The ugly truth behind pretty pictures
Walk past a checkout stand and you can’t help but see models and celebs in bikinis and slinky outfits plastered across magazine covers. Tween favorites such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé appear all over the internet in glamorous outfits with incredible hair and makeup. And ads on billboards, buses, and subways display long-legged models selling everything from liquor to lipstick.
Kids are bombarded with images of men and women — famous or not — who look perfect. Too perfect, in fact. And that’s thanks to photo editing, which, as many of us parents know, can eliminate a model’s pimples, make a celeb’s cellulite disappear, and lengthen legs, slim waists, and erase wrinkles. Social media may add to the problem. The trend of using filters over your photos to distort your image on social media may actually impact kids’ willingness to surgically enhance their features. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that users of certain social media apps such as Snapchat, YouTube, and Tinder are more accepting of plastic surgery and more likely to get plastic surgery themselves.
Pull back the curtain
Kids who see unrealistic bodies or faces or clothing — especially on folks they admire — can feel inadequate as a result. Several studies have shown that reading women’s fashion magazines or looking at images of models has a negative effect on women’s and girls’ self-esteem. Even photos of friends on Instagram or Snapchat are too perfect, thanks to flattering filters and selfie-editing tools.
That’s why it’s important to teach kids about the reality behind the images that surround them. Empowering kids to see behind the photo spreads and the advertisements can help combat the negative effects of these images.
Add your voice
The good news is, some kids — and even some celebrities — are talking back to the beauty and advertising industries and taking action to encourage more realistic images. Young people have asked magazines that cater to kids and teens, such as Seventeen, to do more photo spreads that don’t use Photoshop. Some clothing companies, such as ModCloth, have agreed to not alter the images of models they use in their ads.
Celebrities (including Zendaya and Lena Dunham) have stepped up to show a more realistic image of themselves online and in photo shoots, and in doing so they help pull back the curtain on the amount of retouching that goes on in Hollywood and beyond.
Not sure how to approach this subject with your kid? Here are some ideas:
Do a reality check. Make sure kids know that almost every photo in magazines and advertisements has been altered. Show examples of models and celebrities where the before and after examples are starkly different. (My Pop Studio is a great site to help kids understand what goes on behind the scenes at magazines and other media outlets.)
Play “spot the Photoshop.” See who can spot the retouching on any ads or photos you come across. (Search online for “Photoshop fail” and you’ll come across some amazing examples of how poorly the tool can be used.)
Talk about the disconnect. Plenty of celebrities have come out against being Photoshopped. Meghan Trainor explicitly calls it out in her song “All About That Bass” with the lyric “we know that s–t ain’t real.” Ask your kids why the industry insists on putting out unrealistic images (it’s usually all about the money). What would they do if they were the photo editor of a magazine? Would they airbrush the models or let their so-called imperfections shine?
Connect the dots. Discuss the connection between fantasy images and products being marketed. Talk about how photos are used to sell magazines, specific products, celebrities’ brands, and more.
Ask questions. Get kids to think about how images affect viewers (both boys and girls) and how images can distort our ideas about what’s healthy or beautiful. What would your kids say to a friend who felt bad after looking at an unrealistic image? How could you encourage them to celebrate their inner qualities? What kinds of things besides looking at magazines or celebrity blogs can you do to make yourself feel good?
Look for backup. Help kids locate resources to take action. Find out how to sign or start petitions. Encourage kids to speak up about these images in their classrooms, through their social networks, and among friends. (Check out our list of sites that encourage social action.)