First it was the video of the photoshopping of a model that went viral. Next, Meghan Trainor’s buzz-bating song of the summer, whose direct jab at the media’s use of the image editing software seemed ripped straight from the newsfeed. Since then, there have been countless replications of the Photoshop debate – the most recent and controversial one surrounding Kim Kardashian’s bare-all spread in Paper magazine, whose attempt to “Break the Internet” was not hindered by the general consensus that the images were heavily – even laughably – edited.
It wasn’t long before the discussion pointed towards a seemingly clairvoyant passage in Tina Fey’s 2007 book Bossypants, one in which she discussed the contributions of many a celebrity to the feminine beauty ideal, calling Kim the contrived conglomerate of such qualities: “The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”
Serendipitous though the mention of Kim seemed, it was actually a different passage from the book that is more pertinent to both the case of the Paper spread and the larger discussion of the role of photoshopping as a whole – one that even hit upon the feminist frenzy before it was one the most touted phrases of 2014.
Fey specifically alludes the role of photoshopping in a chapter in which she discusses her own encounters with it as a star of considerable media coverage. Here’s what Ms. Fey has to say about when it is – and isn’t – okay:
“Some people say it’s a feminist issue. I agree, because the best Photoshop job I ever got was for a feminist magazine called Bust in 2004 … I looked at the two paltry lights they had set up and turned to the editors. ‘We’re all feminists here, but you’re gonna use Photoshop, right?’ ‘Oh, yeah,’ they replied instantly. Feminists do the best Photoshop because they leave the meat on your bones. They don’t change your size or your skin color. They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.” (p. 159-160; emphasis added)
In other words, there’s a difference in the appropriateness of image edits that flatter and image edits that drastically alter. Even though the latter type may aspire to creating an image that is ideal, by the very nature of its deception, it’s not viewed as such.
“Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do. I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop … People have learned how to spot it … As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.” (p. 157-158).
Essentially, Fey is saying – circa 2007 – that while Photoshop is a negative influence, people are smart enough to realize both when Photoshop is being employed and that it is mostly used – as in Fey’s example – for the well-intentioned purpose of enhancement. She even went as far as to compare this enhancement, when utilized properly and not excessively, to other forms of adornment:
“If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings. No one’s ears are that sparkly! They shouldn’t have to be! … I won’t rest until people are only allowed to be photographed facing front under a fluorescent light.” (p. 158)
One thing Ms. Fey didn’t predict, however, was the rise of image editing as a social media pastime, courtesy of apps such as Instagram, which launched in 2010. Instagram has 300 million active monthly users – an even more staggering number when you consider that it constitutes 13% of all internet users.
Has the rise of user-friendly photo-editing applications, such as Instagram, led to a greater acceptance of photoshop? The recurring lists of celebrities maligned for noticeably photoshopping their photos on Instagram would suggest otherwise. Still, the question remains: how can we persecute the media for purporting unrealistic expectations of beauty (via Photoshop), when we are doing something similar to ourselves (via Instagram filters)? It’s similarly difficult to reconcile the #nofilter movement with the prevailing “do it for the vine” social media milieu. What do these conflicting taboos say about our culture? Is our use of social media improving, or – like the glaringly pixelated thigh gaps of many an over-photoshopped model – becoming even more warped?
It would seem that, as Fey’s jewelry analogy suggests, technological means such as filters and Photoshop are becoming as commonplace and acceptable means of adornment as makeup – which, though it gets the occasional slam for the inherent dishonesty of its concealing nature, has essentially become a social norm, so much to the extent that a woman who doesn’t wear makeup is considered a charming social oddity.
Which begs the inevitable question: if filters are the new makeup, to what extent will we go to make ourselves look beautiful online?
I suspect Tina Fey will soon – or rather, has already – produced some words of wisdom on the matter of the World Wide Web that will come to brilliant light when the newest wave of internet-based controversy breaks.
It’s not like she directly addressed “The Internet” itself in an open letter to haters in her book or anything like that. But until then, at least we have another Bossypants gem to sufficiently wrap up the debate:
“If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares?”