A Ban on Airbrushing?

December 26, 2018 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Orange County Register on December 26, 2018.

When celebrities come out with ideas for passing new laws, it’s usually polite to avert one’s glance and move on.

But a BBC opinion piece by British actor Jameela Jamil merits a closer, if critical, look. Jamil, known in this country for her work in The Good Place, says we should pass a law to ban photos that have been touched up to make people look better.

Seriously, that’s her idea. “Airbrushing of people in magazines and especially in advertisements shouldn’t be legal,” as she summed it up on Twitter.

She isn’t just upset about the occasional weirdly overdone spread in which someone wielding Photoshop as a laser sword takes a model who was skinny to begin with and whittles her down to the sort of size minus‐​6 that could never survive on planet Earth because oxygen has too many calories.

No, Jamil objects to the more ordinary use of the technique to smooth folds and erase wrinkles, “hide blemishes, brighten eyes and teeth,” and so forth.

She warns BBC readers that, “If you buy the products airbrushing is used to advertise, you won’t look like the person in the photograph.”

If this comes as a surprise to you, please exercise caution before stepping out of doors or in front of a mirror.

She’s against flattering filters too, not just on professional photographers’ cameras but also in selfies. Those serve, she writes, to legitimize “the patriarchy’s absurd aesthetic standards, that women should be attractive to the straight, male gaze.”

It’s not clear that the widely noted female wish to appear attractive in male eyes is some arbitrary construct that would go away if we somehow escaped the bonds of patriarchy. But she’s off and running, sounding like teenage Tumblr when she espies the most evil of motives: “They are trying to break you, so you will hate yourself.”

Inevitably, she’s on the bandwagon of those who blame eating disorders on media portrayals of unrealistic female beauty.

A 2011 article in the Review of General Psychology, however, found that family and peer influences had the biggest demonstrated influence on eating disorders, while that favorite bugaboo, media images, had effects so small and hard to measure that they might not exist at all.

If the use of craft and artifice in looking good is to be done away with, it will be only the start to get rid of airbrushing, filters, soft focus, and lighting secrets.

Cosmetics would be next, along with body‐​shaping garments, as well as the practice of curling or stretching one’s body into poses no one would get into if they didn’t look so cute.

As one Twitter user put it, “A photograph is always a (mis)representation.”

In Europe, which alas lacks a First Amendment, proposals to regulate advertisements have gotten some traction. Scandinavia pioneered the notion of policing the representation of gender norms in the ad biz; a panel in Sweden recently ruled the popular “Distracted Boyfriend Meme” to be sexist, which may restrict its public display in Stockholm ads. Britain’s self‐​regulatory Advertising Standards Authority lately announced a plan to disallow ads that commit such offenses as “showing family members creating a mess while a woman is seen having the sole responsibility cleaning it up”.

“It should not be possible to hide behind the freedom of speech when acting against human rights, ” claims the Swedish Women’s Lobby, a national group.

Here in the land of liberty, fortunately, we recognize that to ban display of someone’s airbrushed image even if they’re fine with the idea would constitute a trifecta of coercion, stomping on personal autonomy, freedom to contract with others, and freedom of the press.

After all, plenty of us are happy to have our pictures tinkered with to look a little better in our wedding pictures or if we’re on display in some other way. We’d rather people look at our expression, not the lipstick smudge or spot on our tie.

And friendly photography is a great equalizer, too. It can make most of us look pretty decent, even if Nature wasn’t as kind with us as she was with Jameela Jamil.

Or to coin a phrase: our bodies, ourselves.

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