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Yes Photoshop Is Bad, But Getting Rid of It Won’t Solve Our Self-Esteem Issues

We don’t need to let our self-confidence be at the mercy of a magazine cover.
photoshop body image beauty self worth media culture

Photo credit: Alex Mazurov

What do you remember about the year 1990? Julia Roberts made us believe in Prince Charming with the release of Pretty Woman; parachute pants were having their first (but not last) moment of popularity; and Vanilla Ice was topping the music charts. Less well-known but of great importance, however, was the release of a computer program that changed the game forever. That’s right, I’m talking about Photoshop.

Flash forward to today, when the media’s obstinate use of Photoshop is mind-blowing. In the past decade, a barrage of Photoshop scandals have occurred—discrepancies that have ranged in severity from the infamous darkening of O. J. Simpson’s complexion in Time magazine to countless instances of tacking celebrity faces onto chiseled bodies. Or we can look to more recent offenses such as Justin Bieber’s enhancement for Calvin Klein ads or Jezebel offering a hefty bounty for the non-doctored photos from Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot. The outcry is happening, but what kind of progress is really being made?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I have yet to meet anyone who likes how Photoshop is used these days. I have never heard people say they think the extent to which fashion models, celebrities, and politicians are digitally altered is having a positive impact on society. Quite the opposite. Just last month, Valeria Lukyanova aka “The Human Barbie,” came under fire when she confessed to airbrushing her photos. Lukyanova has long admitted to using hair extensions, breast augmentation, and extensive makeup to achieve her look, but she has historically denied the use of Photoshop. The fact that she lied about undergoing the digital knife while publicly admitting to undergoing a surgical knife tells us something about Photoshop’s approval rating.

I think it’s great that Verily exists—a brand committed to not using Photoshop to alter women in its imagery—but in that way, it is somewhat of a cultural anomaly. For every publication that refuses to photo-edit its models, hundreds more already exist that are shamelessly altering their images. Clothing stores, magazines, advertisements, and more continue to shrink, buff, smooth, and even chop down their models, often with comically absurd results.

The pervasiveness of Photoshop in the media is also seriously concerning, not so much because the photographs are not real but because they are being presented as though they are. This practice distorts our perception of beauty—with measurable consequences, particularly on young women. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that how women are portrayed in the media is linked to their mental and physical health, especially in relation to body image dissatisfaction, the prevalence of which cannot be overstated. A study published earlier this year found that “87 percent of U.S. women are unhappy with at least one body part.” One in every five women has plans to pursue cosmetic procedures, and one in every three would consider it. The number one reason the surveyed women were considering such procedures? The “desire to feel more comfortable with oneself.” 

Given this, it is understandable that public opposition to the use of Photoshop has morphed into a kind of digital witch huntSpeculations are made and suspects are put on trial, and then they are virtually burned at the stake via public shaming. (Anyone remember the Beyoncé–L’Oreal Photoshop debacle? Or the many times Bey has been called out for allegedly doctoring her Instagram photos?) Understandable, yes—but ultimately counterproductive.

If I thought that a woman’s self-esteem ought to correspond to where she falls on the prevailing scale of physical beauty, then I would think this “witch hunt” worthwhile. As if to say, “Let’s find out who doctors their photos, so we can know who, really, is the fairest of them all.” Sure, if my confidence has to be determined by my spot on a scale from least beautiful to most beautiful, I’d like the scale to be accurate. But it doesn’t. In my mind, that perspective gives women far too little power over their own happiness—and the media far too much.

Like so many others, I have attempted to assuage feelings of physical inadequacy with the consolation that the beauty game is rigged. But what started as a way to cope with the impossible levels of perfection I saw on magazine covers became my default method of dealing with all the beautiful women in my life. Rather than appreciating stunning pictures of friends and acquaintances, I found myself wondering whether or not they’d been airbrushed. “They don’t look like that in real life,” I have often thought to myself. “It’s the lighting, the contrast, the filter.”

These thoughts started to consume rather than console me, and that’s when I realized: More important than finding out whether people are editing their photos is the much bigger issue that we are deriving our confidence from where we fall on the scale in the first place. And obsessing over the fact that “no one really looks like that” does not solve that. In fact, it may actually be doing more harm than good.

The “no one looks like that” approach to repairing self-esteem attempts to boost confidence by acknowledging that we are not as far from the top of the beauty totem pole as a magazine cover or lingerie ad would have us believe. But encouraging young women to draw comfort from the understanding that the latest Cosmo cover is retouched, regardless of whether it is true, is really just reinforcing the notion that their self-esteem ought to be dictated by how their looks stack up against everyone else’s.

In all the talk and debate about Photoshop, here’s the question no one seems to be asking: Why is beauty in others—enhanced or not—such a threat to our egos?

While it may be comforting to know that Beyoncé has acne and Kim Kardashian has cellulite, confidence that is buoyed by finding flaws in others is no confidence at all. True self-confidence is immune to comparison. It can recognize and appreciate strengths in others without viewing them as a threat to oneself.

As destructive as Photoshop is, getting rid of it cannot give us that kind of confidence. Confidence is found in recognizing that our self-worth is not determined by our physical appearance. Confidence is built on the knowledge that there is no scale of human value by which we are ranked according to our composite strengths and weaknesses. Confidence is knowing that we are so much more than the smoothness of our skin or a number on a scale.

In the interest of building true confidence, the knowledge that no one’s skin glows like fill-in-the-blank-celebrity’s did in such-and-such magazine will always fall short. However, even Photoshop cannot hurt the confidence of a woman who recognizes her inherent self-worth. I don’t pretend that I am there yet, but I know that when I am, it won’t matter whether Christina Aguilera has a crystal clear complexion or Jennifer Lawrence’s waist is as thin as it was on the cover of Flare magazine—because I’ll know that my self-worth is not diminished by these things either way.

I long for the day that, like Verily, all magazines are Photoshop-free. I long for the day that society’s perception and representation of female beauty reflects the unreproducible beauty of real women—signs of aging and all. But even more than that, I long for the day that each of us knows just how worthy we are. We don’t have to wait for Photoshop to die away for that to happen. We don’t need to let our self-confidence be at the mercy of a magazine cover.