Truthfully Labeling Altered Images Isn’t Enough to Combat Body Image Dissatisfaction

We live in an era where it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Trusting everything you see on television or online can be a perilous strategy in 2020.

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s only cropped up over these last few years, however. If you’ve ever leafed through a fashion or nutrition magazine – or even scrolled through certain models’ feeds on Instagram – odds are what you’ve seen isn’t always the full picture.

Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor in the department of applied psychology at Northeastern University, has argued that seeing such idealized and unrealistic images can be detrimental to the body image and mental health of women and girls as young as 3.

“Exposure to these images leads people to endorse these ideals and to feel pressure to try and look that way,” Rodgers said in a 2019 segment on NBC’s “The Today Show.” “It’s impossible to hold yourself up to those standards.”

Some publications and retailers have unveiled initiatives to make it clear when photos of models have been digitally altered. In 2018, CVS decided it would be transparent when photos of its models were touched up. The nation’s largest drugstore chain also said it would end airbrushing in its ads altogether by 2020.

France followed Israel’s 2012 lead and passed a law in 2017 that required Photoshopped images to have a disclaimer, a move that led American photography agency Getty Images to no longer accept photos that show retouched models.

These decisions made sense. Today’s female models weigh 23% less than the average woman, and taking what in many cases is an already less-than-typical body type and further diminishing it for photographic purposes is disingenuous and, often, quite dangerous. These depictions, and the resulting body image dissatisfaction, can put girls and women at higher risk for eating disorders.

While putting an end to airbrushing is certainly a noble pursuit, the disclaimers that accompany touched-up photos might not actually help – and in some cases, can even backfire.

A 2019 study from Flinders University in Australia asked 363 female undergrads to look at fashion magazine ads with either no label or a digital alteration disclaimer. Prior to viewing the ads, they read one of three news stories containing digital alteration information that focused either on the unrealistic nature of the images, social comparison, or a control story about magazine circulation figures.

What the study discovered was that the articles about digital alteration led to even higher levels of body dissatisfaction than the control article. So much for full transparency.

So, aside from axing alterations altogether, what approaches can we take to put women and girls at less risk for the potentially damaging effects of these unrealistic ideals?

According to David Frederick, an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University who authored a similar body satisfaction study in 2016, there are a few options.

“Research shows that other approaches, such as media literacy programs and individual therapy, appear to be more effective interventions,” Chapman told the university’s press room. “Even if viewing the actual subvertisements does not benefit most women, the act of creating them may be a positive experience for women experiencing body dissatisfaction.”

Letting women see a real person without digital alteration is where we need to go. But while we get there, providing the transparency that a photo was altered isn’t doing enough to prevent body dissatisfaction.