Airbrushed models are dangerous to your health

A new proposal by French lawmakers would require that airbrushed photos are labeled as such. Similar laws have been proposed in the UK (two news stories on the subject can be found here and here), on the grounds that these ads can be "very damaging." Eating disorders are usually cited as one of these damages, along with more general body image woes.

Rachel at The F Word blogged about the subject here, and compared the issue of labeling airbrushed ads with the warnings on cigarettes. And to some extent, I agree with this line of thinking. These ads are damaging. Younger and younger girls are dieting. People think that they can actually look like the models in the ads. Body dissatisfaction is eerily normal.

All of these things are very bad. Even without mentioning eating disorders, I think we need to take a long, hard look at what our ads are teaching. A label, even just to identify that these images have been digitally altered, is a place to start. More and more people find smoking distasteful, less associated with the virile Marlboro Man and more associated with stink and lung cancer.



What I object to is having this legislation linked directly to eating disorders. The French proposal is headed by an eating disorders expert and is part of an ongoing campaign against eating disorders. An Australian article on the subject said that

"[French Parliamentarian Valerie] Boyer said being confronted with unrealistic standards of female beauty could lead to various kinds of psychological problems, in particular eating disorders...

"These images can make people believe in a reality that often does not exist," Ms Boyer said, adding that the law should apply to press photographs, political campaigns, art photography and images on packaging as well as advertisements."

I agree that this false reality (that all so-called "beautiful" people are thin, etc.) is troublesome and plays right into eating disordered thinking. I mean, two days before I was admitted to the hospital, I had people asking me for diet tips! Plenty of people without eating disorders have similar delusions that I do.

However, these delusions are the result of an eating disorder, not a cause.

I'm not naive enough to think that Size Zero and airbrushed models have nothing to do with eating disorders. They're part of the cultural backdrop against which eating disorders are expressed. In the Middle Ages, the obsession was with fasting and holiness. This didn't cause eating disorders, either, though it did alter the meanings people ascribed to their symptoms. Learning how to live in this fundamentally effed-up environment is one of my major tasks in recovery. I try to participate as little as possible, but short of turning hermetic, there's going to be Cosmo on the newsstands and I'm going to see pictures of "scary skinny celebrities" and celebrity weight gain. I intend to fight it, but in the meantime, I have to live among it.

Our culture has a damaging obsession with food and weight and appearance. This needs to stop, even if it doesn't prevent a single eating disorder.

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13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another great post as usual. I love reading here. <3

Ugh, I hate it. IMO it makes boys think this is what girls should look like (and also men's mags -not the really rude ones!- make me feel sick cos all the women are bloody perfect) and makes girls think the same. I completely agree with what you posted.

In mascara ads when the model has unfeasibly long lashes, I've noticed there is sometimes small print at the bottom saying "filmed with lash inserts". So yeah they should definitely do something for photoshopping.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with notion that airbrushed photos of models are dangerous to viewers' health. I actually feel strongly opposed to the way that anorexia nervosa is considered a cultural issue; triggered and/or sustained by the media.

I have suffered very badly, and for many years from anorexia nervosa, and it has had absolutely NOTHING to do with desiring bodily perfection whatever that is...?). It is true that some people with an established eating disorder actively seek out justification to remain in their illness and to not gain weight - and this justification can take the form of ogling media images of thin models (i.e. thyey're allowed to be thin, so why shouldn't I be).

Now, I write this as someone who struggles with restricting anorexia nervosa. Perhaps there is a stronger association between bulimia nervosa and body image concerns? My anorexia nervosa has never been about desiring a thin body, it's been about control - of my existence and my emotions. Surely the issue of control is the common denominator amongst individuals with anorexia nervosa; not body dissatisfaction? I hope that DSM V will remove the diagnostic criterion relating to 'body image', because this doesn't apply to all individuals with anorexia nervosa, even if, like me, they fear gaining weight?

Anonymous said...

I think that labeling the pictures is a ridiculous notion. People know that the pictures are airbrushed just like people know that smoking is bad. The fact of the matter is that triggers are everywhere and ED people like myself need to deal with it.

Eating Alone said...

They are selling these product's so that you can look like the people in the add's. If they state that the only way you can do that is to airbrush yourself then would you still buy it?

Why are they trying to trick us? That is what it comes down to, they are saying "buy this and you will look like this!" but it's a total lie. Look at the growth in men taking steroid's. Body building used to be about natural muscle now if your not juicing there is no way you can get that big.

Joy said...

As someone who has suffered from both anorexia and bulimia, I completely support the labeling of air-brushed ads. Although these ads are FAR from the actual cause my eating disorder, they certainly don't help matters. A lot of people (especially younger girls) oggle these ads and think that having a certain body type is a matter of choice. Being a size 0 ISN'T a choice; if you try to manipulate your weight from your "set point," your body will rebel. Thin certainly doesn't mean you're happy or successful. In fact, it was virtually the opposite for me. Yes, we have to deal with filtering all these images all of the time, but I certainly don't think it would hurt to have a label on ads. Yeah, and everyone knows that ads are airbrushed and smoking is bad for you. But, I might add, cigarettes (and their ads) have warnings from the surgeon general on them. Most people think that eating disorders ONLY kill people that are skeletal. Most bulimics are average or above average weight... they'll tell you that because maybe they are not the PICTURE of sick, they don't see their ED's that dangerous. If there were messages on photo-shopped ads, I feel like it would (at the very least) be a step in a much more positive direction.

