Magazines and Photoshop: When looking your best isn't good enough

We magazine readers can be a little schizophrenic when it comes to photo retouching. On the one hand, we insist on being able to gaze at celebrities looking flawless: no zits, no wrinkles, no muffin tops, no cellulite -- not even a stray hair. But when we find out that this inhuman state of perfection is achieved with the help of digital technology, we get all bent out of shape, as some recently did upon learning that Self magazine Photoshopped Kelly Clarkson on its cover.

This was a bit of a special case. Self is a magazine about healthy living, not fashion, so its subscribers expect it to resist the kind of pernicious body-image pressure that other publications are always stoking. And Clarkson is a full-bodied singer whose fans love her in part because she's living proof that a heavier woman can succeed in the entertainment industry. On both counts, therefore, this was seen as a special betrayal.
Self's editor in chief, Lucy Danziger, attempted to defend her magazine on her blog, insisting that the retouching of Clarkson was really just a form of editing, no different in spirit from using a flattering camera angle or kind lighting. It's all about "capturing a moment that shows her at her best," she wrote. This approach is "meant to inspire women to want to be their best." Danziger said she does the same with her personal photos: "I only keep the pix where I look my best."

This line of argument is disingenuous and misleading. When celebrities like Clarkson appear on the cover of magazines, they don't look their best -- they look far, far better (or at least far skinnier and more unblemished). No one has published the "before" photo of Clarkson, but for a sense of just how heavily cover subjects get worked over, check out Jezebel's expose of Redbook's Faith Hill cover or Dove's wonderful "Evolution" commercial. Hyper-enhanced images like these don't inspire women (or men) to be their best; they encourage them to aspire to an ideal that even the most beautiful people in the world can't attain.

Maybe it's the fault of us readers that we want to look at photos that make us feel inadequate, and maybe magazines shouldn't be blamed for giving them to us. But if that's what Danziger and her peers feel they need to do to sell copies, they should at least cop to it.

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