The first photoshopped image, “Jennifer in Paradise” by John Kroll, appeared as a demonstration in 1987. Today, thirty years and twenty-four versions of Photoshop later, we’ve grown accustomed to manipulated images and the advertisers that use them have become the center of an ethical debate: should photoshopped images be allowed?

It’s obvious why advertisers want to use these enhanced images.

  • Everyone is using them, including the competition
  • Images without photoshop aren’t as eye-catching

“Yes, of course we do post-production corrections on our images. Photoshopping is an industry standard.” – Self editor Lucy Danziger on their 2009 cover of Kelly Clarkson

But, it’s also obvious why egregiously photoshopped images can hurt our self-esteem.

  • They don’t represent average people or even the actual person photographed
  • They create unrealistic ideals that are increasingly difficult to achieve

“The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible. We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery.” – Henry Farid, Dartmouth professor of computer science specializing in digital forensics and photo manipulation

A multitude of factors contribute to our self-esteem being inflated or deflated by images. One study showed that if we’re a fan of the celebrity photographed it’s more likely we will have a boost in confidence.

“When women feel a personal connection to a thin celebrity, researchers find they’re more likely to assimilate than to contrast. In other words, seeing their favorite slim star in a magazine actually gives their self-image a boost because they assume likeness — much the way spouses focus on the similarities, and not the differences, between them.” – Misty Harris, National Post

Another study showed that if photoshopping was blatant it’s more likely we would elicit a defensive response resulting in a more positive self-evaluation.

“Blatant exposure can elicit defensive coping, leading to a more positive self-evaluation and a lower brand attitude toward a brand endorsed by a model with an idealized body image. When exposure is subtle, however, idealized body images lead to lowered self-evaluations and increased evaluations of endorsed brands.” – Authors of Defensive reactions to slim female images in advertising: The moderating role of mode of exposure

Despite the possibilities for positive self-esteem based on poor photoshopping and our favorite celebrities, eating disorders and plastic surgeries continue to grow in popularity.

  • Hospital stays in England for those under nineteen, up 172 percent (1,791 in 2013-2014, up from 658 in 2003-2004)
  • There were 15.9 million surgical and minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2015, a 115 percent increase since 2000
  • Breast lifts, up 89 percent (99,614 in 2015, up from 52,836 in 2000)
  • Buttock lifts, up 252 percent (4,767 in 2015, up from 1,356 in 2000)
  • Lower body lifts, up 3,973 percent (8,431 in 2015, up from 207 in 2000)
  • Upper arm lifts, up 4,959 percent (17,099 in 2015, up from 338 in 2000)

Numbers like these would lead one to assume that advertising and media photoshopping is a catalyst worsening the problem of eating disorders while encouraging plastic surgery. In The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, he correlates rises in suicides with media reports as their catalyst.

“It’s a well-established fact that suicide can inspire other suicides. When a prominent person commits suicide, there’s usually a wave of copycat suicides soon afterwards (for example, after Marilyn Monroe killed herself, the national suicide rate increased by 12 percent). Indeed, it’s possible to interpret a suicide wave as a form of social epidemic.” – Summary on The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

With teenagers predisposed to imitate others and try new things, the media is a very influential voice to their young minds. Thankfully, a new trend has emerged where both companies and celebrities are standing up against photoshopping.

But advertisers aren’t the only ones editing images. According to a 2014 survey, nearly three quarters of young women edit photos of themselves before posting them to social media while more than half of men do the same.

So, how can you help fight photoshopping and redefining beauty and health for ourselves and others?

  1. Recognize harmful messages about bodies
  2. Redefine the way we perceive our own bodies and health
  3. Resist harmful messages through the development of body image resilience

To help you recognize photoshopping here are the three most common forms used in media:

  1. Body Changes
  2. Face Changes
  3. Color Changes

Ultimately it will continue to take advertisers, companies, celebrities, and consumers to work together to change the way people are portrayed in media. Only time will tell if these changes will be enough for younger generations.