Pores, Wrinkles, and ‘Unwanted’ Facial Hair: How to Photograph a Real Human Being

Debbie says:

The Republican Party has invented a whole new way to insult a candidate (or at least to claim that a candidate has been insulted): print an honest picture.

Here’s the picture:

close-up of Sarah Palin on the cover of Newsweek

Let’s start by stating two things up front: first, I have absolutely no reason to believe that Governor Palin has been in any way upset or offended by this picture. In fact, I believe there’s some indication that she doesn’t consider this a problem.

Second, Laurie–who isn’t available to blog this with me–has devoted her photographic career to the proposition that “making the invisible visible,” photographing people as we are is important social change. I’ve been working with her since before she started taking photographs, so in one sense I’m not the least bit surprised. (If you don’t know Laurie’s photographs, look here, here and here.)

Ordinarily, I don’t like to embed sources I deplore, but in this case, the Fox News excerpt is worth watching, because it’s worth analyzing.

Note that the clip has two talking heads, other than the newscaster, who hardly has a “fair and balanced” view of the question. On the right, with the title “Republican Media Consultant,” we have Andrea Tantaros, who is outraged. “This cover is a clear slap in the face to Sarah Palin. Why? Because it’s unretouched.”

Tantaros goes on to claim that the cover highlights “every imperfection that every human being has. Pores, unwanted facial hair, wrinkles.” Later in the clip she says of herself that if someone took a similar closeup of her, “it ain’t pretty.”

On the other side, we have Julia Piscitelli, from the “Women and Politics group at American University.” So we don’t know if she’s a student, a professor, or what her role is. Tantaros is a professional; Piscitelli may not be. It will not escape Body Impolitic readers that Piscitelli is also fat. Anyone think that’s a coincidence?

The clip rapidly turns into an arguing match, with the newscaster both agreeing with and giving precedence to Tantaros’s side. At one point, the newscaster says that retouching photographs is what magazines do.

I see three things going on here: first is the photograph itself. Ironically, Tantaros is very very close to right in how she describes it. The picture is unretouched. Once upon a time, before Photoshop, we would have called it … a photograph. Notice that there isn’t any easy way to describe an “unretouched photograph” without using a negative adjective. It does show pores and a few wrinkles around the eyes. Now, pores are not only something that everyone has, they are essential to life. Your skin breathes through your pores. If you don’t have any, that doesn’t make you a high-def porn star, or Miley Cyrus: it makes you dead. As for wrinkles, well, Governor Palin is 44. (The minimum legal age at which she can run for VP is 35.) Many people in their 30s have wrinkles around the eyes, more pronounced when they laugh or smile. As for “unwanted facial hair,” who says it’s “unwanted”? If it was truly unwanted, couldn’t she pluck it, or wax it? Maybe she likes it that way. I would think she would have people around her who prepare her for photo shoots; they could easily have removed any unwanted hair.

Second is the question of the caption, and comparable pictures of Barack Obama. Here, I think the critics have somewhat of a point. The “and that’s the problem” tagline of the caption is not complimentary to Governor Palin, and if you want to hook it to wrinkles and pores, I guess you can, although I doubt it’s what the magazine was trying to do. The comparison cover photo of Obama shown in this newscast is a completely different kind of photograph. I don’t think they’ve given him a halo, but they have gone out of their way to dehumanize him, just as they’ve gone out of their way to humanize Palin. Is one kinder than the other? More fair to a candidate? Less of a slap in the face? Questions worth pondering, if you think Newsweek covers are important enough to ponder. If I were going to examine this in depth, I’d want to look closely at covers not of Obama but of Hillary Clinton. (You can see one here, that looks as though it may be retouched, but also shows wrinkles.)

Third, and most important, is the underlying question of “what is a flaw”? Both Tantaros and the newscaster repeatedly say that “everyone has these flaws.” They also repeatedly say women will be shocked and horrified to see them. By an easy extension, this means that every woman is shocked and horrified every time she looks in the mirror and that every woman really wants to believe that the people in the pictures–movie stars, models, and apparently politicians–don’t have real skin and real hair, that somehow fame confers what Tantaros would call “flawlessness.”

Bottom line: hatred of pores, wrinkles, and facial hair is self-hatred. Tantaros says it herself, when she says a close-up of her “ain’t pretty.” I can only hope that her lovers, friends, and family like looking at the real Andrea Tantaros better than she likes it herself; and that they tell her frequently that they think she’s beautiful the way she is … unretouched.

12 thoughts on “Pores, Wrinkles, and ‘Unwanted’ Facial Hair: How to Photograph a Real Human Being

  1. Hi there,
    I found your blog on Stumble, and I’m soooo stoked to read your stuff regularly!

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for this!

