Lena Dunham, Photoshop and how unrealistic beauty standards affect men too.
I shaved my hips down, enlarged my muscles and made them more prominent, thinned out my neck, defined my facial features, made my shoulders broader and restyled myself to make my abdomen appear flatter and my legs appear longer. This all took me about 20 minutes.
In the summer of 2012 I put up a new profile picture on Facebook—I had just been to Thailand and I had to show my friends and family how much fun I had had.
What I did not anticipate was how hard it would be for me to click the upload button. I stared at this image of myself and thought horrible things. My body was not satisfactory and there was no way I could post the image as it was taken. Relying on the software I had mastered in fashion school, I did the unthinkable—I Photoshopped myself.
This made me consider the similarities between editing my photo for Facebook and editing photos for a magazine.
When the cover for this month’s issue of Vogue was released, there was uproar against the airbrushed images of Lena Dunham. As an icon for embracing yourself and your body, we were subjected to a strange dichotomy between beauty ideals and reality.
Since the knowledge of Photoshop and the issues of editing models in post-production have become widespread, we are more likely to question the images we see in advertisements and the media. This isn’t to say that the images still do not have ramifications on us, but the awareness of the process of photo editing is a step in the right direction. It is not about abolishing the process of retouching photos; it is about questioning the processes of photo manipulation and being aware of what it is doing to us.
While consumers might expect fashion publications to Photoshop their photos, we have to be aware that editing photos is a practice that can happen wherever digital photo files exist.
A correlation between edited models in men’s fashion or health magazines and the influence they have on body dissatisfaction in men is plausible. We should, however, further analyze how seeing airbrushed models in any magazine, despite gender, might influence body dissatisfaction in the viewer.
For example, how might staring at an edited Dunham impact my perception of my own body, despite my sex?
An expectation that no one is good enough to have his or her photo appear unedited in a publication establishes a framework of discontentment. It enforces an idea that we are constantly being judged for our appearance and that we should always groom and shape ourselves for mass appeal and ultimate consumption. So, when I see Lena Dunham being edited before she can be sold on the newsstands, I develop an inherent belief that I have to perfect myself before I put myself out there.
A lot of people have contested this belief. Of course we should edit ourselves before stepping out into the world—appearance management is everything! But we really have to question this practice. Why do I have to dress like this to feel like I will not be judged? Why do I feel like I have to spend an hour getting ready before stepping out of my house? Why do I retake photos with my friends 20 times before we settle on a photo that is “good enough” (only to have a filter applied in Instagram that corrects blemishes and discolouration)?
When our headspace is constantly occupied by how we look, we begin to suffer as our lifestyle conforms to a system that seeks to make us ready for consumption. Consider how wondering what other people think of your body could lead to social anxiety. Suddenly you are afraid to leave the house in fear that you’ll be judged for how you look. To fix the problem you purchase makeup, hats or other products, go on a diet and enroll yourself in a workout regime that is too intense for your fitness level. As you strive to bring your body to a level of perfection that satisfies you, you sign yourself up for dissatisfaction and disconnection.
I write this because it happened to me. As such, I find it critical to talk about these issues because so many of us suffer or have suffered from issues pertaining to body image. Furthermore, as a man, I often felt that I was alone in my body image struggles.
In my academic pursuits, I chose to research men and fashion, focusing on diversity and issues of body image. Of course, I discovered that issues of body image are widespread amongst men, but that men are often afraid to speak about the issue as it might compromise their perceived masculinity.
As such, I believe that it is imperative that we begin a dialogue about masculinity and unattainable beauty ideals. We need to create safe spaces for men to talk about body dissatisfaction and to combat these issues so that we can embrace diverse masculinities.
When I was in the process of uploading my profile photo from Thailand, I edited my body to better fit the prescribed beauty ideals of men in North America. The written description of how I edited my photo seems more overwhelming than the actual edits, but the edits did have a big impact on the consumption of the photo. Judge for yourself in the photo below where I have taken the edited version of myself and added it into the original.
This exposé on myself is to raise awareness of the implications of unattainable beauty ideals on individuals regardless of gender, and to address the practice of photo manipulation as it has permeated so many avenues of our lives, including social media.
Just as we should question photo manipulation in advertising and the media, we should also be questioning all of the photos that we see online. After all, our social media platforms are essentially advertisements of our life that are carefully selected to reflect the type of life we want them to.Whether or not we are heavily retouching our photos, editing out wrinkles, bags and spots is a caveat for concerns of body image issues that perhaps we are not even aware of. We have to consider the threshold for permissible photo manipulation, if one exists.
Talk to the people in your life, regardless of their gender, about concerns of body image and you will find that you are not alone. You never were. As we become more aware of this reality, we create opportunities to better appreciate our bodies as they are.
Here is a composite that includes my Facebook version of me and the original version of me:
Photo: Courtesy of the author