Op-Ed | Photoshopped Fashion Ads Should Be Labelled

The Photoshopped images that appear in fashion and beauty advertising cause emotional and physical health issues in young women. It’s time these images are accompanied by clear disclosures, argue Camilla Olson and Samantha Jensen.

(L) An outtake from the Lady Gaga photoshoot for Versace S/S 2014, leaked on fansite GagaDaily, and (R) the final campaign | Source: GagaDaily, Versace

PALO ALTO, United States — Fashion and beauty advertising almost universally depicts romanticised images of impossibly perfect women. Implicit is the message that with the right new products, consumers can become equally perfect. Of course, these images, which usually feature highly atypical women to start with, are also heavily doctored using image-editing software like Photoshop. But many women do not fully realise this.

Although the unattainable body image portrayed in advertising is not the sole cause of eating disorders, it is thought to be the biggest factor.

Some image editing can be as simple and harmless as adjusting contrast or brightness. But image-editing is also widely used to reshape the bodies of models. Sometimes overzealous editing can lead to shocking mishaps like misplaced arms or missing shoulders. But far more disturbing is the loss of self-confidence and self-worth that images of unattainable bodies can create in women who do not always know they are not real.

Earlier this year, a bill that specifically addresses image editing in advertising was introduced into the US House of Representatives. Dubbed the “Truth in Advertising Act,” the bill stated: “An increasing amount of academic evidence links exposure to such altered images with emotional, mental and physical health issues, including eating disorders, especially among children and teenagers. There is particular concern about the marketing of such images to children and teenagers.” The bill targets post-production edits that “materially change” characteristics of models’ faces and bodies, but gives no specific recommendation on a remedy.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 5 million people in the United States are affected by eating disorders. Although the unattainable body image portrayed in advertising is not the sole cause of eating disorders, it is thought to be the biggest factor. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reports that a majority of teenage girls in the United States skip meals, take pills, vomit or fast in order to lose weight. Many of these girls also struggle with depression. Indeed, according to the ANAD, 47 percent of girls between 5th and 12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of images found in magazines.

In areas like accounting, journalism, law, medicine and politics, standards of full disclosure are common. And, indeed, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires marketers to make advertising disclosures clear and conspicuous. But unfortunately, these guidelines, as they currently stand, do not tackle the topic of image editing.

We are suggesting that a common standard of disclosure be adopted for images of people that appear in advertisements. These disclosures should identify the use of image-editing tools and describe their effect, for example: “Image Editing Note: this photo was edited to enhance brightness and remove the background” or “This photo was edited to remove facial scarring and slim the waist for aesthetic purposes.” With this approach, the altered images that appear in advertising would still be free to communicate the aesthetic statements of their makers, but consumers would be clearly informed as to how a model’s body was changed.

Many of us have seen the impact of aggressive image manipulation on friends and daughters. In a perfect world, marketers would start using aspirational but realistic body images in their ads. At a minimum, it’s time for modern advertising to accept new standards of disclosure.

Let there be truth in advertising.

Camilla Olson is creative director of Camilla Olson LLC. Samantha Jensen is a student at Castilleja High School and is interning at Camilla Olson as part of the Palo Alto Work Experience Program.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Do you really believe that? BEAUTY ADVERTISING causes emotional and physical health issues in young women?

    Michael Sontag from Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  2. We know that images are manipulated for publications, but seeing a side-by-side comparison is still jaw-dropping and eyebrow-raising.

    THE CHIC SPY from Phoenix, AZ, United States
  3. Common, your “side by side” comparison is not even the same shot. The angle of the head, the direction of the eyes, the hand, the position of her leg, all give away that these are clearly different frames.
    I expect more from BoF!

    The author compares photography with “accounting, journalism, law, medicine and politics”, which are all sciences. Of course these sciences demand full disclosure. Photography, as a discipline of the arts, do NOT demand full disclosure. Neither does music, movies, paintings or other forms of art.

    Imagine a world where every special effect in movies has to be labelled as “not real”, and all music that is enhanced in a studio (and yes, pretty much all modern music is heavily worked on in post production) has to disclose this. Or imagine a painting, where the artist has painted an unearthly beautiful woman. Does this artist have to label her/his artwork as “not real”?

