By Juliette Terzieff
Monday, December 21, 2009
Digitally-altered images of super-thin models and actresses contribute to negative body image, low self-esteem and damaging behavior, critics say. A British political party's campaign for a labeling system for altered images is gaining support.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Demi Moore is known for displaying a fortunate frame and good looks in movies like "Striptease" and "Ghost." Now, however, a revealing cover shot of the 47-year-old for the December 2009 issue of W magazine has unleashed a maelstrom of online chatter over concerns the image was altered.
"Anyone can be absolutely stunning and beautiful with a little or a lot of help from Photoshop! The sad part is that so many people still have no clue and actually think that this kind of beauty is possible at any age, never mind 47," reader 'dengtart' commented on a Huffington Post piece about the image. "So, tell all your friends, family and especially young teens that this is SO fake! There is more than enough media pressure on teens . . . they don't need this!"
For those campaigning against the use of digitally-altered images in advertising the Moore controversy is another example of why the practice needs to be changed.
"Such images reflect a chaos in society," said Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of the Seattle-based National Eating Disorders Association. "We should be seeing encouragement to 'be healthy,' when instead you can't pick up a magazine these days that isn't showing females they need to be a size zero, an unattainable goal that just does not work for most body types."
The controversial W magazine image features the actress scantily clad in a Balmain leotard looking unusually thin and, apparently, with a chunk of her left thigh and hip missing.
W magazine issued a statement claiming it "did not do anything unusual or out of the ordinary on Demi Moore for the photo."
The problem, say women's health advocates, is that the usual massaging of an image includes significant airbrushing, which often includes making models look thinner than they are.
A backlash against digitally-altered images of uber-thin women is building in the United Kingdom, where the Liberal Democrat Party launched the "Real Women" campaign in August. In addition to endorsing an end to gender-based pay discrimination and flexible work scheduling for parents, one of the campaign's goals is to end the use of altered images in advertising aimed at people under 16.
Grefe's National Eating Disorders Association has joined the Real Women campaign, as have academics and health advocates from Brazil, Ireland, Argentina, Spain and Australia.
For those over 16, Real Women seeks to create a set of symbols that reflect the amount an image has been retouched--like a calorie counter or hazard disclaimer--and ensure all advertisers use the symbol system. Campaigners are pushing to get the U.K.'s Advertising Standards Agency and the Committee of Advertising Practice to issue new standards; they hope to see industry monitors in other countries follow suit.
"Today's unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago," Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat member of parliament from East Dunbartonshire who launched the campaign, said in a recent public statement. "The focus on women's appearance has got out of hand. No one really has perfect skin, perfect hair and a perfect figure, but women and young girls increasingly feel that nothing less than perfect will do."
In France, parliamentarian Valerie Boyer has initiated legislation to label digitally-altered images.
While advertising alone cannot be blamed for eating disorders or extreme behaviors, women's health advocates say it can contribute to low self-esteem and depression and can trigger even more serious health-related problems among the vulnerable.
"Eating disorders don't usually travel alone and are accompanied by other issues, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior and anxiety," said Grefe. "Add in altered advertising images everywhere and it's a recipe for trouble."
The Real Women campaign also has appeal to those inside the "Health at Every Size" movement, which aims to deemphasize dieting and instead help encourage people to adopt healthier habits for the sake of their well-being.
"As a society we buy into 'truth in advertising' thinking and so advertising should be truthful. They shouldn't have the right to alter what is real," said Dr. Linda Bacon, author of the book "Health at Every Size" and a nutrition professor at City College of San Francisco. "The images put forth in advertising are not based on health and are constantly representing one ideal. People take that singular image to represent beauty and the truth is most people don't have enough defenses to withstand the constant barrage without effect."
Numerous studies have tried to measure the effects of advertising, mass media and consumer culture on body image.
In the United States the body image portrayed as ideal in advertising is natural to only 5 percent of women, while 69 percent of adolescents say magazine models influence their ideas on body shape, according to data compiled by Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Conn.
Research published in 2007 by the Canadian Women's Health Network, with headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, found that 90 percent of Canadian women are dissatisfied with their appearance and 1 out of every 10 girls and women develop disordered eating habits.
Australian researchers Marika Tiggemann and Levina Clark observed 9 to 12-year-old girls in 2006 in that country and found that nearly half wish to be thinner. As a result, they have engaged in a diet or are aware of the concept of dieting.
In the United States, Grefe said more interest from politicians and legislators might stir public concern about the links between negative body image and health impacts, as well as boost funding, research and treatment for associated medical problems.
But government intervention on digitally-altered images, caution health advocates, isn't a panacea.
"Legislation has its limits. Modeling agencies, photographers and magazines can simply turn around and look for skinnier models," said Bacon. "We need to support people in seeing their beauty. People who feel better about themselves do a better job of taking care of themselves."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance writer currently based in Tampa, Fla. She has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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