Today, altered images of girls and women (presumably men, too) depicting bodies shapes that are unattainable and unhealthy are used to sell everything from bikinis to lipgloss. This comes at a time when the American diet is one of highly-processed foods with high sugar, fat and salt content.
The result? Pictures of skinny young women made even skinnier with Photoshop are presented to an increasingly overweight and under-exercised population.
A video that recently went viral shows the transforming effect Photoshop has on a picture of a young blonde woman. It perfectly illustrates how the Photoshop process works. (Naturally, when I saw the video today on YouTube, the commercial preceding the video was for Jergens BB Body Perfecting Body Cream that, among other things, firms and "corrects" imperfections.)
If you haven't seen the video yet, watch it. It's illuminating and instructive. It shows just how far off images of teen girls and women in advertisements and magazines covers are from reality. They are false depictions and can be rejected as the standard to which girls and women aspire.
Of course, this video and the recent Target Photoshop story will not change what is real -- that images and messages of "perfection" coupled with unsustainable diets, lifestyles and stress levels are pulling people, especially young people, in two contradictory directions.
These two diverging realities, however, may be inching a little closer together for the benefit of everyone.
In January, American Eagle elected not to use Photoshop on its recent Aerie lingerie campaign. This is a small step in the right direction, and it would be nice to see a growing trend of retailers presenting clothes on unaltered teen girls and women. If the merchandise is any good, it should stand on it's own and not require alterations to the models wearing it.
On February 27, the FDA proposed updates to nutrition labels on food packages that would highlight calories, serving sizes and added sugars. This will create better, faster access to information about food, helping families make better dietary choices.
The question remains, how to counteract the latent negative messaging in these images? Answer: Offer your own messages.
• Message 1: Perfection is not the goal. Best effort and hard work is. Failure is OK -- learn from it. Take responsibility.
• Message 2: Food is fuel. Like a car, food fills up our tank and allows us do the things we love in life. Without this fuel, we go nowhere.
• Message 3: Good food makes us strong and smart. Whole, unprocessed food is best for strong, capable muscles and brains.
• Message 4: Sugar is fine. And it's fun! Do it in small amounts.
• Message 5: Fat is fine. And necessary. The right kinds are good for our brains, skin, hair and heart.
• Message 6: Our bodies need to move. Food helps our bodies stay active, and activity helps our entire body stay healthy. Even the cold virus has a harder time taking over when we are active, outdoors and using our muscles and lungs.
• Message 7: Our bodies are a gift. It's easy to nitpick, isn't it? Instead, focus on what can be done with the gift of a strong, healthy body. Whether it be personal goals or helping others, focused attention and energy on other matters diffuses the power and importance of less favored physical traits.
One thing we've learned from the Target Photoshop story is the pursuit of "perfection" comes at a cost. It certainly has cost Target (and Target has paid more because of proximity to the data breach).
But the cost is most grave for girls and women (and men, too) who struggle physically, mentally and emotionally with making sense of these opposing messages.