Recently, I hired a photographer to take photos for me to use professionally for headshots and Instagram posts. I was excited to have photos I’d be proud to display with my work, but I didn’t expect to be involuntarily Photoshopped and experience subsequent questioning about my body image.
As a Verily reader, you probably know that this magazine does not support Photoshopped photos. This is a decision that I applaud, because Photoshop has so negatively influenced our media landscape and the way women see themselves. According to Drs. Grabe, Hyde, and Ward in the Psychological Bulletin, “Among the many forces believed to play a role [in body dissatisfaction] is the increasingly thin ideal dominating the media.” The findings of their study supported this. “[Negative body image] feelings are not inconsequential . . . They have been linked to critical physical and mental health problems.”
There is some good news, though: if a woman can win one battle, she can become more immune to societal pressures. In a study published in Body Image, an American academic journal, researchers also found that that media images most hurt those who already have negative body image feelings. It’s unfortunate that media ideals make things worse for those already vulnerable, but it does mean that if a woman works on improving her body image, it can help immunize her against the onslaught of images of the “ideal body” in media. According to Dr. Emma Halliwell’s study “The Impact of Thin Idealized Media Images on Body Satisfaction,” “positive body image protects women from negative environmental appearance messages and may be an effective intervention strategy.”
But none of this was on my mind at the time that I hired the photographer. When she arrived, we took photos inside a beautiful garden and a century-old building in Los Angeles. She later emailed me to ask about Photoshop, which was listed as part of the service. I skimmed the photos and picked out ten in which my clothes were wrinkled in a way that seemed distracting. There was a large crease across my skirt in a few photos, and in another set my blazer flapped open, showing a distracting white interior pocket. I asked for only changes involving things that we could have fixed easily during the shoot in real life—by smoothing my skirt or putting a hand on the blazer to keep it down.
The photographer fixed what I requested, and then volunteered another folder of snaps: “My own picks,” she said. I thanked her and clicked through them when I had time later that week. These photos were drastically Photoshopped: significant parts of my body were missing or had changed shape before my eyes. She’d managed to zero in on the parts of my body that I’m well aware are not considered “conventionally beautiful”: lopsided arms, sloping shoulders, a definite pear shape. I’m sure she meant to be helpful, either by providing me with “perfected” photos or by showcasing her skills, but the result was offensive. It hurt, for a moment, to have my assessments of my body so clearly confirmed by an objective third party.
I quickly felt insulted at the assumption that I’d appreciate these photos of myself with a “better” body, one in which all my flaws were “fixed.” Dr. Grabe confirms what we already know: “Body dissatisfaction has reached normative levels” among American women. Though I certainly felt dissatisfied with myself for many years, I have not been a part of this group for quite some time. Now, I find joy in my body and feel beautiful every day—something that I’ve worked hard at.
Embracing the hard-won battle of loving my body
So I reminded myself that achieving permanent, significant psychological shifts in perspective and thought processes was a long, hard journey! I remembered that I first cut out objectifying or negative magazines and then worked on myself. For every insecurity, for every negative thought I had about myself, I replaced it with multiple positive thoughts: my skin might be pasty, but I love my freckles, my hair color, and my collarbone. Over and over and over again, for more than a year, I combatted negative thoughts in this way. I avoided participating in the overly self-deprecating conversations that women can sometimes engage in as a form of bonding.
I remembered that it had taken me a while to realize that body confidence and beauty aren’t necessarily correlated. After all, even stunning actresses such as Olivia Wilde and Penelope Cruz have said that they don’t consider themselves “beautiful,” and other gorgeous performers, such as the singer Pink, have been told they’re “not pretty enough.” After meeting many a woman who was quite self-conscious despite having what seemed to me to be the definition of the “perfect look,” I decided I’d rather learn to live with imperfections and pursue confidence than try to achieve some higher level of beauty while still feeling insecure. It’s also helpful to remember that, as they say, another kind of beauty does not detract from your own. Aly Raisman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle Yeoh, Serena Williams, America Ferrera, and Helen Mirren, to name a few women, are all beautiful in very different ways. Comparisons are harmful, especially when we remember that beauty is unique in form and shape, whether that’s muscles, height, angles, or curves.
Comparison is a learned behavior, and it can be refined. I can recall the number of times I sat with my relatives, looking through photo albums and listening to older relatives reminisce about their lives as teenagers and young adults. Often, their constant refrain was that they looked so young and beautiful thirty, twenty, or even just fifteen years ago—and how unaware they were of it at the time. When they looked back with the perspective that some distance provides, they didn’t spend time remembering their insecurities or picking out new faults—they only admired themselves.
If women and men could view themselves at twenty, thirty, or forty through the perhaps wiser eyes of their older selves, maybe they could find more meaningful success and spend more time enjoying life rather than being consumed with self-consciousness. It’s hard work to adopt a new perspective and change your thought processes, but as studies show, doing so does help immunize you from the pressure of the cultural “ideal,” as well as other people’s less-positive perspectives.
Scanning the photographer’s altered photos that day, I realized that they reflected not my world, but hers—and a sad world it was to me. I hope she has a friend who encourages her to be happy with herself—and to let others be happy with themselves, too.