Thursday, April 26, 2012

Real or Retouched? Distorted Perceptions of Beauty

I’ve written before about the impact of digital retouching on our perceptions of what is real and what is beautiful.  Fortunately, youth are becoming savvier about how fake some of the images are in the media they consume. Yet I think we all underestimate the degree of re-touching and how much of it actually goes unnoticed. 

When I talk to teen girls about this,  they are aware that Photoshop can be used to change eye colour, darken or lighten skin tones, and hide blemishes.  However, this doesn’t stop them from comparing themselves to models in magazines, feeling inferior, and saving up for their own hair extensions, spray tans and make up that holds the promise of a flawless complexion.  Girls don't always see that in addition to the faux tan there is an altered bone structure, impossible thinness or a compilation of features from more than one model. 

When the illusion is not recognized, these images simply seem aspirational … they prompt girls and women to work a little harder to achieve a new standard of beauty. A standard where the bar rises more and more out of reach each year. 

When the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty first launched the Evolution video that I wrote about here,  it sparked a global conversation (and several million youtube hits) that still continues today.  Six years later, I am using this resource with a new generation of young girls to help them understand the resources and artifice that go into creating this illusion of beauty.  

But, despite increased attention being paid to the use of retouching in marketing photos, the effects are still being felt. The Real Truth About Beauty Research conducted by Dove found that only 9% of Canadian girls and 3% of women are comfortable calling themselves beautiful.

According to Sharon MacLeod, V.P. of Marketing, Dove has made a commitment not to distort any of their images to create an unrealistic or unattainable view of beauty.  They make a genuine attempt to demonstrate that beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colours and ages.

I don’t expect companies to stop wanting to sell their products so I have always appreciated Dove’s approach.  They don’t seek to convince women or girls to feel badly about themselves in order to be motivated to buy their products. I've been sent examples of other companies that have taken the lead from Dove and have made similar marketing changes – I think this is fabulous and shows the power of consumer advocacy. 

Today Dove launched a new creative campaign that demonstrates how extreme retouching can go virtually unnoticed… even by those of us who are shrewdly aware of it’s widespread use.

The photo at the top of this page shows an upside-down image of a normal looking woman. It is accompanied by upside down text to entice readers to turn the photo around. This works better in print, so I will save you the trouble of tilting your laptop or standing on your heard... you can see the flipped picture to the right.  When the photo is flipped, we can see that the woman's appearance is actually extremely distorted, with both her lips and eyes upside down. The accompanying text reads "Does retouching distort your perception of reality?"

When I first looked at the original photo, I really did not know that it was retouched; but after viewing it upside down… I wonder how I could not have seen that.  This makes it very apparent how impressionable girls and young women may not be aware of the majority of photo retouching that they view.

The new ad campaign launched in this morning’s edition of Toronto’s Metro and is available through an interactive and shareable application at  Visit to see more examples of extreme photo re-touching and tell Dove what you think and then continue the conversation at home.

Talk to your children about how photo re-touching distorts their perception of reality and how comparing themselves to something that isn’t real will always leave them feeling they are not good enough. Here are some tips to keep the conversation going:
  • Get outside to a local music festival or sports event and do some people watching together.  Take in the very real and very diverse beauty that surrounds us every day and notice how different this is to what girls are being told is beautiful. Challenge these notions.
  • During your daily life, make a point of admiring people of a wide range of physical appearances – admire them for their natural beauty and admire them for their efforts, talents and personality traits. 
  • Look at old family photo albums together and appreciate the beauty of past generations. Talk about how ideas of attractiveness change over time. Notice how inherited genetic traits get passed down from our ancestors and express gratitude that we can't Photoshop away this special gift of memory and history.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Parents Have Poor Body Image*

Over the years, concerned moms have asked me what they should do when a child has adopted body image issues from someone at home.  One mom, after a workshop, asked   “I think I have spent too much time worrying about my own weight in front of my ten year old daughter. I have heard her telling her friends she thinks she’s fat. Is it too late to fix this?” Another mom, a television host, told me on air that she had seen her five year old looking at her body in the mirror and asking “is my bum too big?” This mom astutely told me after the interview “when I saw her do that … I recognised that voice and that look on her face… that was me.”

Children get negative body messages in all kinds of places and some are more vulnerable to these messages than others.  The children who also get exposed to negative body talk in their families, have fewer safe places to grow naturally and be at home in their bodies.
Every day in every interaction, we are teaching our children something about how to think about themselves and how to appreciate and value their own features.   My own daughter has been told hundreds of times over the years: “you look just like your mom”.  For this reason,  more than any other, she has never heard me make a negative comment about my own appearance, my body shape or size. No matter how bad a day I may be having, I don't verbally degrade my worth in any way.  That doesn’t mean I’ve never had a self-critical thought… I just don’t express those things in front of a vulnerable child who is still shaping her own sense of identity and self-worth. 
If you believe you have modelled a poor attitude about weight or body shape, deal with it head on!  You might try telling your daughter:
You have heard me put myself down and worry a lot about my weight and I regret that. I have struggled with liking all of my body parts and accepting the body I have.  I don’t want you to have the same worries. Your body is just right for you!  I am going to commit to accepting that my body is also just right for me.
Begin to talk openly about your accomplishments, the things that give you pleasure and the parts of your body you appreciate. Openly admire other women of a variety of sizes: point out their skills and distinctive qualities as well as their beauty and confidence. When you exercise or make healthy food choices, you can talk about heart health, energy level and the pleasure you get in engaging in these things.  There is no need to talk about how wrong your body shape or size is and how much you desire to change it; if you need help healing your own body image issues – talk to your best friend or a counsellor. Modelling body comfort is just as important as talking about it. Put on your bathing suit and a pretty cover-up if it makes you feel better and take your daughter to the beach!

