How Retouched Photos Impact Our Mental Health
It's human nature to compare ourselves to others — and unfortunately, many of us draw the inaccurate conclusion that we simply don't measure up to other women when it comes to weight and overall appearance. Although this is certainly an issue in "real" life, retouched photos in magazines and online exacerbate these insecurities by presenting images of models and celebrities with ultra-thin bodies, unblemished skin and perfect hair.
In the social media age, these airbrushed images are more pervasive than ever — and experts say the impact on our mental health is far-reaching.
"Unreasonable or impossible standards of beauty created by photo retouching can result in individual feelings of being flawed, not measuring up or not being good enough," Dr. Rachel O’Neill, a licensed professional clinical counselor and primary therapist on Talkspace, tells SheKnows. "Over time, it’s possible for an individual to internalize these feelings, which may result in low self-esteem, reduced self-confidence and feelings of sadness and depression."
O'Neill notes that in the past, these airbrushed images simply dominated the covers and pages of magazines. Today, they're nearly inescapable due to social media platforms and programs that make it easy to retouch and filter photos. "Society [is] being subjected to a constant barrage of perfected images," she says.
Jill E. Daino, a licensed clinical social worker and another primary therapist on Talkspace, tells SheKnows that a common example is the media's strong focus on how quickly celebrities "bounce back" from their post-baby bodies. It perpetuates a damaging myth that other women are failing if they don't lose that pregnancy weight stat.
"It's often portrayed as something that is readily achievable without acknowledging the hours and hours of effort at nutrition, exercise and retouching that most women cannot access," Daino says.
Daino says retouched images can lead to decreased self-esteem, anxiety and, in some cases, depression. In turn, these feelings can cause people to engage in behaviors they hope will help them attain the ultra-thin, blemish-free bodies they see in magazines and on social media. These behaviors include "increased exercise, dietary changes and cosmetic changes through makeup or other processes," she adds.
Christie Tcharkhoutian, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, tells SheKnows that the beauty business thrives when people are dissatisfied with how they look — and this dissatisfaction can be detrimental to women as they strive to "shatter the glass ceiling of equal opportunity and pay in the workplace."
"Recent statistics reflect that women will not show up to an interview if they are unsatisfied with their appearance that day," Tcharkhoutian says. "Retouched photos create the illusion that you have to love your appearance all day every day, and if you don’t, you may not be happy, qualified to do what you love or living your best life."
There is a glimmer of hope that the tide may (very) slowly be changing. As Kimberly Leitch, a licensed clinical social worker in NYC, points out, several celebrities have spoken out against magazines that have retouched their photos.
Winslet's contract with L'Oréal has a "no photoshop clause." When Zendaya's image was photoshopped by a magazine in 2015, she posted an Instagram photo of the real picture alongside the retouched version.
"Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated. These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have," she captioned the post. "Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self love. So I took it upon myself to release the real pic (right side) and I love it. Thank you @modelistemagazine for pulling down the images and fixing this retouch issue."
Our hats go off to women like Lady Gaga, Winslet and Zendaya. Not only is it responsible to show the most realistic versions of themselves, but their images also prove that people are truly their most beautiful when their images aren't retouched beyond recognition.
However, a handful of celebrities rebelling against this practice isn't enough — magazines need to step up and recognize the damage these retouched images cause. Tcharkhoutian emphasizes that retouching images cultivates the subconscious fear that our imperfections are unacceptable and we can't lead fulfilling, happy lives if we're anything short of perfect.
"In reality, we are capable of full, beautiful lives filled with happiness even if we do have imperfect bodies and make mistakes," Tcharkhoutian explains. "The human experience, with all its ups and downs, is beautiful in itself, and if we photoshop all the bad parts, we lose a part of our authenticity and ability to accept imperfections in other areas of our lives."