Those “Women Are Relentlessly Photoshopped” Videos Are Becoming the Lolcats of Feminism

Yet another supposedly sobering and enlightening “Guess what? Women are photoshopped into unattainable ideals” video has hit the Internet.
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Yet another supposedly sobering and enlightening “Guess what? Women are photoshopped into unattainable ideals” video has hit the Internet.
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Yet another supposedly sobering and enlightening “Guess what? Women are photoshopped into unattainable ideals” video has hit the Internet. This one, made by Buzzfeed, features four women who have their hair, makeup and photos done by professionals, then they're photoshopped into oblivion by less-than-subtle artists. The women are then presented with the overdone, nearly cartoonish and unrecognizable new images of themselves and proclaim that they prefer they way they look in real life.

Heartwarming and inspiring, right?

Not particularly, and although women of all ages usually go bananas for these things, this latest incarnation of the incredibly popular Internet pastime of denouncing magazines and advertising for shoving unrealistic beauty images down our throats has garnered some criticism that Buzzfeed's effort comes across as disingenuous.

Said one Buzzfeed commenter:

“Really? Really. Seriously? Every single one of them said "Nope!" and decided that retouching is for the birds? I call BS. I've been doing this for years and every single client has preferred their retouched images. Every. Single. One. I've also never once had someone *not* recognize themselves. Wonder where they dug these four up from.”

“So sick of all these ads acting like this is the kind of thing that all professional magazines and models have done to them, [but] it's not,” said another.

The video also missed the mark, some critics pointed out, because it seems to imply that the women were foolish for wanting to see the done-up photoshopped images of themselves in the first place. And I hate to bash one of the women in the video – if these were actually her words and not a script, anyway – but why is this evidently some “deep” takeaway from this thing?:

“Once someone else has done your makeup, and someone else has done your hair, and someone's directed the way your body looks, and then taken away your imperfections … then there's not much left of who you really are," she says.

I'm sorry, but...what? Without our wrinkles, bulges and skin imperfections, we're no longer ourselves? Is everything anyone says about body image now automatically considered profound?

And is this all Dove's fault?

It has now been 10 years since Dove launched its Real Beauty campaign that has earned numerous awards for the advertising agencies behind it and generated millions for parent company Unilever – despite cries from critics that it's hypocritical of Unilever to continue to run obnoxious, oversexed ads for another of its products, Axe body wash, while claiming via the Real Beauty ads that the company is strongly committed to helping women realize that they're beautiful just as they are.

The first ad in the Real Beauty campaign featured women of different sizes -- all happy-looking and attractive – posing in modest undergarments. The ad so delighted thousands of people all over the world who found its realness refreshing that they mostly ignored the fact that the purpose of the ad was to sell a firming lotion.

Another of these “ground-breaking” advertisements, called “Real Curves,” featured two hot, young white women in their underwear holding posters depicting cartoons of an exaggerated “ideal” female body, with bulging boobs and a tiny waist. The women talk about how much they like their bodies, then they triumphantly toss the cartoon posters into a trash bin. Four points for feminism!

With  their “Beautify” campaign, Dove claimed that it wanted to "raise the stakes" and directly target the people "responsible for manipulating our perceptions: art directors, graphic designers and photo retouchers.” Dove planted a trap for these villainous designers who use photoshop, offering a free download of an enhancement that would provide a “skin glow” on models in images. But instead, it supposedly reverted the images back to their pre-tinkered-with states, then a scoldy message popped up for designers that said “Don't manipulate our perceptions of real beauty #DovePositiveChange.”

Was anyone who saw this video unaware that these art directors are working for clients, sometimes huge corporations such as Unilever, who have final approval of the images? Sure, art directors want what they make to look good, but the idea that they're all women-hating art nerds hoodwinking and bullying hapless marketing executives of gigantic companies into using photoshopped images is pretty ridiculous.

In an article about the campaign, The Verge reported last year, “One question mark that has persisted throughout Dove's real beauty campaign is motive. Is Dove really attempting to bring about social change in our perceptions of beauty? Or does it simply understand that the majority of its customers probably don't look like the airbrushed models used in so many advertisements, and is marketing its products towards them? After all, other brands owned by Dove's parent company, Unilever, don't seem to be taking the real beauty message seriously — just look at Axe's commercials.”

On the one hand, these videos are bugging me because they're usually just trying to sell something while pretending that they're not, claiming that they're just “raising awareness” about media manipulation. But I think the videos are also becoming tiresome because I feel like we've reached the saturation point for shocking-photoshopped-women video crap. I'm tired of being bombarded with simplistic demonstrations – complete with sensitive, heart-tuggy background music – that I, as an adult woman, am supposed to find sobering and thought-provoking but that are better suited for a junior high media literacy class.

Does anyone else think they're infantalizing and condescending at this point?

Or, even if they had their place 10 years ago, hasn't everyone over the age of 25 gotten the message by now, that we shouldn't compare ourselves to manufactured beauty standards that rarely if ever exist in real life?

In a word, no, says Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and the ongoing documentary series Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Images of Women.

“I've been talking about this for 40 years, and I can tell you that it's still shocking to a whole lot of people,” she says. “We need ads like this to counter the barrage of stuff we see on a daily basis. It's really important for young girls to see this, and I believe it does help people to see that these images they're seeing in the media are absolutely not attainable. I think it does make them feel better.”

Kilbourne did say, however, that the Buzzfeed video does seem kind of pandering: “I think their hearts were in the right place, but something about the message doesn't feel authentic.”

She also pointed out that the U.S. is one of few developed nations that doesn't teach media literacy in schools. It's truly a shame that we don't. Because I do understand that the images we see throughout our lives shape who we are and how we feel about ourselves. They can be damaging and contribute to the development of eating disorders, and there's an undeniable correlation between the amount of advertising people are exposed to and their chances of having a poor body image. But it would be helpful if the message could be delivered in a more substantive and smarter way than the same old “I can haz good body image?” video featuring weepy women and cutesy music over and over. And over...