As Maya Angelou has said "when we know better; we do better."  Your daughter may not forget the early negative messages about weight but she will also remember that the parent who stopped worrying about weight all the time was more fun, had more energy and was happier.  That is a powerful lesson!

* parts of this article appeared in the Dove Self-Esteem Fund Ask Lisa column that ran in community newspapers in 2007 & 2008

Monday, April 09, 2012

Why I Am A Body Image Warrior (and how you can be one too!)

A colleague recently came to me with a personal issue and she prefaced her words to me by saying   “I just need to talk about this with someone who is a body image warrior”. I was excited and intrigued by her assessment of me and I have been giving a lot of thought to that phrase “body image warrior” and what that means for me.

I certainly wasn’t always a body image warrior.  In fact I spent all of my adolescence and early adulthood very much at war with my body. The reasons for this are many and not particularly unique; more important is how I got free of body hatred and learned to make peace.   There were not a lot of books written on the topic.  In fact when I wrote a college essay in my early 20’s that explored my own journey, my professor wrote “this must be published” in her notes.   When I read it over now, it is not a particularly brilliant piece of writing. It was just deeply personal and it had some fresh ideas that were original at the time. I now recognise  that almost no one was saying those things a couple of decades ago. There were no blogs or on line communities for women to explore their wellness.  There were only a few educational programs dedicated to eating disorder prevention in Canada.  Naomi Wolf had just written The Beauty Myth and for the first time, the topic of body image was slowly becoming part of the feminist discourse.  

In my college paper I made links between the experience of early trauma (in my case: several significant deaths in the family) and plummeting self-esteem and how this become internalised as negative body image for girls.  I made connections between the rapid body changes that occur at puberty and how this sometimes led to girls feeling out of control in every aspect of their lives; trying to regain control through control of the body.    I criticised the media messages that tell girls they are never good enough and the diet industry that makes promises that your entire life will be better and changed for the good when you lose weight.  Back then, I had no idea that diets actually don’t work and in fact cause permanent physiological changes to the body that lead to increased weight gain over time and a host of other health problems.[i][ii] I had no idea that 80 to 90% of all girls and women struggle with body image issues.[iii] I didn’t know that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls.[iv]

Now I know these things - I live them and breath them in my work and as a parent every day.  I know that girls are taught through magazine articles, the actions of characters in movies and books and sometimes through their family members to diet, over eat or hate their bodies in response to feelings of sadness, anger or conflict.  With skills to express or resolves these feelings, girls do not have to blame or hate their bodies. No one makes healthy or positive changes in their life from a place of self-loathing.  When girls and women learn to love and respect themselves and their body,  or at the very least learn to accept their natural body… they are most likely to nurture their body with enough sleep, better nutritional choices and balanced, fun activity.  They are less likely to do harm to a body they respect through alcohol, drugs, disordered eating and risky sexual choices.

The media is meaner, the models are leaner and the world is far more fat-phobic than it was 30 years ago when I was muddling my way through adolescence.  The dieting and anti-fat messages come at us thousands of times a day via the radio, social networks, billboards, television ads and shows, websites and magazines.   For these reasons and more… I have become a body image warrior. 

How to Be A Body Image Warrior 

  • Treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their body size.
  • Work to heal you own body disassatisfaction and buld a peaceful relationship with your apperance.
  • Speak up when you hear someone equate fatness with laziness, stupidity or moral inferiority.
  • Speak up when other adults focus all their energy and anger on the “social problem” of childhood obesity; this is adult sanctioned bullying and translates to fat bullying on the playground and in the classroom.
  • There may be real problems in your school or community pertaining to lack of activity and/or appropriate and diverse nutritional options for children and youth; speak up for ALL children of ALL body sizes.  Everyone needs activity because it is fun, builds community and builds skills. It  increases strength and heart and lung capacity. This is about good physical and mental health - not body size. Changing children's body shape and size should not be the goal. 
  • Stop bonding with other women over the things your dislike about yourself (Thighs! Cellulite!) and try bonding over the your joys, interests, values and achievements.
  • Avoid commenting on your children’s weight, your own weight or other people’s weight. Surely there are any number of things to notice and comment on when you greet someone you haven’t seen for a long time other than “you look like you’ve lost weight!”
  • Do not participate in “fat talk” which is the language women are taught to use from a young age.   Fat is not a feeling* so when you hear someone talk about feeling fat, get curious and find out what is going on for them.  Perhaps they are experiencing anger, frustration, loneliness or grief or just got reprimanded by a coworker. Offer some compassionate support for the real issue but don’t engage in the fat talk.
  • Do not participate in diet talk or critique your food or other’s food  – especially when people are eating.  Allow people to enjoy a peaceful, shame-free meal.
  • Believe that all bodies are good bodies! Coach your family & friends to accept and care for their bodies as it is the first step in making positive change to any unhealthy habits.

* With thanks and admiration to body image warrior Sandra Friedman for her ground breaking analysis and identification of the role of "fat talk" in women's lives.

[i] Gaesser, Glen. (2002) Big Fat Lies. California: Gurze Books
[ii] Campos, Paul (2004) The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Gotham Books.
[iii] Health Canada (1999), Women's Health Strategy