Less Photoshop is a Start, How About More Diversity?

5 years ago

An initiative against unrealistic Photoshopped images of models is a good thing, right? Launched by former Hollywood talent agent and LiveNation head Seth Matlins and his wife, Eva Matlins, The Self-Esteem Act would require magazines, movie posters, advertisements to disclose when photographs of models have been significantly altered.

It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

Along with The Self-Esteem Act, the Matlins created a line of high end t-shirts and website called Off Our Chests, designed to give women a place to express and share their stories in a comfortable and non-judgmental setting. In their announcement, the Matlins say were inspired to do this because they’re worried that these unrealistically digitally enhanced images were harming the self-esteem of their two adopted Black children.

The Matlins are on to something. The images in movies, advertisements and magazines are harming our children. Especially the formative self-esteems of minority youth. And it’s not just because of Photoshop.

Of course, there are incidences when computer assisted editing is used to whitewash women of color, such as the famous flak surrounding
the lightening of Beyonce’s skin
or Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai's complexion.

But even more harmful for Black, Latina and Asian girls is the lack of diversity in popular media.

Even when you take away the healing brush of Photoshop, the vast majority of the images portraying what’s considered beautiful are images of White women. Julia Roberts, flaws (if that’s what you call them) and all, is still… Julia Roberts.

I spent my early childhood in the 1970s, long before the invention of digital retouching, when Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Tiegs and countless look-alikes ruled the magazines and posters. The message they sent: beauty required blonde hair, long slim legs and big breasts – and being Caucasian.

While those popular ideals of beauty and sexiness are unattainable enough for White girls, they are completely out of the question for most girls of other races. Even as a six-year old, I knew that no amount of Great Lash or Herbal Essences was going to transform me into a blue-eyed blonde.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I actually came across a model to whom I could relate. During the 1980s, Seventeen magazine ran several spreads using an Asian American model, Sari Chang. Sari never became a Cindy or Linda, so how is it that twenty years later, I can still recall her name? Maybe it’s because she wasn’t a supermodel, but brought a certain sense of realness -- right down to her ethnicity -- to which I could relate. She wasn’t styled in kimonos or red lipstick, just regular teenage fashion.

We often like to think about how things have improved since then – after all, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Hudson have graced the cover of US Vogue, the gold standard of beauty and fashion industry. But as Thandie Newton recently said in an interview with the Huffington Post, there is so far yet to go.

Too often, images of women of color show only women whose beauty is defined by their lack of pigment, curves or racially defining features. Visibly ethnic models are often relegated to overly exoticized niche editorial spreads.

Yes, we need to define the line between artistic fantasy and reality. And acknowledge that reality includes women of different colors and shapes.

Now, if only Hollywood and Madison Avenue would take notice.

I just had to get that off my chest.

Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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