As an editor of sites dedicated to women and women things, I’ve been writing and assigning stories about Photoshop disasters, Photoshop fails, Photoshop horrors and anti-Photoshop regulation for probably as long as you’ve been reading them (A. Long. Time). And I agree with many of your recent comments that the Internet’s obsession with discovering and publishing these re-touched images has gone too far, becoming a kind of witch hunt, almost as exploitative and damaging as the photo crimes they’re uncovering (see the Lena Dunham/Vogue cover SNAFU earlier this year). In fact, here at HelloGiggles we’ve recently discussed ceasing all Photoshop coverage, not only because we’re over it, but because there just seems to be a million better and more inspiring ways to spend our brains and words than beating upon this dead re-touched horse.
But then. Well, then something like this happens.
These before and after photos of a 2009 V Magazine shoot of Lady Gaga by famous fashion photog Mario Testino were leaked today. Normally, all us desensitized post-Photoshop-world folk wouldn’t think a thing about them. It looks like Gaga’s head has been replaced with a different, more flattering head with a softer/sexier expression (if you look closely through all the re-touching shadows, or gape at the original photos for a particularly long time, you’ll see this is the same body position, with what very much looks like a new head). Yawn, yes, of course. She looks friendlier in image two. Her skin has been brightened and oranged a bit and a there’s a lifting and roundening of sorts of her lone in-the-shot boob. Ok, sure, you go on with your bad selves, photo re-touchers. Her tattoo looks brighter, too, so you can really see her tattoo. Fine, fine. But there’s one other thing that’s seems to have happened to Lady Gaga in the after picture, the one that ran in an international style magazine and was posted all up in the interwebs for all her young (and old) fans to see: It looks like Lady Gaga has been given visible ribs. If this is true, SOMEONE HAS PHOTOSHOPPED BONES ONTO A HUMAN WOMAN SO SHE LOOKS SKINNIER THAN SHE IS.
Just when you think the Photoshopping scandals are finally over, when you think you’ve seen every thigh gap and erased waist and Barbie skin and no-butt in the world, someone goes ahead and says, “Just the illusion of having zero fat is NOT ENOUGH. We need to SEE SKELETON.”
So, why is this a big problematic deal? For starters, Gaga has meaningfully spoken to the public about her struggles with eating disorders, confessing that she battled anorexia and bulimia since she was 15. She’s become an advocate for self acceptance and fought back against media haters who criticized her physique. She started initiatives called the Body Revolution and Born This Way to promote positive body image and to help her fans accept themselves as they are. In 2014, seeing this side-by-side comparison of an already thin and fit star made emaciated through Photoshop is not only counter to all the work she’s done as a positive role model for body acceptance and self-love, it’s damaging. [Ed note: Commenters have pointed out the timeline here — Lady Gaga’s body image initiative started in 2012, these photos were taken in 2009. We’re not suggesting any of this is her fault and we hope this Photoshop situation has improved in the past five years.]
But the other fairly Captain Obvious thing that bothers me about this image is, by enhancing the appearance of bones, the people who worked on these photos are saying that protruding ribs are more attractive and sexy and, ultimately, better and more visually appealing than non-visible ribs. And that’s a sucky, scary standard to put out into the world.
Images affect us. They shape how we think about our own standards of beauty. Especially when we’re young (this is what they mean by “impressionable,” though I’ve always been annoyed by the powerlessness implicit in being “impressionable”). I remember the famous actresses and pop stars I was obsessed with in the ’80s and ’90s and I bet you do too. I wanted to emulate them and I definitely used them as style guides. I hung pictures of them on my walls, stared at them nightly, and for better or worse, they helped me define what I thought looked good and cool. Lady Gaga is an influential pop star admired by loads of young women — pictures of her matter.
Though the early part of the ’90s was a serious skinny skinny “waif” period with lots of bare midriffs on display, more often than not, protruding ribs were airbrushed out, rather than added in. That’s because most people consider an exposed ribcage a potential sign that a person is too thin for their frame (though there are exceptions, of course, I am not thin-shaming here). In fact, in 2011, the British Ad Standards Authority banned an ad showing a model’s exposed ribs, calling it “socially irresponsible.” And in 2012, fashion magazine Numéro Photoshopped model Karlie Kloss’s exposed ribcage out of the photo, because it made her look too thin.
The Gaga images are from 2009, and the Karlie Kloss photo correction is from 2012 (let’s not get into how thin she looks in that picture, that’s another serious issue that’s been explored by some truly great brains, much more thoughtfully than I can here) — perhaps we’ve made some progress, perhaps photo handlers have stopped seeing a skeletal frame and protruding ribcage as something to aspire to and replicate if it isn’t there. Because, really, truly, as much as I hate Photoshopping stories, I cannot handle the idea that we’re moving backwards.