Tag Archives: photo retouching

The Perfect Body Is a Lie

Laurie and Debbie say:

Fashion models are, almost by definition, people with “perfect bodies.” That’s how they get chosen. Bodybuilders have become, for a large segment of the populace, the symbol of a different kind of “perfect body.” Let’s take a look behind that perfection.

Bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman, in oxygen mask, just after the Mr. Olympia competition

Coleman, stepping off the stage after a competition, is dependent on supplemental oxygen. “The strain of intense dieting, dehydration and muscle-flexing,” says Zed Nelson (who took the picture) “places high levels of strain on the heart and lungs, rendering many contestants dizzy, light-headed and weak.”

So, the image we see on the stage, of a man who has refined his body and built up his strength in a way we can envy and wish to achieve (or come close to), is a lie.

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images paired this image of Coleman with a photograph of Victoria’s Secret Angel, Adriana Lima, who discussed her pre-shoot regimen in a recent interview.

For the last three weeks, she’s been working out twice a day. “It is really intense, it’s not really the amount of time you spend working out, it’s the intensity: I jump rope, I do boxing, I lift weights, but I get bored doing that. If I am not moving I get bored very easily.”

She sees a nutritionist, who has measured her body’s muscle mass, fat ratio and levels of water retention. He prescribes protein shakes, vitamins and supplements to keep Lima’s energy levels up during this training period. Lima drinks a gallon of water a day. For nine days before the show, she will drink only protein shakes – “no solids”. The concoctions include powdered egg. Two days before the show, she will abstain from the daily gallon of water, and “just drink normally”. Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely.

“No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that,” she says.

Lisa’s point is that “Bodybuilders and models, then, represent aesthetic extremes of masculinity and femininity, but their bodies aren’t the natural extension of male and female physicalities. Instead, achieving the look requires significant sacrifice of one’s body.”

In other words, like the bodybuilder’s strength, the model’s health, attractiveness, and desirability are a lie. Trust us, she’s nowhere near so desirable when she’s drinking her daily gallon of water, or parching herself to drop eight pounds in twelve hours.

In this context, it’s heartening to read Chloe at Feministing, writing about Norway’s minister of equality, Audun Lysbakken (why doesn’t the U.S. have a secretary of equality?), who “is pushing for advertisers to begin disclosing when their billboards have been retouched.”

Ralph Lauren poster of an impossibly skinny woman

Similar campaigns have happened in the United Kingdom and France, and some ads have even been banned in the U.K. for being excessively retouched.

Lysbakken and her counterparts in other countries are trying to make sure everyone sees and notices what many of us already know–pictures like the one just above are a complete, total, and irredeemable lie.

As Chloe points out, awareness of retouching and Photoshop is not sufficient. Many young women who understand that the images are photoshopped still want to look like the resulting picture.

Forcing advertisers to reveal their lies would likely have the secondary effect of having fewer advertisers use retouched photographs. And having fewer deceitful images out there would help change people’s goals. Similarly, revealing just how much models and bodybuilders wear out and destroy their bodies so they can pretend to “perfection” can help us all re-evaluate what we really want to look like–and what it would cost.

Palin Cover: A Photographer’s View

Laurie says:

I’m back and having my usual re-entry problems. Lots of beach, redwoods, and almost no web for ten days will do that.

I just read Debbie’s post on the Newsweek cover of Sarah Palin, and the comments to that post. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years taking portraits with a strong sense of reality. So it’s not surprising that the topic got me thinking about photography choices, image size, cropping, retouching etc – in effect how we react to portraits.

Regardless of other reactions, this photo of Palin would be a real attention-grabber simply because we don’t see photos like this. I am wondering if it’s truly untouched, rather than subtly altered. I find it hard to believe that an art editor would be able to be completely hands off. And more to the point, we’re so unused to seeing any “flaws” in media images that some reality will seem almost super real. Even in Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, the photos of the women were subtly touched up to be real but not too real.

“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.” –SJ

I think SJ’s reaction is interesting. We are seeing a relatively real image of a woman with maturity showing in her portrait. It should be ludicrous that not removing signs of maturity in the face a woman, politician or not, is considered insulting. And I agree with her that the reality of the image is humanizing.

Then there’s the crop – i.e. the choice to show part of her face in close up. I thought Adrian’s comment was really relevant.

“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.”
— Adrian

There’s a lot happening here. We do like our politicians to be human but we also want them to be heroic. The photo Deb chose of the Newsweek cover of Hillary Clinton is a good example of that. In contrast, there is nothing heroic in this image of Palin.

From a photographic perspective, the size of the Palin portrait is borderline for intimacy. When you show faces larger than their actual size, images tend to lose their sense of intimacy and become distanced. But as Adrian says, the way in which the focus is closer than we’re used to creates a different kind of intimacy. Not the intimacy of recognition but rather of physical closeness. Her welcoming smile makes a big difference. If she had a serious expression, we’d experience a lot more distance.

I’m not even bothering to talk about rest of the gender issues. They’re too screamingly obvious.

This photo feels to me like a clever photo without much reality, that’s little more than skin deep.