Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. That’s the take-home message of the latest photo leak after fansite The Beyoncé World published photos purportedly from Beyonce’s 2013 L’Oréal campaign. The internet subsequently exploded, and a flurry of social media activity focussed on the fashion and beauty industry’s use of Photoshop, and its role in disseminating unrealistic beauty standards. These discussions are important, and we should continue to question the false ideals propounded by such images. However, the comments did not stop there. A barrage of negative and downright nasty comments about the singer’s appearance ensued in what can only be described as an exploitation of the image for nefarious purposes.
The Beyoncé World removed the photograph as a result of the denigration, and released a statement condemning the attack: “Some of the things we have seen posted were just horrible, and we don’t want any part of it. We were just posting the photos to share the fact that our queen is naturally beautiful, at the same time she is just a regular woman.” The photo raised important questions about the endemic Photoshop culture at the heart of the fashion and beauty industry, yet this positive conversation evolved into an excuse to vilify a woman for committing the crime of being a regular human being. This behaviour, rather than lifting the veil on the major culprits in this culture, perpetuates the cycle of unattainable beauty standards, and defeats the very object of any discussion thereof. These scathing and abusive comments when publicly expressed via social media are a pervasive and destructive tool in the reinforcement of disgust for women in their natural state. Instead of condemning the industry’s use of Photoshop, we underpin the necessity for its existence and render women increasingly reluctant to show their real selves.
This is not the first time, however, that a case of Photoshop shaming has crossed the line into unhealthy territories and transformed into an excuse to attack women for being human. Last year, Jezebel offered a $10,000 bounty for un-retouched imaged of Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover. Juno writer Diablo Cody tweeted: “This is total mean-girl sh-t masquerading as feminism. I’m disgusted.” The decision to offer such a handsome reward was a flagrant attempt to dethrone Lena Dunham as an ambassador for women’s rights. I, too, am disgusted that the act of calling out the industries responsible for disseminating unrealistic beauty standards has mutated into the abhorrent and indefensible act of shaming an individual whose image has been retouched. However, in this digital age of social media, selfies and smartphones, how realistic is it to expect to see a true and un-retouched representation of natural female beauty?
Yes, we should embrace the need for realistic reflections of natural female beauty that do not set unattainable beauty standards and place further pressure on women to achieve perfection. But where do we draw the line? If I filter the sh-t out of my selfies on Instagram, am I misrepresenting female beauty? Why stop there? Should we ban makeup, spanx, push-up bras and false eyelashes too, while we’re at it? There comes a point where we should question whether the harm caused by Photoshop shaming doesn’t equate to the same damage caused by the industries setting these beauty standards.
The recent leak of an un-retouched photo of Cindy Crawford elicited a mixed response on social media. Broadcaster Charlene White tweeted the image to “encourage a bit of a Friday feeling amongst [her] female followers”. The photo provoked a Twitter storm, and many praised the supermodel for her bravery, despite the fact that the image was published without her consent. In an article for the Guardian, Charlene White described the response to the photo:
Some commenters who have tweeted me have talked of Cindy being proud of her “flaws”. Flaws? Seriously? How did not having a six-pack suddenly become a flaw? And why are we okay with that?
In the same week, the Daily Mail defended their front-page story on the Duchess of Cambridge’s grey hair, stating: “There can’t be a single woman who, after seeing the pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s grey hairs yesterday, felt anything but sympathy for her.” Well, as a woman, I can categorically say that I feel no sympathy whatsoever for her; she is a beautiful and intelligent woman. Surely everyone’s hair goes grey at some point; or is grey hair also a big no-no for women?
The message we can glean from the cumulative reactions to these photos is that a woman’s natural human body is disgusting, whether it’s the middle-aged body of a former supermodel after she’s had a couple of kids, the un-dyed roots of a pregnant woman, or a few blemishes on the face of a pop star.
Our obsession with the before/after diptych only serves to show the un-retouched ‘before’ in an unflattering light, highlighting the so-called flaws that the ‘after’ shot has removed. At no point should our distaste for airbrushed and retouched images translate into disrespect for a human being, and disgust for human features. When we cross the line into “mean-girl territory” we lose sight of the original objective to defend womankind from additional pressures. What’s the incentive to stop Photoshopping women, when it’s made patently clear that our un-retouched bodies are not good enough?