just the first of many ways womens' bodies are oppressed by the collective understanding of white American beauty.
*I'm interested in the class and race implications of this 'savvy.' How can a body consciousness campaign be formed when media consumption is varied and media critique is relegated to the middle and upper class (especially those with internet access)?