Photoshopped Pictures Hurt Body Image, Even With Disclaimers

stack of magazines

From magazine covers to billboards to TV ads, slender models seems to be everywhere. And while many people know the ideal body advertised is often impossible for the average person, few realize just how many of these “perfect” bodies have been made that way with help from a computer. As technology has become better and better at hiding imperfections, it’s become hard to tell who’s been Photoshopped and who hasn’t. To help protect unknowing viewers from striving towards these impossible ideals, body image advocates have called for labels on photos that don’t represent reality. But new research published this week has found that just knowing a photo has been manipulated may not be enough to ward off its harmful effects.

How do photos of thin models affect people who see them?
It probably comes as no surprise that many women aren’t completely satisfied with their bodies, and often feel as though their body is far from perfect. Study after study has shown that the use of thin models in advertising can make that self-perception worse. While you might not have been happy with your thighs in general, seeing several pictures of women with perfectly slender legs can make you feel even worse about what you have. Research has indicated this effect is particularly bad for women who are unhappy with their body, but that even those who are satisfied can be negatively affected.

What’s been offered as a solution to this problem?
While the media has started trending toward using models with different body types, even those who are more full-bodied can seem to have flawless, pore-free skin and smooth legs without cellulite often thanks to digital manipulation. To combat these unachievable “ideal” bodies being plastered all over websites, magazines, and newspapers, activists have advocated for a disclaimer on photos. The disclaimer is kind of like the warning label you see on cigarettes and would be required on every photo that had been photoshopped or digitally manipulated in some way. The goal would be to alert those seeing the pictures that the bodies on the page aren’t 100 percent real.

Another strategy, called culture jamming or subvertising, is a way activists have used to show contradictions or flaws present in the advertisement. It serves as a way to undermine what the advertisers are trying to do. A common example is superimposing a slogan or funny phrase over the top of an existing advertisement or logo. The goal is to push viewers to think critically about what they’re seeing, to reflect on how it’s making them feel, and to decide whether or not the message they’re being sent is one they believe. What studies hadn’t conclusively shown was whether either of these strategies really helped to decrease the impact of seeing thin models on a person’s body image.

How did the researchers study body image?
The team did two experiments with 1268 women mostly in their late twenties to early forties for the first study and 820 women of about the same age in the second study. In the first study, participants looked at either unchanged advertisements, advertisements with disclaimers, or subverted advertisements and were asked to rate the attractiveness of the woman for each picture. In the second study, the participants did the same thing, but some had no images to look at as a comparison. Participants were asked to rate how much they liked the bikini the model was wearing, but they didn’t have an explicit direction to rate her attractiveness. The participants were asked a number of questions before and after to assess their body image, desire to be thin, feelings about different parts of their body, and how attractive they felt they compared to others.

What did the researchers find?
When all of the data was analyzed the researchers found no difference in how women felt about their bodies regardless of whether they saw regular advertising or advertisements that had a disclaimer or subversive phrase on it. They found that all images made women feel worse about their body compared to not seeing any images even if they now knew it was photoshopped or that it portrayed an unrealistic ideal.

What does this mean for me?
While it’s clear that something needs to be done to fight the unrealistic body images that bombard us on a daily basis, this study shows that just putting disclaimer text or commentary on the pictures isn’t enough to prevent the damaging effects these images can have. What might work? The researchers think it might not be enough to passively look at the pictures. Instead, they suggest making your own “subvertisements.” Pick up marker and your favorite magazine and get to work highlighting for yourself the unrealistic and likely photoshopped pictures you see. Going through this process by yourself or with a few friends might help you think critically about what you’re seeing and fend off negative feelings in the future.