Rise Of The Beautiful Generation: An Airbrushed Dream

A recent report from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire has set out suggestions of a rating system for publishers and advertisers to display on retouched images. Professor Hany Farid and student Eric Kee have developed a simple method which highlights airbrushed adverts in glossy publications. Each airbrushed image, they explain, should be rated from values 1 to 5 in terms of its digital manipulation, “1” as relatively untouched and “5” extremely altered. This numerical identification is reached by “automatically estimating the geometric and photometric changes” occurring through the process of digital enhancement.

It is only too evident what “changes” they are talking about. How can we ignore them? Anyone can pick up a magazine, browse through it and shrug off perfect men and women as a product of great breeding, of our time or, let’s be honest, because of unbelievably advanced image manipulation techniques. Celebrities’ faces are pulled into shapeless flat sheets of skin, grinning taut toothy smiles from ear to ear and models are slimmed down again and again and again. Because, of course, they are obese to start off with and celebrities Simply Cannot Age. Kate Middleton’s waist shrinks in size, magically, overnight. Legs are slimmed down. Wrinkles fade, under eye bags shrink into nothingness and spots vanish. George Clooney looks young again and Beyoncé suddenly becomes white (ahem sorry, pale brown). Farid and Kee’s study explores the rise of these “impossibly thin, tall and wrinkle and blemish free models splashed onto billboards, advertisements, and magazine covers” which “creates a fantasy of sorts”. Is it any wonder some avid readers of Vogue get sucked into a magical world where no one has spots or weighs more than nine stone? Today, this virtually undetectable process of airbrushing is commonplace because nearly every publication uses it: so how is the identification of natural beauty possible when fake is the norm?

Well, Farid and Kee are aiming to address this question and their proposal seems well intentioned enough. They hope that this process of rating digitally enhanced images will help to adequately inform the public on the extent of airbrushing in the media and will address the misconception lots of women have on the images they see every day through clarifying what, and to what extent, is airbrushed. This attitude is similarly exercised by other organisations, and has proved highly successful. The American Medical Association, for instance, actively dissuades publications from using unrealistically altered pictures, and Farid and Kee want to follow this trend by exposing images for what they really are: not honest. Discouraging and numerically branding these images, they argue, will also help to reduce the widespread “promotion of unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image”. With body dsymorphia, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction on the rise, this can only be a good thing.

The question for the future, though, is less certain. What would we do with a numbered advert and, even if we knew it had been digitally altered, would it really make a difference? Just because an image has a big “5” stamped at the corner doesn’t mean it can be completely disregarded as nonsensical and irrelevant. Let’s consider the worst repercussion of this move. Readers might invent their own rating system of aspiration. Aiming to look like a number “5” advert might be a bigger incentive to buy glossy magazines than ever before but this is, admittedly, a very unlikely reality which will probably never happen. No-one, surely, is that naively vain and, putting criticisms aside, this move is unquestionably a step in the right direction for the media industry. This rating system might be adopted and help to discourage readers from aspiring to try and morph into essentially computer generated images. The fact that scientists have found enough need to address the false portrayals of beauty highlights the importance and prevalence of an industry found out. It is a Very Important Problem today which, in whatever way, needs to be corrected. We all know it goes on. Maybe, one day, we will remember with faint nostalgia the days of shameless airbrushing and turn over pages of fat middle aged women with crinkled up skin and actual expression. For an industry wrapped up in physical beauty and idealised standards of beauty? Maybe it can be a thing of the past. Maybe. Maybe, though, we just don’t want to face up to reality just yet. We might want to hold onto an airbrushed dream for a little while longer.