Monday, June 1, 2009

How Retouching!

Doesn't anyone have consumer education classes in school anymore? Did those die out in the last right-wing attack on education? I'm assuming most high schoolers are no longer learning about how products are marketed toward them, or how articles are written, or how television programs are designed to influence them -- because people are getting very overworked about things that should not surprise them one bit.

The New York Times recently reported on the shocked-yes-shocked reactions of people to the amount of photo retouching that goes on in fashion magazines. The article refers to some egregious examples of cover models who have been Photoshopped to hell and back in attempts to make them look thinner. (Notice how they never Photoshop them to make them look smarter? Now that would be a nice touch. Er, retouch.) But most of the slant of the Times piece seems to be that showing more "real" women, untouched by a redesigner's effort, will enhance women's self-esteem and body-image. Phil Poynter, a photographer and/or designer (hard to tell from the Times' description of his work), said that “the big discussion in the fashion business has always been about should we retouch girls, should we create a portrait of a girl that is not achievable by a real girl.”

Two things:

1) Yep, the fashion (and show-business) magazines present an unrealistic image of women and girls. They do the same for men, of course, but that's usually ignored in the discussion.

2) People flock to the newsstands to buy these magazines. No one that I know of has been forced at gunpoint to purchase Vogue, Elle, or Us Weekly (though that's the only way I'd buy them). I don't write that as a libertarian whatever-the-consumer-wants-must-be-right statement. No, I mean that they could change their approach completely, but women would just start buying different magazines. People buy those magazines because they want to see the perfect, the unachievable, the unattainable, for the same reason people buy car magazines featuring expensive Porsches and Jaguars. Other people may not like that, but it's human nature and fact.

There was another flare-up of this controversy a while back about magazines altering the skin color on its cover images, making African Americans look either darker or lighter. That could, indeed, be a reprehensible practice; one would have to know the exact details of the situation to make a judgment (but when did that stop Americans from making judgments?).

But we should also make the obvious point, at least the obvious point from the perspective of practically anyone who's worked in magazines: All magazine photos are Photoshopped to some degree. Portions of them are made darker or lighter (often for reasons normal readers would never suspect, such as the need to offset the effects of the particular paper they're using or their printer's likelihood of printing darker or lighter than it should). Images are cropped to focus on a portion of the picture. Blemishes are removed, even if they're not trying to make the person look "unattainably beautiful," because if there is a prominent blemish -- a pimple, a scar, a rash, whatever -- on a person's face that is featured on a magazine cover, it doesn't look real so much as it looks like you're trying to feature the blemish. A magazine cover is not a capture of a split-second of reality; it's a framed highlight that focuses the viewer's attention on the cover image and on any noticeable feature on that image.

But then, a little consumer education would have told people how the real world works. An educated viewer/reader/consumer doesn't need to overreact when they are told that Vogue is trying to get them to buy a magazine or that Bank of America wants them to accept a credit card offer. No kidding, Sherlock.
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