Jessie said...

A couple thoughts:

First, I definitely agree with Carrie about in that any move to label airbrushed/photoshopped/digitally altered photos is important irrespective of the impact of these images on people with eating disorders. There is a dangerous message in these photos promoting an ideal of beauty and often a perception of women that is damaging. Also, I think there is a danger in allowing the line between reality and fantasy to become so blurred. (In fact maybe we should label all digitally altered photos not just those containing people or models.)

But I disagree with the assertion that these photos are totally irrelevant to people with eating disorders. No, my disorder had very little to do with wanted to look like a model but at the same time, seeing photos of very thin people was extremely triggering for me. On one hand, like Carrie and one other commentator pointed out, it is part of my job as someone with an eating disorder to understand what triggers my disorder and to avoid these things. But I also think that have a "warning label" if you will, pointing out that a particular photo is airbrushed would be helpful for people struggling with eating disorders. I think not only of the warnings on cigarette labels but also of allergy warnings on food. A heads up that there is something there that could be potentially dangerous for some people. And I think it would make my job a lot easier in that I would have some outside validation that the images I'm seeing are dangerous for me. I don't have to rely only on my own delusional brain to try and convince myself of this. But this is almost a side effect of labeling. It should not and does not need to be the primary argument in support.

Kim said...

I agree with you 100%. In fact, I get downright annoyed by this link between models in magazines and eating disorders. I didn't give a shit about magazines or models UNTIL I developed an eating disorder. I looked to the images to rationalize my illness. People always think it's the other way around which really irks me because it simplifies a very complicated illness and makes it all about vanity. Anorexia has nothing to do with vanity, in my opinion. It's just easy to make that assumption in our cultural climate. Like the second commenter, I have anorexia, restricting type, and it's never been about wanting a thin body. I was "thin" before I developed anorexia.
Yes, it's terrible that they alter images of real women to appear a certain way. As a society, we should learn to appreciate bodies as they are. BUT, digitally-altered images do not cause eating disorders. They just don't. They're simply convenient ammo for people who are already in their illness.

Carrie Arnold said...

Keep in mind- we didn't always know that smoking was dangerous. And the proposed labels just indicate that the photo was altered. I'm not totally convinced that it will change much of anything in advertising, BUT it would be a start.

My advocating this (or something similar) isn't to prevent EDs. These ads are damaging even if they have nothing to do with EDs. I don't think we should change airbrushing because it's triggering to someone with an ED, but because it's sending the wrong message to people.

Rachel said...

I absolutely think that eating disorders are psychological illnesses that have nothing to do with wanting to be more beautiful, but I do think that airbrushed images contribute to the sheer popularity of eating disorders. Most eating disorders begin as a simple diet, which begins as a case of feeling that one isn't thin enough, which stems, in part, from the oversaturation of unrealistic images in the media.

My eating disorder was more about control and coping with difficult issues, but it began because I thought I was too fat and started dieting to lose weight. The disordered behaviors spiraled from there. Had I never been led to believe that I was fat, I might never have started dieting and ergo may never have developed an eating disorder.

But I do agree with you, Carrie, in that these images hurt us all.

Alexandra Rising said...

I'm going to take a nap now so I'm not going to say much, but I do want to say that I think labeling the ads is a fine idea. It's just a label. I think young adolescents are more at risk when viewing airbrushed pictures because I think they are less aware of the fact that the photo is not 'real' but is touched up. Regardless, I think it's a good idea. Naptime!

Kathleen Fuller, Ph.D. said...

Women have been bound by this false hope for a hundred years or longer and now men are starting to buy into it. The truth is we have been and continue to be sold a misleading bill of goods that perpetually doesn’t deliver on its empty promises.
For too long, myths about diet and overweight issues have been accepted as fact. Now you can free yourself and understand your feelings of hopelessness,
confusion, and frustration-—but only by first exposing the myths in their entirety.
No more dieting to be beautiful, feel good enough, or feel better about yourself. No more dieting to gain the approval of family, society, or others. No more instant, dieting solutions to make everything better.

Anonymous said...

Women have been bound by this false hope for a hundred years or longer and now men are starting to buy into it. The truth is we have been and continue to be sold a misleading bill of goods that perpetually doesn’t deliver on its empty promises.
For too long, myths about diet and overweight issues have been accepted as fact. Now you can free yourself and understand your feelings of hopelessness,confusion, and frustration-—but only by first exposing the myths in their entirety.
No more dieting to be beautiful, feel good enough, or feel better about yourself. No more dieting to gain the approval of family, society, or others. No more instant, dieting solutions to make everything better.

Anonymous said...

Airbrushing is so bad for your self-esteem. Take it from someone whos been there!!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote



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