How Photoshopping Pictures Online Skews Our Perception of Beauty
The ability for photo retouchers to start photoshopping pictures isn’t anything new. Photoshop was developed in the late 1980s by brothers Thomas and John Knoll and has since gone on to become a massive phenomenon. In the modeling and entertainment industry, photoshopping pictures turned into a normal occurrence and something to expect from fashion magazines or national advertisements.
The real danger was (and still is), however, that everyday viewers weren’t always aware of when the photos they were seeing were photoshopped or not. Thus, a lack of transparency from brands led to serious mental health issues regarding body image and self-esteem.
- Social media has been a catalyst for issues such as low self-esteem, low self-confidence, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders.
- A study done on selfies in 2018 showed that participants in the study who did not retouch their selfies before posting them experienced an increase in anxiety and a decrease in confidence.
- A study in 2021 has shown that 90 percent of young women report using a filter or editing their photos before posting
Today, the danger of photoshopping pictures continues and is slowly getting worse as the power of photoshop becomes widely available. With ubiquitous apps like FaceTune, Peachy, and BeautyCam, smartphone users can change the shapes and sizes of their eyes, nose, chin, waist, and so much more with the press of a button. Now, it’s not only models on beauty magazines being photoshopped – it’s everyone on your Instagram feed, too. While you may believe photoshopping pictures is making them look better, it’s actually making you feel way worse.
The Connection Between Mental Health and Photoshopping Pictures
Society’s beauty standard has always pushed certain ideals that are impossible to meet. Every year, it seems like the standard changes just as often as TikTok trends. One week, society is telling women they need a tiny waist, a thigh gap, and a narrow button nose to be considered beautiful. The next week, society wants tiny waists, thick thighs, a bigger butt and boobs, and full lips. It’s a game that no one is able to win. But with Photoshop, photographers and smartphone users have found a way to keep up with the changes. Or pretend to, at least.
With photoshop, it's even easier for everyone to compare themselves to people they see on a cover of a magazine or their never-ending social media feed. As they look at photo after photo of edited pictures, the lack of disclosure and transparency from brands allows people to have a false sense of reality. The model that has the long legs they envy? Secretly, her legs were elongated on photoshop. The model with the clear skin? Her acne was airbrushed out of the photo. The line between what’s real and what’s fake gets blurrier and blurrier.
The impossible beauty standards set forth by photoshopping pictures can leave us feeling flawed, not good enough, or scared we will never measure up to what we see as ‘beautiful’ without making changes to our bodies, such as getting plastic surgery or partaking in fad diets (1). It's not just unhealthy, it can be dangerous.
Over time, these feelings internalize and manifest as low self-esteem, low self-confidence, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. Various studies have shown that social media has been a catalyst for issues such as:
- social comparison
- exposure to unrealistic beauty expectations
- body and weight dissatisfaction
- promotion of unsafe dieting behavior for weight loss
A study done on selfies in 2018 showed that participants in the study who did not retouch their selfies before posting them experienced an increase in anxiety and a decrease in confidence (2). However, they also found that participants who did have the opportunity to retouch and modify their photos before posting them still experienced decreased mood and increased anxiety. Again – it’s a game no one can win.
When those who had been used to retouching their photos had to stop – it became a source of anxiety. They had presented an image of themselves in one way and then became fearful of posting images of their real appearance. Meanwhile, those who retouched their photos also had anxiety about their images – feeling their appearance still wasn’t quite good enough.
The exposure to unrealistic beauty standards has tarnished our ability to accept our appearance without comparing it to the imaginary body curated from photoshopped editorials. According to King University, another study concluded that 87 percent of women and 65 percent of men compared their bodies to images they saw on social media and traditional media. When comparing their bodies, 50 percent of women and 37 percent of men said they saw their bodies as being unfavorable (3).
Beauty Filters and Social Media
Social networking is not exempt from blame. While most people who post in-feed photos on social media use third-party photoshop apps to retouch their photos, the recent explosion in popularity for beauty filters has caused further issues. Beauty filters can take selfies looking completely different from real life without any post editing. Apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat (which are widely popular amongst Gen Z), have beauty filters in their editing tools that can instantly manipulate the size of one’s eyes, nose, and lips while airbrushing the skin to be blemish-free.
This cuts out a lot of precious time for users, as they don't even have to do the photoshopping themselves. Now, a study in 2021 has shown that 90 percent of young women report using a filter or editing their photos before posting (4). Overall, the study says these women experienced a heightened sense of pressure and distress.
While the act of photoshopping pictures has been around since the 1980s, people have realized that they don’t have to put up with a lack of transparency for much longer. Nowadays, several celebrities have spoken out and continue to protest against photoshopping pictures, especially when it comes to magazines retouching photos without permission.
For example, actress and literal pop culture icon Zendaya was applauded in 2015 for her choice to post a photoshopped picture of herself from a magazine next to the real, un-retouched version on Instagram (1). She wrote on the post how she was shocked to see her hips and torso manipulated and pointed out how unrealistic beauty ideals are making women more self-conscious. There have also been initiatives by brands like CVS that have vowed to stop airbrushing photos to promote their products (5).
However, the work isn’t done yet. Photoshopping pictures, especially on Instagram, is still a popular practice despite society’s push for body-positive movements across the globe. There is not enough discussion about the long-term, negative effects and damage that photoshopping pictures can have on the psyche. There is more that needs to be done when it comes to transparency and disclosure on retouched images, speaking out against manipulative photoshop and beauty filters, eradicating retouching in advertisements and promotional material, and discussing the harmful effects that photoshopping pictures can have on mental health.
Written by Selena Ponton