There was a time when changing the appearance of a woman in a photograph would take hours and hours of expert, painstaking work by hand. Techniques in the darkroom allowed 20th-century photo editors to “dodge” or “burn”: over- or under-expose images in order to remove “flaws”, such as fine lines or rippling pockets of fat. Retouching required specialist equipment – paints, gelatine, brushes.
Towards the end of the century, Photoshop transformed the way image manipulation was conducted, but nonetheless it still required time and skill from trained professionals, and the software was expensive.
Now, thanks to the rapid rate at which software has developed, anyone can retouch a photograph of themselves in a matter of seconds. Powerful phone apps have, to an extent, democratised photography, in that people can experiment creatively with the images they produce without forking out money for expensive equipment or spending hours hunched over a magnifier. The history of the medium tells us that photographic images have been doctored since its very inception. It is nothing new. But still, there is a dark side to the way retouching is used, especially when it’s on women’s bodies.
At a recent barbecue, a friend showed me how you can doctor your Instagram photos using a new app. At the touch of a button, she smoothed skin and slimmed limbs, adjusted contrast and lighting, airbrushed out “imperfections”.
This girl, by the way, is sensationally beautiful: the kind of girl women follow around rooms like cartoon bitches drooling over a dangled pork chop. And yet she airbrushes herself.
Retouching and airbrushing are rife not just among the glossy pages of magazines but also on social media platforms such as Instagram – platforms that make claims of veracity and authenticity despite attempts by teenagers such as Essena O’Neill to reveal the truth behind the images.
Some phones now even do the work for you. In June, Instagram user Mel Wells blasted Samsung for automatically doctoring her selfies using its “beauty” setting. Forget the glamorous magazine offices of New York, Paris and London for a moment. Images of female perfection are being created by teenagers in the front room.
The result is huge damage to the confidence of young women. Because now, not only are they comparing themselves with the models and actresses in magazines and on their screens, but with their peers – and, perhaps most distressingly, with themselves.
You create an online alter ego for yourself, and she is gorgeous and sexy and perfect. She adheres to whatever archetype is popular among your friendship group, school, class demographic – whether it’s the skinny supermodels of high fashion or the pneumatic, waist-trained hourglasses of the Kardashian clan. But then you see yourself in the mirror, and it’s just not good enough.
Of course, there is an element of narcissism in selfie culture, even if it is one largely rooted in insecurity – where the likes and the compliments appear to add value to your existence as a young woman in a society obsessed with female bodily perfection. Humans have always been narcissists – they just didn’t have the technology to facilitate it. And everyone else wasn’t doing it too, egging you on, making you feel worthless if you didn’t participate.
Now it is worse than ever. These girls sit on their devices, entranced by a universe in which they feel as though they matter, and they are increasingly unreachable.
In 2017, we’re beyond needing to teach girls about the artifice behind image manipulation. They know very well. But that doesn’t mean that they are immune to its effects, that they don’t desperately feel the need to change themselves as they compare their young bodies to those of supermodels.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that this is a toxic development in the adolescent experience of young women. It’s unbelievably easy to doctor a photo.
I wouldn’t be a product of my environment if I didn’t think the “after” image trumped the “before”. The difference is, I would never post it claiming to be the truth; lots of younger girls would.
That sister, friend or niece of yours could be sitting over there in the corner on her phone cutting bits off herself with the precision of a surgeon, ruthlessly assessing her flaws with an eye more critical than the most selective model booker in New York City. And you’d never know.