  2. Here’s what I find fascinating: I don’t see anything wrong with this picture. The few little wrinkles under her eyes are trivial (in my perception), and I don’t actually see any facial hair at all (as someone with a fair amount of it–oh, the time and money I spend on this–I’m pretty attuned to these things). And pores? What pores? I don’t get it; this is a pretty good picture, in my opinion. (Not that there’s anything wrong with pores, wrinkles, facial hair–all of which I have–I’m just saying that I’m surprised that people see this pic as “flawed” at all)

  3. Three pretty women wearing pancake makeup discuss the photograph. As you say, the moderator and the Slap In The Face girl take it badly that Palin’s photo is… a photo. Although if that photo is unretouched, the subject is already heavily tweezed, eyelined, shadowed, mascaraed, lipsticked, foundationed, blushered, teeth-bleached, like the one says possibly waxed (altho she should probably not let such trade secrets of femininity be mentioned in the public media). And let’s not even get into the hair products involved in this presentation. Oh and the pierced ears. Palin is a professional-calibre barbie.

    I feel bad about the two young women who have obviously bought into the Fox News ideal of how they should look. They are not going to get any younger, and the high heels they are probably wearing will give them bunions. That they imagine this picture will offend other women is only a projection of their own problems.

    They are explicitly setting a standard of female appearance beyond even that of the beauty queen, that of high-fashion models.

  4. Yeah, I don’t see what’s wrong with that pic, in fact I really like it (ok, I don’t like her politics but that’s a different story). Anyone who complains about it being unretouched needs to get a reality check — this is what she looks like for real, and she is a naturally attractive woman (even if she wasn’t, as mentioned above, she’s a politician, not a top model, Of course, because she’s a woman, she must be compared to top models nonetheless… meh)

  5. I completely agree with your blog! I think Sarah Palin looks gorgeous in this picture and it is obvious she doesn’t NEED to be retouched. Anyone who looks that great close up ought to be very pleased.

  6. Hi Laurie and Debbie,

    I gave you guys a blog award. Keep up the good work!

    About Sarah Palin, I really don’t think she can win (at this compliance-with-feminine-beauty-directives thing). If she’s beautiful, people dismiss her as a “beauty queen” without any brains; if she’s not beautiful enough, she’s old, ugly (because for some reason any woman not flawlessly beautiful is hideously ugly; there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground anymore) or insufficiently feminine.

  7. I don’t disagree with any of your analysis, but I think it’s fair to wonder how sincere these women are about what they’re saying. It looks to me like an attempt to whip up outrage at the treatment of Palin by the so-called liberal media. The right wing noise machine will seize on anything that they think will help their candidate. And very few people outside the Fox News universe seem to be having this reaction to the cover.

  8. Jae, excellent point about how the three of them look, and about the pre-existing state of Sarah Palin’s grooming. I continue to think it’s significant that the woman defending the photograph on Fox is fat.

    Laura (and Janet), as near as I can tell, public opinion is very divided on whether she looks good or not in this picture, and it doesn’t seem to be divided on red/blue lines. Personally, I think she looks pretty good, but it’s no secret that I’m all about the (more) natural look.

    Janet, yes absolutely about the noise machine. The point of this post, to me, was not Newsweek or politics, but the ways that body hatred (and especially female body hatred) is taken as a bottom-line truth that can then be used in political ways.

  9. Once upon a time, before Photoshop, we would have called it … a photograph

    I think a lot of people would have been more specific about that picture, even though the word “unretouched” obviously did not exist. We would have called it “an extreme close-up.” Politicians and actors used to speak from one stage or another. Pancake makeup was developed to look good from across a large room.

    Intimate conversation usually happens when people are about arms-length apart. When a camera is that far away from somebody’s face, and the image looks natural and realistic, it can feel something like an intimate conversation. Most of the campaign images seem to be taken from either stage distance or conversation distance. This one looks so strange because it’s so much closer–only part of the face fits in the field of view, like the viewer is coming in for a kiss, instead of conversation. Even though it was probably taken with a telephoto lens, it’s an illusion of intimacy that feels off.

  10. I know I am grossly oversimplifying your great analysis here, but I feel relieved when I see pictures like that of politicians. While I do know there are age limits in place already, I certainly want mature adults running our government. I don’t want a politician, male or female, who looks like CGI or a blowup doll. Also, it’s humanizing.

    I read this article at a doctor’s office a couple of days ago. I believe they made the point that Palin hasn’t really made great strides for women as she has done little to distinguish herself in her chosen career. Perhaps I am wrong, though, because I am OD’ing on political blurbs at the moment.

    That said, I do not want Palin to be in charge, no matter how old she is, hur. Though I do like her little Alaska earring. Gee, I had almost forgotten she was from Alaska!

  11. Here’s how I see it…this is about the fact that there is almost no magazine on earth that puts a photo on the front cover (or inside for that matter) that isn’t retouched. Whether magazines are wrong are right to do this is a different debate. The fact is that they currently DO retouch to make women (and men) appear flawless That Newsweek has chosen NOT to do this on this cover is very curious and makes me question their motives. Why choose to show her “flaws” when the flaws of other have been photoshopped into oblivion? Are they trying to “humanize” her, or are they trying to make her look “folksy,” i.e. unrefined and unsophisticated? I’m not sure, and given their Obama covers, I would tend to lean to the latter. Or maybe I’m just skeptical of all media these days. Where has all the truly unbiased coverage gone??

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