Here's How We Make Advertisers Quit Abusing Photoshop to Manipulate Women

We know no one looks like that. They know no one looks like that. Yet, ads are all about a superhuman, unattainable beauty.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 23, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

Parents take heart: There's hope that the next generation of girls may be able to grow up without being bombarded by digitally perfected models with impossibly thin bodies and faux-luminous skin.

The Federal Trade Commission may soon tackle the thorny issue of rampant Photoshop use in advertising directed toward women and girls, specifically ads that artificially lighten, lengthen, thin, smooth, or otherwise fudge reality in the interest of selling an impossible dream.

A bill called the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014 (H.R. 4341) was introduced last month, and though it doesn't make it illegal to digitally alter ads, it requires the federal regulators to submit a report to Congress that contains "a strategy to reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted."

Former marketing executive Seth Matlins, founder of feelmorebetter.com, is at the center of a growing community that includes The Brave Girls Alliance, The Eating Disorders Coalition, and a bipartisan group of legislators led by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who introduced the bill.

Their argument frames the problem in terms of public health: "An increasing amount of academic evidence links exposure to such altered images with emotional, mental, and physical health issues," the bill states. "The dissemination of unrealistic body standards has been linked to eating disorders among men and women of varying age groups, but it has a particularly destructive health effect on children and teenagers."

It's a compelling point. By focusing on public health, this bill sidesteps the question of whether, for example, a cosmetic company is technically committing fraud by showing the digitally smoothed face of a model in an ad for anti-wrinkle cream. In our commerce-obsessed country, it's a lot easier to marshal support for regulating advertising if it involves health and safety (we're looking at you, tobacco companies).

But Matlins is realistic: The bill, he said, is "not a silver bullet." It focuses entirely on regulations for advertising, not for editorial content such as fashion magazine articles and cover photos, which are protected by the First Amendment. That means a huge percentage of the idealized imagery that women and girls swim through each day would be unaffected.

With the bill's passage, at best we'll see a report and a draft list of regulations, which could lead to some complicated questions. If the proposed regulations say that advertisers have to limit their use of digital "perfecting" of faces and bodies, who will decide how much is too much? Will this require the creation of a new regulatory agency? Will photo editors and graphic designers have to submit their files for scrutiny each time they edit a photo?

Congress is a long way from addressing these questions. It's worth asking whether the solution lies not in an unwieldy plan to regulate advertisements but in giving our kids and ourselves better media literacy tools for approaching idealized images of beauty with skepticism and solid facts.

Whatever its fate, this bill may be a catalyst that creates action where so far there has only been conversation. It also has us examining the fact that Photoshop has introduced an almost limitless ability to falsely advertise.

"If these pictures told the same bold-faced lies in words that they do in images, action would have been taken a long time ago," Matlins said of beauty ads aimed at women and girls. "A picture is a claim. And that's never been more true than it is now in our world of Instagram and Pinterest and visual feeds."

It's pretty appealing to picture a future in which beauty products hawked by middle-aged celebrities would have to show those celebrities' real skin and bodies. Wouldn't it be nice to evaluate whether or not to buy a $25 "skin-perfecting" moisturizer if the faces used to sell it weren't digitally wiped of all lines and freckles? Wouldn't it be amazing if preteen girls (and the rest of us too) could know that actors and models don't really have skin that perpetually glows and hair that never looks frizzy?

To get there, Matlins said, "we have to move beyond the conversation to action."