In Israel, an advertiser must state if it has used any kind of digital editing to create a slimmer model. Norway, France, and now the U.S. are considering similar measures.
For now, let’s put aside the rebuttal by industry insiders that this practice is so pervasive such a law is highly impractical. Let’s also side-step the more abstract philosophical arguments about how we know that anything is real.
The debate more generally highlights our fundamental tendency to believe that what we see in the media is “real” unless we are otherwise advised – and likewise our tendency to put more stock in what we see than in what we know. The true reality: Most of us are quite gullible and we’re quite content to be so. We willingly “suspend disbelief” any time we attend a live theatre production or watch a television sitcom. During these performances we enter into an unwritten compact with the show’s creators to assume that what we see is really happening. Even the current craze for “reality shows” belies the fact that there’s very little that’s real about them. Contestants are carefully screened, often coached, and sometimes willing to say or do whatever it takes to stand in the media spotlight.
Performances and marketing communications alike need to “sell” the receiver to achieve their objectives. Sophisticated digital technologies that remove cellulite or add higher cheekbones simply make the sales job a bit easier. Editing, whether roughshod or subtle, has been a fact of life for eons.
You don’t need to be a supermodel to “manage” the way you appear to others. In fact we all do it every day. If we didn’t, we would have no need for mirrors. Sixty years ago, the sociologist Erving Goffman, among others, wrote extensively about the elaborate process of impression management. Since that time, volumes of social psychological studies have empirically documented the preening process and the huge impact physical appearance exerts on our judgments of those around us (“beauty is only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone”).
Furthermore, we know that our perceptions of our own attractiveness profoundly influence feelings of self-worth as well. Way back in 1902, the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley wrote about the looking-glass self that operates as a sort of psychological sonar: We take readings of our own identity when we “bounce” signals off others and try to project their impression of us. Like the distorted mirrors in a funhouse, our appraisal of who we are depends on whose (imagined) perspectives we take. We also calibrate these sonar readings to the external standards we adopt: Studies show that young women alter their perceptions of their own body shapes and sizes after they watch as little as 30 minutes of TV programming.
But these standards have always been idealized. Throughout history, cultural elites and rulers have meticulously edited the impression they communicate to their peers and followers. It’s hard to imagine that Julius Caesar, George Washington, or the British royal family (past and present) didn’t have strong opinions about which of their images would adorn currency or portraiture and the details that might appear (most likely with some embellishment) in official biographies. Today of course a massive public relations machine carefully crafts the images of celebrity clients. And, our First Lady’s recent settlement in a libel suit against The Daily Mail to protect her image as “…one of the most photographed women in the world” speaks volumes about the careful cultivation of a public persona.
Every society anoints certain men and women as aesthetic ideals, and motivates emulation of these ideals as it rewards attractive people (however defined) and makes life a bit more difficult for the rest of us. While there is legitimate cause for concern, the current discourse about the demoralizing impact of digitally altered photography is old wine in new bottles. Just as the victors in a war get to write its history, people with resources always get to manipulate the image they convey to others. Today they just have access to more powerful tools that enable them to do this.
Here’s what is different now: Mainstream consumers can play with the same tools as they too carefully sculpt their public images. At the risk of stating the obvious, the entire cosmetics and apparel industrial complex owes its very existence to the desires of the masses to manage their social identities. Professional “identity managers” assume many forms, from hairstylists and cosmetologists to wardrobe consultants and resume writers. And, more radical approaches that used to be available only to those with significant resources now are in the mix as well. Doctors perform nearly 860,000 cosmetic-surgery procedures in the U.S. each year alone. In some circles nose jobs or breast implants are part of the rite-of-passage for teenage girls, and an increasing number of men spring for pectoral enlargements.
We may still need a trained surgeon to reshape a troublesome nose, but we can undertake other makeovers on our own. This is especially true when it comes to the identity we express on digital platforms. Professional editors have long been able to wield their airbrushes to give us advertising images of breathtakingly beautiful people who literally do not exist in the real world. Indeed Hugh Hefner probably owes his fortune to the abilities of the technicians who created Playboy’s centerfolds beginning in the 1950s. Today, many techie teenagers can effortlessly produce the same results with PhotoShop or even SnapChat. Millions of us manage – and embellish — our digital identities when we strategically populate a Facebook profile page or post a self-aggrandizing ad (perhaps with vintage photo from 20 years ago to match) on an online dating site. To repurpose an old joke, “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”