Photo Manipulation in Advertising and its Effects on Young Women

The Honesty in Photos: Photo Manipulation throughout History:

Photo manipulation is not a new phenomenon. In fact, “in as early as the 1860s, photographs were already being manipulated” (Farid, 2008). Early photo manipulation included the staging of props, backgrounds, and using different camera angles to capture only desired elements of scenes (Howells, 2003). This process of selective photography resulted in biased and untruthful end images. Before the advent of colour photography, many photos were manually painted on, further enhancing the scenery and features of models (Howells, 2003). Even more technical manipulations of photos were possible in as early as the late 1800’s. “Photographers have always been able to change the composition of a picture in the dark room. Retouching and double exposures have been possible but have required technical expertise and special equipment.” (Howells, 2003). It is well-known that throughout history photos have been tampered with. Due to capturing methods, equipment quality and skill of the developer, even in their most genuine forms, photographs were never true depictions of real life.

Photo Retouching in the Present Day:

Although photographs have been staged and manipulated since photography’s early days, today’s increasing availability of powerful computers, digital cameras and image editing software allows for inexpensive and simple retouching of photos. With programs like Adobe Photoshop or even simpler image editing suites like Google’s free photo editor, Picasa, professional-looking edits can be done on any home computer. It certainly would be a difficult – if not impossible – task to find a professionally printed ad or article that had not gone through some form of image manipulation.

Whether flipping through a woman’s fashion magazine, watching ads on television or being subjected to advertisements on buses
After and Before
, billboards and the backs of cereal boxes, one thing is for certain: the depicted representations of real people are anything but real. In particular, the depictions of women and girls are alarmingly unrealistic. Whitened teeth, thicker and shinier hair, slimmer waists and thighs, elongated legs and arms, and fuller chests have come to be common and standard retouching practices in advertising. Where does this leave regular, everyday women? What kind of message is being sent to young females when the pictures of even the most attractive celebrities go through intensive air-brushing before they are featured in a popular magazine? This wide-spread, superficial depiction of beauty is a concerning issue in today’s society. Numerous critics agree that the effects of such extreme airbrushing are tremendously detrimental to the emotional and even physical well-beings of regular girls and women.

Why are Young Females so Susceptible to Negative Effects of Idealized Images?

Knowing what goes on during the teen years is essential to understanding why young women are so easily influenced by the images they see. Adolescence is a time of rapid physical and psychological growth as teens go through the transitional period between childhood and adulthood (Gavin, 2007). Events in a young woman’s life during this crucial period greatly influence the type of person she will become in the future. A nationwide “Children Now” survey reveals that two out of three girls “wanted to look like a character on TV” and one out of three altered something about their appearance in order to resemble that character (Media and Girls, 2009). As they yearn for acceptance and struggle to find their place in the world, young girls look to their media idols for guidance. As a result, fashion magazines, television shows and other image media have a great amount of power over young women.

Emotional Damage: Self-Esteem Issues & Body Image Issues:

Due to the media’s unrealistic portrayal of beauty, young females are striving for an unattainable level of perfection. In an analysis on the influence of media on females’ perceptions of their bodies, a recent study identifies “body dissatisfaction as a significant predictor of low self-esteem, depression, and obesity” (Grabe, Hyde & Ward, 2008). The same study indicates that “media’s consistent depiction of a thin ideal leads women to see this ideal as normative, expected, and central to attractiveness” (Grabe, Hyde & Ward, 2008). Therefore, it can be said that continuous bombardment of idealistically beautiful, digitally constructed photos makes real women feel inadequate and unattractive. As a result, their self-esteems and body image perceptions suffer. The extent to which unrealistic portrayals of beauty affect young women depends on each individual, but most studies suggest that idealistic depictions of females lead to deeply negative thoughts. A 2002 Flinders University of Australia study concluded that “girls who watched TV commercials featuring underweight models lost self-confidence and became more dissatisfied with their own bodies. Girls who spent the most time and effort on their appearance suffered the greatest loss in confidence.” (Media and Girls, 2009). Because the representational images of women in media are manipulations of reality, striving to achieve such levels of beauty is sure to end in disaster. The more women try to compete with the magazine pictures, the unhappier they become. Impressionable young girls with negative thoughts about their bodies become women with damaging self-image issues.

Physical Damage: Excessive Dieting & Eating Disorders:

When girls compare themselves to portrayals of women in advertising, they feel the need to measure up to the images they see – after all, the portrayed images are what media claim is beautiful. It’s what society comes to accept as beauty. Obsessively negative thoughts about their body images drive some women to resort to extreme actions in order to improve their appearances. “A national study of women found that 1 out of 100 females is anorexic and 3 out of 100 are bulimic. Other attempts to control body image include smoking, bingeing and purging, excessive exercise and excessive dieting” (Wan, 2002). Many women readily harm their bodies in hopes of achieving an impossible look. Alarmingly, most eating disorder experts agree that the “social pressure” on females to look a certain way is the main triggering factor for chronic dieting (Stephens, Hill & Hanson, 1994). “Advertising has been vilified for upholding – perhaps even creating – the emaciated standard of beauty by which girls are taught from childhood to judge the worth of their own bodies” (Stephens, Hill & Hanson, 1994). Although not all women will develop eating disorders as a result of being exposed to airbrushed advertisements, there is no doubt that falsified beauty in ads do create a toxic atmosphere, leading some women to engage in unhealthy behaviours.

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty”:

Dove Real Beauty Ad

Unilever’s cosmetics company, Dove, is in the midst of its “Campaign for Real Beauty”, an advertising campaign featuring everyday women as a way to contrast the overly thin and excessively airbrushed models of fashion magazines. In a press release Dove explains its venture as “a global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.” (Postrel, 2007). Dove recognizes the negative effects created when women are exposed unreal ideals of beauty. To counteract such effects and position themselves as a socially responsible, concerned company, Dove introduces this oppositional promotion that features and appeals to real women.

