Commentary: For healthier female body images, let's drop Photoshop

The Kansas City StarDecember 8, 2011 

Thanks to a computer science professor and a Ph.D. student, American women may soon rediscover the muffin top.

And the crooked noses, upper-arm pudge and multifarious skin blemishes that skilled photo editors excise from the fashion plates that fill our glossy magazines and other venues for advertising.

This is progress. A step forward for the mental and physical health of young girls and women in America, who are constantly bombarded with idealized and increasingly synthetic facsimiles of the female body.

According to the New York Times, Dr. Hany Farid and Eric Kee of Dartmouth College have developed a computer algorithm to estimate how much a female image has been altered. Farid and a colleague had volunteer participants in a study pore over before and after photos to develop the tool. Yes, they measured bulges, flabby arms, blemishes, facial lines and other realities of the human body that are rarely seen in the glossy pages of magazines.

Prepublication tweaking of photos can range from a bit of retouching on uneven skin tones to completely realigning a nose and blotting from view the squishy cellulite on a thigh. The Dartmouth team’s computer tool ranks the changes on a scale from one to five. Their research will soon be published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Critics of the beauty-industrial complex here and in Europe have long complained about the psychological fallout of such imagery on girls and women who are exposed to it. Some have called for banning radical retouching, while others believe it ought to be labeled. Whatever regulation may be considered the Dartmouth research could be very useful in keeping advertisers and publishers honest.

It’s good to see the issue of body image is drawing the attention of a wider range of experts. Computer scientists are people one might presume have little interest in women’s self-help magazines -- and are also far removed from the hallways of American high schools where young girls struggle with anorexia or bulimia. Instead of studying, too many girls are dreaming of liposuction and other plastic surgeries to release them from the bodies they were born with.

More than half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys resort to skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, taking laxatives or other obviously unhealthy measures in an attempt to control their weight, according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Doctors see the consequences sitting in their office lobbies or being wheeled into emergency rooms. Eating disorders are incredibly complex and often are related to depression, addictions and compulsive disorders. The exact nature of that relationship is not completely understood and certainly differs from patient to patient. However, research has shown a strong influence in the advertising and editorial images of women that young girls are bombarded with daily. It’s high time for society to hold the purveyors of these images accountable.

The photo that ignited much of the increased focus was from a Ralph Lauren advertisement in 2009. The model, haughty in her pose and freakishly svelte in her jeans, had been retouched to levels that brought her to cartoonish. Her head appeared larger than her waist.

The two Dartmouth researchers looked into the issue after following how Europe has pressed for labeling photos within advertising, an attempt get the industry to fess up to how much touchup each image had undergone.

Good luck with that in the U.S. Advertising nearly always involves some slight of hand. Buy this product, consume that meal, and you will become healthier and wealthier and your children will be better behaved. Most of the time, consumers understand that fantasy is part of the sales pitch.

Still, if what advertisers are selling is a body image unattainable without digital help, well, that’s going too far, given the unintended consequences. And if computer science can pull back the curtain on this manipulation, I say hooray for it.

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