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Challenge: The Authenticity Risk

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When it comes to dismantling digital deception, a man emerges as an ideal female model.

Last week, an enemy of women became a hero. And I'll say something I rarely utter: I want to follow a man's lead, and you should, too. Come with me for a moment.

You're standing in the grocery line after work feeling great about a hard-won success, when suddenly you are struck with a bizarre bodily self-consciousness. You realize you've been mindlessly staring at the check-out display of magazines. Those cover girls are perfect. You can't figure out why after such a productive day, you feel so bad about yourself.

You're brushing your teeth in the bathroom you share with your partner and glance at a stash of Maxim and GQ. You take in the impossibly flawless, barely-clad woman on the cover, heralded by the caption "Every Man's Ultimate Desire." You look in the mirror. I'm nothing like her. When you climb into bed with the person you love, you don't feel like being touched.

You finally motivate to the gym and open Vanity Fair on the elliptical. Flipping through ads for wrinkle-erasers and cellulite-reducers, you consider the artwork-like models that have neither. You can't reconcile the images to reality and default to self-criticism. To compensate, you think exactly what the advertiser wants: That could be me. You can't decide whether to give up, go home and eat a gallon of ice cream or hold down the "speed up" button and run without going anywhere until you pass out.

The scenarios are as endless and varied as the diverse women who experience them. Regardless of nuance, it's likely we all have been subdued, intimidated, or sent into a distracting mental shame spiral by the ridiculously other-worldly, digitally enhanced images of women we see constantly in advertising. This is nothing new. The interesting thing is this: Many of us whose lives are diminished to any degree by this practice are still hungrily consuming the media and products that employ false images of female bodies. We've never organized to stop it, even though we have the spending power of over 50% of the population.

Despite our knowledge of the insidious dynamics, we accept the excuse "it's business, not personal," and therefore normal to put the well-being of companies over the people they're created to serve. Women stay paralyzed in self-doubt, when we could free up that energy and be out changing the world. Are you done buying in? Me too.

And an unlikely hero is stepping up by outing himself. Roy A. Cui, a well-established digital retouching artist for high-profile ads, launched the video blog Roy A. Cui: Traitor to the Media Machine. He explains why he became a digital retouching artist, how wealthy companies standardized wide-spread digitizing, and his own epiphany about how damaging his daily work is to women. He speaks gravely and bravely into the camera:

I'm a part of the media machine that has suckered you into thinking that you need to look like this flawless person who does not exist anywhere in the world. You then feel unhappy with how you really look, so you buy the products that the person of perfection is using in the image that I retouched.

Cui says he never realized his manipulation of reality was psychologically deadly for women. Many buy in to the same excuse: "Everyone knows everything is retouched right? If they don't, it's not that big of a deal. We take everything we see with a grain of salt, right?" At the alarming rate eating disorders are increasing and plastic surgery is skyrocketing, I'd suggest that's a short-sighted assumption to make about the impressionability of the human psyche.
Cui says things changed when he saw Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary Miss Representation and was shocked when an ad he retouched was a featured example of sexism and female objectification in media. As the father of an 11-year-old daughter, he had to do something. Although he has a family to support, he is risking his career and reputation to speak out against his own trade.

What if we each did something similar in our own sphere of influence? What if we measured our own success by whether we make life better or more difficult for all types of women, everywhere? Communal thinking is imperative to equality and respect for both genders and all gender identifications. Considering the precariousness of the environment and global sustainability, we benefit from publishing women's ideas more than women's digitally-lengthened, slimmed-down legs. Similarly, a wise economic solution is not putting bartenders in short skirts so churlish men buy more beer. That perpetuates the old economy, the old regime, the outdated and overused, the ultimately futile and flaccid. Upgrading the value of women's dignity and full development is the answer. It's undeniable that our confident, focused presence is desperately needed at this point in history.

And what does it mean culturally that women as they are are no longer good enough for advertising? That's one collaboration women have always been assured. We've been focused on proving our worth as intellectual leaders, only to find our physicality being newly upgraded to "humanly unattainable" by powerful (mostly) men. As we achieve more, it's suspicious that we're being shamed back into old obsessions with the skin our brains are in.

Those of us who point out sexism are often considered "too much," annoying threats to the status quo (what if women really think and stop going along with our whims!?). But apparently women who meet high cultural beauty (salability) standards are "not enough" anymore. This is a tricky trap.

As Cui illustrates, real-life super-models no longer peak the need and close the sale. Even after hours of professional make-up, hair extensions, complex lighting, push-up bras and full body re-shapers, super-women are still extensively retouched. Throw in liposuction, Botox and plastic surgery on everything from breasts to belly buttons to vaginas, and consider that even the women who have embarked on that frontier still require digital perfecting.

What are we letting them do to us? What are we doing to ourselves?

We must protest the systemic re-creation of women into idealized, overly-sexualized caricatures of what some seriously misled (I'm being generous) exec thinks constitutes "the perfect female." Consumers must be the voice of reality when the realness of the silent ad image is brushed away. This removal of humanness has dangerous consequences.

This harsh treatment by the media for which we are hired to produce revenue recalls a time women were bought and sold as property subjected to another more powerful will. Our acquisitive society still utilizes women as if we were an abundant natural resource -- inter-changeable, disposable devices for developing capital. We're collectable too, even more valuable in indiscriminate, vacuous herds coaxed and harnessed by some smug dude using X product or drinking X beer.

This indicates that in our economy, women are primarily valued as malleable marketing tools that can be manipulated indefinitely to generate revenue. Yet even as profitable commodities, it is made clear to us that our prototype has not been performing up to the heightening expectations. With digital re-creations at (usually the wrong) fingertips, the sky's the limit for perfection and profit that lines another pocket. This doesn't pay, crippling us emotionally and economically.

Are we doomed to be either too much, not enough or be franken-fembots? Not if we take the risk of authenticity by asking tough questions and thinking deeply about what the media machine asks us to do, buy into and be. Spend money on what nourishes, not kills, your spirit. Share Cui's blog. Write petitions, write policymakers, write poems. We can't re-write our troubling history, but we can script a healthy future.