Critics of the campaign claim that Dove isn’t really showcasing the average woman. “Even the most zaftig had relatively flat stomachs and clearly defined waists. These pretty women were not a random sample of the population. Dove diversified the portrait of beauty without abandoning the concept altogether.” (Postrel, 2007). Although Dove is deviating from extreme retouching practices that falsely represent females, the company continues to select appealing, feminine, women with healthy skin and white teeth for their ads.

Setting a Positive Example:

Celebrities Speak Out:

Jamie Lee Curtis

The public, especially young and impressionable girls must be educated on how inaccurately the media portrays women. Some celebrities are taking it upon themselves to bring attention to the outrageous retouching practices in advertisements. In 2002, actress Jamie Lee Curtis approached More magazine with an unusual proposal. With no tricks of the camera, in regular lighting and no retouching work, the then 42-year-old actress wanted to be photographed in her underwear (Leung, 2003). Jamie Lee wanted to emphasize that the perfection rendered in fashion magazines is not real. Even glamorous actresses have flaws. More magazine editor Susan Crandell said that the public’s reaction was “100% positive”. The magazine received “hundreds of letters from women saying ‘Thank You’, ‘You look like me’ or ‘I look like you.’”(Leung, 2003).

Corporate Involvement:

As part of their “Campaign for Real Beauty”, Dove runs a self esteem fund and holds “self-esteem facilitator workshops” for adolescents (Campaign for Real Beauty, 2007). With online quizzes, videos, articles, personal stories and advice pages, the company’s interactive website teaches media awareness and encourages girls to perceive their own bodies as natural and beautiful. In a very positive atmosphere, girls learn about healthy body image and self-esteem.

Why Do Advertisers Continue to Retouch?

If women did not have insecurities about their appearances, they would not be spending money on expensive beautifying products and programs. In an analysis of negative effects of media, researchers conclude that there exist “economic and social institutions that profit from the ‘cult of thinness’ promoted by the mass media.” (Hesse-Biber, Leavy, Quinn & Zoino, 2006). As a result, it is important for advertisers to uphold images of the impossibly beautiful woman. Even companies like Dove, who actively promote positive body images, rely on women’s insecurities in order to sell their anti-ageing creams and firming lotions.

In a recent study on women’s reactions to advertisements, it was discovered that “although female subjects felt bad about themselves after looking at ads with skinny models, they also evaluated the brands the models were selling more highly. The subjects who saw ads with regular-sized models didn't feel bad about themselves, but they also gave the brands a lower value.” (Laucius, 2008). Even though women dislike seeing overly thin models in ads, they are more likely to want to buy products advertised by thin models, than products advertised by normal-sized females. America’s culture admires thinness; thin is considered beautiful. Buying products advertised by Photoshopped models makes women feel closer to achieving that ideal. It’s as if using those products will transform them into enhanced, more beautiful versions of themselves. This gives companies great incentives to continue massive manipulations of photos; they are the advocates and stakeholders of beautified advertisements.

Look to the Future:

Readily available and inexpensive editing technologies make photo manipulation possible. Retouching has already established its presence in the world of media. Young women become victims of idealized images of the female form. In order to minimize negative effects of the distorted views of beauty created by unrealistic photo edits, it is important to create awareness and educate youth about media truth and fiction.


  1. "Campaign for Real Beauty." 2007. 4 Feb. 2009 <>.
  2. Farid, Hany. "Photo Tampering Throughout History." 2008. Dartmouth University. 3 Feb. 2009 <>.
  3. Gavin, Mary L. "All About Puberty." Kids Health For Kids. Aug. 2007. 3 Feb. 2009 <>.
  4. Grabe, Shelly; Hyde Janet, and Ward, Monique. "The Role of the Media in Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental and Correlational Studies." American Psychological Association 134 (2008): 460-76. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. 3 Feb. 2009 <>.
  5. Howells, Mark. "Questioning Photo Maniupulation." Ancestry 2003: 58-60. 3 Feb. 2009 <>.
  6. Laucius, Joanne. "Why skinny sells; Women may say they want models to look 'real,' but they prefer products pitched by the model-thin. " Edmonton Journal [Edmonton, Alta.] 14 Oct. 2008,D.1. Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies. ProQuest. 4 Feb. 2009 <>
  7. Leung, Rebecca. "Extremely Perfect." CBS News 2 Aug. 2003. 4 Feb. 2009 <>.
  8. "Media and Girls." Media Awareness Network. 2009. 3 Feb. 2009 <>.
  9. Hesse-Biber, Sharlene; Leavy, Patricia; Quinn, Courtney E; Zoino, Julia. "The mass marketing of disordered eating and Eating Disorders: The social psychology of women, thinness and culture*. " Women's Studies International Forum 29.2 (2006): 208. Research Library. ProQuest. 3 Feb. 2009 <>
  10. Postrel, Virginia. "The Truth About Beauty. " The Atlantic Monthly 1 Mar. 2007: 125-127. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. 4 Feb. 2009 <>
  11. Stephens, Debra Lynn; Hill, Ronald Paul; Hanson, Cynthia. "The beauty myth and female consumers: The controversial role of advertising." The Journal of Consumer Affairs 28.1 (1994): 137. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. 3 Feb. 2009 <>
  12. Wan, Fang. The impact of idealized images in advertising: A model of third-person effect. Diss. University of Minnesota, 2002. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. 3 Feb. 2009 <>


  1. "After and Before":
  2. "Dove Real Beauty Ad":
  3. "Jamie Lee Curtis":