It is tragic when young people get so concerned about their appearance that they deprive themselves of food and fall ill. That’s what happened to Rachel Johnson, a former anorexia sufferer who weighed just four-and-a-half stone in her teens. Now, the 20-year-old Johnson and her mother have launched a petition to ban airbrushed images that target under-16s. They believe that such a ban would help keep young people from striving for unrealistic body ideals.
Johnson believes that images of skinny celebs and models fuelled her own weight obsession as a teenager and made it harder for her to overcome her illness. She used to make scrapbooks with pictures of slim models which she would look at as a way of motivating herself to stay away from food and drink. But it wasn’t just altered pictures that upset Johnson – her main obsession seems to have been Victoria Beckham who, with our without airbrushing, is extremely slim.
While Johnson and her mother are going after airbrushed pictures, their real concern seems to be with contemporary body images and beauty ideals – and those can’t be altered simply by removing altered pictures from glossy magazines and billboards. Anyone who believes prevailing beauty ideals are problematic is going after a phantom enemy by targeting the advertising industry’s airbrushing practices. After all, advertisements reflect and perpetuate ideals that are grounded in society. They express and appeal to our desires, material needs and aesthetic sensibility. Whether you think these are positive or not, you can’t simply do away with them by rendering certain pictures unacceptable. That’s like trying to airbrush public life.
Worse, such an approach contributes to a censorious climate where everyone who feels that they would be better off without certain images or messages around them feels they have the right to call for the government or industry bodies to slap an embargo on those images. In recent years, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld complaints about ads that used young-looking models, ads that poked fun at religion, ads that portrayed women as sexual objects, ads that showed couples fighting… the list goes on.
Of course, companies have a responsibility to tell the truth in their ad campaigns and, critics of airbrushing say, retouched images are not truthful. But images are manipulated from the moment they’re taken, and not just in post-production. Models wear make-up and are told to strike poses. Photographers choose lighting, camera lenses and sets, to create certain looks. The point of advertising is to create an idealised version of reality. This can create a sense of pressure that can be positive for some insofar as it creates a striving for a better life, while for others it might be negative inasmuch as it inspires in certain people a feeling of inadequacy.
The hard truth is that it is neither possible nor desirable to banish all the things that make you feel uncomfortable, unhappy, angry or sick because in the end we’d have no images left to look at. Nor is it possible or desirable to single out airbrushed images as an explanation for why some young people suffer from eating disorders.
Johnson herself seems aware that it takes more than altered images of models to turn a young girl anorexic. ‘Although airbrushed images didn’t actually cause my eating disorder’, she told the Daily Mail, ‘once I was unwell I would obsess over them’.
Young or old, we all experience various forms of social pressure to behave in certain ways, to achieve certain goals or to conform to certain ideals held by parents, friends, colleagues and society at large. For instance, kids today are subjected to a relentless war on fat, which is being waged by everyone from government health officials to celebrity chefs, with teachers acting as school-lunchbox inspectors. It must be harder than ever to be the chubby kid in class when even adults are pointing fingers at you.
The idea that ridding glossy magazines and billboards of airbrushed images is a fair way of preventing destructive behaviour is based on the misguided notion that people simply copy things they see in the media, monkey-see, monkey-do style. Even children can differentiate between image and reality so, although contemporary pop culture features a great deal of skinny people, most young girls do not become anorexic. And while many of us have spent part of our teenage years obsessing over celebrities, as adults we get over them.
The e-petition drafted by Johnson and her mother is no doubt well-intended but, like other campaigns in that vein, it reinforces the idea that we need more media censorship. It assumes that, young and old, we are dupes of the advertising and beauty industries and are unable to set our own ideals or to differentiate between the glossy fantasy world of gossip mags and real life.