No body is perfect. We all know that. Yet idealized images of perfection are everywhere, especially in the media.
This perfection is usually little noticed except when the subject is a woman. Examples surround us daily, though often only the most dramatic ones stand out, such as when actress Kate Winslet was digitally slimmed on the Feb. 2003 cover of "GQ," providing fodder for media critics and late-night talk show hosts.
While images of women in magazines from "Playboy" to "People" are routinely enhanced and retouched, it happens to men too.
When tennis star Andy Roddick appeared on the cover of the June/July 2007 issue of "Men's Fitness" magazine, he looked much beefier than usual. The art director had digitally enlarged his arms and chest, much to Roddick's surprise and amusement.
Photo retouching is often done at the request (or demand) of the person being photographed: The photographer's job is not to accurately reflect reality, but to make the subject look good and help sell the product. Aging film stars and celebrities (especially women) are notorious for having crow’s feet and age spots erased; there’s a reason a lot of Glamour Shots are in soft focus.
Critics who point out that commercial images of women are retouched to perfection often act as if they are exposing some ad industry secret, when they are merely pointing out the obvious. Everything you see in the media is in some way fake: Photos of women's bodies, men's bodies, children's bodies, animal's bodies, packs of gum, new cars, cell phones, bottles of beer, bread, apples, iPods, everything.
Any advertising product that appears in the media has been meticulously lit, retouched, and airbrushed. Take that giant photo of an apple hanging in the produce area of your local supermarket—the rich red one with the one green leaf sprouting off to the side of the short stem. The one with the glistening highlights just above the perfectly-formed crest. That apple doesn't exist; it's a fake, idealized, made-up image of someone's idea of the Perfect Apple.
Or photos of prepared dishes in cookbooks, which are elegantly presented and garnished on upscale plates with shiny, polished flatware—hardly representative of how food is eaten in most homes. This expectation of perfection was satirized in the 1993 Michael Douglas film "Falling Down," where Douglas's character walks into a fast food restaurant and becomes upset when the hamburger he gets doesn't look like the giant, perfect burger in the poster behind the counter.
No one criticizes the advertising industry for idealized images of cars or apples or tropical beaches; it's only images of women's bodies that rouse the critics' ire. The reason is that some believe that young women who see thin models and celebrities may develop low self-esteem or an eating disorder, though decades of research has largely failed to find evidence for this theory.
The truth is that while most female models in advertisements are thinner than the average American woman, most are not unhealthily thin. Advertisers want attractive models in their ads who will complement the product they are selling, not ghastly skeletons that will detract from their product and turn off their customers. There are tens of millions of beautiful women both in and out of the media spotlight, in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Everyone enjoys apples that don't look like the Perfect Apple, and men date women who don't look like supermodels. "Perfect images" have nothing to do with it.
It's also not true that the media only glamorize and idealize celebrities. In fact, every month or two the tabloids take great delight in printing unflattering photos of stars and celebrities, pointing out their flaws and showing them disheveled and without makeup. Those unflattering photos may be more "realistic," but are they more "real" than the retouched ones? Most people—Kate Winslet and Andy Roddick included—would probably rather be digitally slimmed down or beefed up than be photographed at their 6 a.m. worst.
Of course commercial photographs are unrealistic; all photography is selective and unrealistic. The simple act of smiling for a photo is artificial, since (with the exception of those creepy, perpetually perky people) that's not what we look like most of the time. Photography itself is artifice, and unrealistic, "perfect" images are mostly harmless. Sometimes it's difficult to accept perfection.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media and pop culture in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.