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Airbrushing is a practice that reinforces unattainable societal norms

Jameela Jamil recently commented, writing for the BBC’s ‘100 Women’, that airbrushing is ‘a disgusting tool that has been weaponised, mainly against women’, adding her voice to an increasingly long list of people that have spoken out against the practice.

Whilst airbrushing is nothing new (it has effectively existed for as long as photography) it has increased in sophistication with the advent of computers and sophisticated programmes such as Photoshop, which allow minute and almost imperceptible ‘improvements’ or changes to be made to a photo. In fact, even before photography Oliver Cromwell’s alleged demand for his portrait to be painted ‘warts and all’ demonstrates how it has always been standard practice for the subjects of images to quietly have their perceived blemishes and imperfections removed.

When it comes to paintings, the viewer expects there will be a gap between the work itself and the thing it depicts, but when we look at a photograph, we can expect not just to see an interpretation of the subject, but absolute, undiluted reality. Just googling ‘photography’ leads to dozens upon dozens of quotes relating to the perfectly captured moment frozen in time that a photo is seen to represent. Supposedly, the camera never lies and so it is easy to believe that the image we see is some kind of truth or fact, be it of someone’s smoothie in an aesthetic coffee shop or a youthful-looking celebrity advertising a new anti-ageing moisturiser.

Of course, this is patently untrue. Anyone with an Instagram account knows that no small amount of consideration typically goes into creating a seemingly effortless post. There’s been an increasing amount of discussion from social-media stars about how their photographically ‘perfect’ lives are not so perfect in reality; this could seem obvious, but when casually scrolling it’s easy to assume that something glanced at for a few seconds is reality.

Few images are really what they seem to be at first glance. However, airbrushing represents a particularly insidious concern. It takes the ability to manipulate and change images far from the realms of better lighting, or professional makeup and styling, into things which simply cannot be achieved in real life. We look at photographs and can tell that they have been edited: no one’s hair is that smooth, no-one’s skin is that flawless and so on. But at the same time, as numerous studies have proven, it is still damaging to self-confidence. Airbrushing does nothing but harm, and whilst it doesn’t always dupe consumers and viewers outright, it represents a war of attrition which chips away at our happiness to replace it with a quietly omnipresent sense of dissatisfaction with our very existences.

In the UK, and indeed across the rest of the world, body-confidence is a pervasive concern. These issues cover a range of appearance-related issues, from weight to skin colour to conformity to gender norms. The role of the media in this is crucial. Over two-thirds of the respondents to the 2016 Dove Self-Esteem survey (in this case, women and girls across thirteen different countries) cited television, magazines, and social media, to name a few, as the main causes of their worries about appearance. These mediums are the main vehicles by which we are confronted with edited, unrealistic images in a world such as ours that is geared towards consumption.

Similarly, if the products we see advertised are worth our money, they ought to be able to stand on their own without yet another layer of Photoshop-based enhancement. But the fact remains that airbrushing is a highly effective marketing technique to present an apparently perfect product for an apparently perfect person living an apparently perfect life in order to sell products to consumers who are pressured to aspire to that tantalising, but necessarily out of reach, world.

There are further, deeper ills to consider: airbrushing is a practice that reinforces unattainable societal norms and boundaries, seeking not just to beautify, but to exclude and erase. It imposes a notion of the ‘perfect’ which tends to be light-skinned, of a certain body shape (and always able-bodied), conforming to gender binaries and youthful. Airbrushing suggests the existence of an ‘ideal’ person and is therefore a manifestation of structures of power in our society which marginalise and oppress.

Whilst banning airbrushing would not entirely destroy these structures, nor the pervasive and fickle beauty norms imposed upon so many of us in so many areas of our lives, it would go some way in ensuring we are confronted with pictures of real people and real bodies with diversity, showing us that this is something to be celebrated. Ultimately, airbrushing serves no positive purpose. At the very best, it is unnecessary; at worst, it is a harmful tool of oppression. It seems we have a way to go yet, but Jameela Jamil’s call for an end to the practice is a welcome addition to a discourse that will hopefully become a clamour of voices loud enough that it cannot be ignored.

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