    All this is routed in the old misconception that “photography is reality”. It is not. Every photograph is the photographers interpretation or point of view on a situation. Choice of angle, frame and timing can completely change the story of a photograph.

    I don’t believe the problem lays in advertising photos themselves, but in the fact that some people actually still believe they are real.

    Simen Platou from Indonesia
  4. That means that that images that are not photoshopped but have models that have perfect bodies will make our women feel even more depressed. Perhaps we should put regulations on attractive women in real life as well, because they are making all of us feel inadequate. Perhaps we should also create a regulating organization that controls what should be allowed to be viewed and not viewed.

    Jeff DeLaCruz from Chicago, IL, United States
  5. Just for advertisements or for editorials, too? And what about bloggers? I often edit my images to enhance lighting because photos don’t always turn out the way they should. I also add effects to my Instagram photos. Are you saying that Instagram pics can be “damaging” to people who view them?

    Cynthia Cheng Mintz from Toronto, ON, Canada
  6. Why ??? We’ve all looked off and there’s enough unattractive skin and color on the streets to look at, it’s ART let us please see the beauty beneath the surface :) Plus its FASHION it’s not real life for most. It is the mystery, the fantasy, the intrigue that makes Fashion bloody FASHION.

    jean milu truesdale from Santa Fe, NM, United States
  7. “That means that that images that are not photoshopped but have models that have perfect bodies will make our women feel even more depressed.” Jeff, I can’t agree with you more. Lol

    Mia Xu from Hong Kong
  8. Jeff from Chicago, I can’t agree with you more.

    Mia Xu from Hong Kong
  9. Businesses should not need to say if a photo is photoshopped because they post advertisements for the sake of increasing interest in their business. If models in advertisements didn’t make their clothes look absolutely stunning, or a car commercial didn’t make their car look irresistibly appealing, it wouldn’t even be worth publicizing an ad if no one is going to be affected by it. That is not to say that photoshop is necessary to make great ads, but the purpose of ads is to simply attract attention to the business. If you want to see what real people look like (a real car, real product, whatever is shown in the ad), then you can use other sources, like the news, that intend on telling the truth.

    Kimberly Jenks from Davis, CA, United States
  10. While airbrushed and perfected images are no good for women’s self-esteem, it’s important to note that images of unattainable bodies are in no way the biggest factor in eating disorders, as your medical sources will attest. It is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

    Gwyneth Holland from United Kingdom
  11. Gosh, really? Can the fat girls stop making a noise about this?
    Since the beginning of time, artists have always depicted their models more beautiful than what they really are. In art for a wider audience, beauty will always overcome the truth. Why is this suddenly a problem when it has been happening for years? It is as ridiculous as saying do not use make up in shoots as it is deceiving. Morons.

    Lauren Bubb from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
  12. I believe the authors make a very important point. Unlike some who have commented on this piece, I don’t not believe the artistic dimension of photography exempts it from disclosure. Writing, too, has an artistic dimension, but we rightly expect books and publications to label pieces as fiction or non-fiction, and we want laws to protect us against false writing in advertising. Similarly, we want newspapers to not manipulate their news photos. It is true that choice of lens, lighting, and camera angle (like word choice and syntax in writing) affect the impact of a photo. But many uses of Photoshop change content, not just style, similar to a false factual claim in writing. A model Barbiefied by Photoshop is as much a lie as an ad stating that cigarette smoking is good for your health (yes, those ads were common in magazines for decades.) And advertising does have an effect (why else would companies invest millions in it?), and the effect of advertising on the young just forming their views of themselves in the world can be damaging.

    Bill Smoot from Oakland, CA, United States
  13. We read your comments and appreciate the thoughtful expression of other points of view on this matter. We offer some clarification on our Op-Ed identified above. Although fashion photography is an art form and advertisements are made to make the product desirable, we believe the impact of aggressive photo shopping on images of the human form is significant. While offering fantastical images, can be seen as a basic right of human expression, our concern is when such images are placed in a publication where images could be perceived as real. As literature is divided between fiction and non-fiction, education is the key to solving this problem. The needed education can start small, with a simple disclosure at the bottom of the photograph. This way, the photography is not any less expressive or desirable, it is now educating the viewer and making sure they have full knowledge that the image is fictional.

    Camilla Olson and Samantha Jensen

    camilla olson from Sunnyvale, CA, United States