The photo is out of focus. She’s not looking at the camera, but there’s a tension in her jaw that pulls her face back ever-so-slightly giving her the faintest echo of a double chin and betraying the fact that she knows she’s being photographed.
All things considered, it’s not a great picture. Still, it’s my late Grandma Sharon as photographed by my grandfather on a visit to the Catskills in the 1940s, and it’s one of my favorites. She died when I was only twelve, but I found this photograph just a few years ago in a box of her keepsakes from her pre-kid days. Today it sits in our house, framed and in a place of honor where I smile at it daily.
Now I’d like to direct your attention to a picture of my sister-in-law that a lot of people saw nothing wrong with…
It’s a picture that appeared in the Fall 2012 catalogue for Brahmin handbags. Only, it’s not exactly her. At least, not as we know and love her.
Before I go further I want to be clear: This isn’t a post about best practices or bloggers rights. Those issues are arguably at play here, no doubt, so it might seem like that’s what this post is about for a second while I give you the back story, but just bear with me, okay? Because what I’m getting to is something that affects all of us, truly, and not just those of us publishing our lives online.
My sister-in-law Maegan owns and operates the fashion/lifestyle site …loveMaegan, where she often advocates positive body image and being happy with what you’ve got…so much so that her book on the topic, tentatively titled Rock Your Assets, is due out next year. Recently, she was one of a number of popular fashion bloggers Brahmin invited to submit self-styled outfit photos of themselves featuring the line’s fall offerings. In exchange for their photos, whether chosen for the catalogue or not, the bloggers would keep the bags. Maegan had successfully partnered with Brahmin on her blog (and theirs) in the past, so she gladly put together a few looks, signed a contract giving Brahmin the rights to her photos, and, per their agreement featured the fall line on her site.
When copies of Brahmin’s print catalogue arrived on Maegan’s doorstep Thursday she was excited to take a look, having only seen a low-res proof of the layout featuring the shots of her that had made the cut. But what she saw quickly weirded her out.
Some people will notice the difference right away, some people will find it imperceptible. Maybe you see standard light filters or shading and chalk it up to that. My not-quite-three-year-old daughter saw the side by side comparison and said “is that Maegan?” I asked her which one was Maegan and she pointed at the original photograph immediately, before pausing for a second, then pointing again and announcing definitively “I like that Maegan. I love that Maegan so much.”
She didn’t know why, but she knew that first picture wasn’t quite her Aunt. (If you still can’t put your finger on it, it appears they lengthened the tip of her nose.)
I’m going to cut to the chase: After an email exchange in which the brand repeatedly denied any Photoshopping of her photos beyond fall-hued lighting filters, a frustrated Maegan turned to her readership asking for their opinion on the side by side image included above, along with an emotional post sharing her feelings on being altered, and the body image shame-spiral that followed.
Her readers were largely supportive. Other bloggers, however, were quick to cry foul. For some, the fact that Maegan signed a contract nullifies her right to have feelings about the edits made to her face. For others, sympathy and concern goes to Brahmin for being cited in a potentially inflammatory post. For me, it’s not a question of whether or not Brahmin had a RIGHT to alter her images: They did. Not even Maegan is arguing that. But just because they CAN do it doesn’t mean they SHOULD.
Maegan isn’t a professional model. None of the women in Brahmin’s fall catalogue are. These weren’t a bunch of overpaid Eastern Bloc teenagers dressed up as adults on Cape Cod for a Vogue shoot. These women — all style bloggers — were selected, in Brahmin’s own words as “a panel of industry insiders” — representations of “today’s modern woman”.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve worked in the Entertainment industry my entire adult life – I’ve even dabbled in “real people” casting, where the word “authentic” is used so often it stops sounding like a word at all. But I also know that perpetuating unattainable images in the media is hurting our children. That’s not a myth. That’s not something fat kids say to make themselves feel better. It’s so true in fact, that some democratic governments have instituted laws against using underweight models in print or otherwise in the interest of public health.
I look at that picture of Maegan, and I see people dismiss it as fine, and I am afraid for the collective body image of my daughter’s generation. Not only do we accept without question our models and actors being tweaked to an unattainable standard, but now we’re willing to accept those same unattainable tweaks being applied to “real subjects” that we’re being told are just like us? Taking away the ability to decipher between what is healthy to aspire to and what is a dangerous fiction EVEN IN REAL LIFE?
We’re becoming so accustomed to polishing up reality that it’s seeping in to our every day lives. Have you ever seen the photo of an acquaintance’s smooth complexioned infant on Facebook and wondered why your kid got stuck with baby acne? Have you ever considered the possibility that your acquaintance picnik’d those unsightly blemishes right off their little one’s face? BECAUSE PEOPLE DO THAT. I’m willing to bet half of you are shocked at the thought and the other half of you are feeling a little exposed right now.
It’s overflowing all over the norm — too often we’re art directing candids when we should be living our lives, and as a result we’re skating precariously close to not only rewriting our realities as we go, but leaving behind a photoshopped history for our great grandchildren to find, poisoning the future of the human narrative with unattainable ideals.
I’m in my 30s now, and everybody else’s grandparents are dying. The Silent Generation was a generation of memoirists too — musicians, filmmakers, diary-keepers — the uncovering of their stories by their grandchildren is a constant theme for me these days, and I worry that the over-edited records we leave won’t provide the same value for future generations.
Today, that photo of my Grandmother in the Catskills would never even have made it to Photoshop, it more than likely would have been deleted on the spot. But it’s still a moment captured between two people, and it’s beautiful. An honest moment, captured on camera — and then, I’d like to think they continued to enjoy their moment, rather than losing it to a chorus of “wait: that’s blurry, let me take that one again…and lift your chin”
So did Brahmin have the “right” to alter my sister-in-law’s face? Sure. But to do so in a catalogue you’re presenting to your customers as featuring women just like them? It sends a poor message and no contract is going to change that.