The Biggest Can of Worms Ever

the necessity for disenchantment in our lives


Foreword

I've been threatening to write this for a long time.  I've felt it for a long time.  I didn't know how to frame it without offending people or discounting what I do, but if I were going to do my own TEDtalk, this would be the idea I think is worth spreading.  Grab a coffee and make sure the kids are in bed - this is a long read but I hope you will find it enlightening, thought-provoking, and compelling enough to change your perception, and maybe your mind.  I wish to communicate what I have to say with integrity, respect, and honesty.  Please read with an open mind, open eyes, and an open heart.  Click on the images to enlarge them; unless you like clicking back on your browser lots, links and pictures will open in the same window unless you hold alt (mac) or ctrl (pc) to open in a new tab or window.

dis·en·chant  (dsn-chnt)
tr.v. dis·en·chant·eddis·en·chant·ingdis·en·chants
To free from illusion or false belief; undeceive.



Excerpt:

"I salivate when I think about swallowing laxatives.  Food is both my enemy and my best friend. Truth be told, when I am hungry I feel powerful, when I am satisfied I feel guilty, and when I am too-full I feel out of control which usually leads to me feeling sad and upset and over-eating to the point of pain as rebellion/punishment.  Physically, since being in treatment 20 years ago, I have fallen off the wagon from time to time but have not had a prolonged relapse since having children. Mentally, though, I'm still there, 100%. I have bulimia/anorexia.  It's like alcoholism - the craving never stops, you just try and not act on impulses. 


I'm terrified of scales and I don't know what I see in the mirror - I don't trust my eyes even after all these years. My family both stabilizes and terrorizes me - I want to hug my husband but I am so concerned about him touching my fat that I recoil, and I fear what my children are learning from me and my abnormal eating habits, which have gone from starve-binge-purge to just starve-binge.  I know that if I didn't have a family around I'd drop weight because I would have uninhibited private access to the bathroom and no family dinners to pretend I'm enjoying. In fact, I've actually fantasized about leaving for an extended holiday so I can go starve and purge myself. I avoid social gatherings because I am scared to eat in front of other people - I think they are all watching me - if I don't eat enough people will think I'm a flake and if I eat too much they will think I'm a disgusting pig. I hide to eat alone as much as possible.


Every day is a struggle to eat/not eat and I think about food/fat/how my pants feel around my waist almost constantly. I fight with being hungry and knowing I need to feed my body but preferring the endorphin rush that comes with realizing I have gone long enough without food to feel hungry. How's that for a fucked up relationship with food? Definitely the worst part is being fully aware of how messed up this is, and being powerless to stop the train wreck of thoughts that creep in my head without invitation.


I've come a long way through my body dysmorphia, though - at least I no longer tape popsicle sticks to my fingers at bedtime in the hopes they won't be so unattractively crooked..."

Photoshop in western culture

While I can't stop people from being offended and yup, I'm a photographer, so this might appear hypocritical, it is not my intention to point fingers or lay accusations, merely to increase awareness of a problem that I think needs to be addressed, which is digital art being promoted as photography.  Further, I want to open some intelligent and passionate dialogue on the predictable long-term effects of passing off hyper-realistic (def'n: the simulation of something that never really existed...) digital art as photography on our children. Lastly, I am asking that we provide disambiguation between actual photographs and digitally reconstructed ones for our clients, especially the littlest ones.

(Wanna see some amazing digital art?  TONNES of it - at deviantART)


There's this Robert Munsch book called Purple, Green and Yellow, which tells the story of a little girl named Brigid who pesters her Mom for felt markers that can make oranges that are oranger than oranges, roses that smell better than roses, and sunsets that are more real than sunsets.  Eventually, she ends up colouring her father a whole mismatched crazy rainbow with super-indelible-never-come-off-until-you're-dead-and-maybe-even-later markers, then covering it up with better than flesh coloured marker... and he looks too good to be true.  Until, of course, he walks out into the rain.  I don't believe there is anything wrong or immoral with the creative processes that end up with "art featuring real families" nor am I trying to discredit the skills or talents required.  What I feel is misleading is how it is generally not clearly and not obviously stated that extensive retouching is required to suspend disbelief.


While it would be nice to demand a disclaimer on pictures like they put on toys that say, "Contents may vary from item pictured,"  I don't think we can expect to see a warning that says "People in pictures may appear better than real people," anytime soon.  However I do believe that a) we, as photographers, can and should give our clients actual photographs and b) we, as clients, can and should demand to have actual photographs.  Just in case our kids happen to walk out into the proverbial rain and catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror.

"Items exactly as shown in picture"

In the early days of film, photographers needed to know how to make prints in a darkroom.  Eventually, photography evolved to include mastery of not just taking the photographs but developing new and creative darkroom techniques that would help photographers gain an edge and make their work stand apart.  They would sandwich negatives, dodge, burn, mismatch chemical processes for effect, hand-paint, and eventually airbrush before the dawn of the computer era bumped the finishing process back to the darkroom ages with a revolutionary little program called Photoshop.



Knowing how to compose a picture, how to make light work for you, how to connect with the subject whether it's a person, place, or thing - as photographers, those are skills we must acquire because at the end of day there's only so much we can do to salvage a crappy picture using software. While it's true most of us like to tweak our pictures for contrast, saturation, cropping, etc. and others prefer to get really funky with weird colours and heavy textures and illustrations, Photoshop has essentially become more of a cosmetic tool than a creative one.  We've inverted from a desire to have art reflect reality to the desire for reality to reflect art.

The future is closer than you think

In a culture where our children feel incredible pressure to conform to whatever the current societal norm is, we are just beginning to collect solid, measurable evidence in support of how Photoshopped perfection of people in the media has affected our self-perception in the past 30 years.  However, up until recently when inexpensive fully automatic dSLR cameras and home computers with the popular downsized and affordable prosumer version of Photoshop ("Elements") made it possible for the average joe to "shoot like a pro", these altered images were merely pictures of other people.  Not ourselves, and certainly not our children.  When you compound these external influences with the number of times we casually make statements like, "I'm so flabby," or, "I look so old," or, "I hate the way I look," in front of our children, with our perfectly Photoshopped portraits hanging on the walls behind our heads, it isn't so difficult to see what happens next.  My prediction is that it is about to get much worse, because while it has been one thing to live up to other people, I don't think it's a stretch to imagine how much greater the potential impact on a child's self-esteem it will be for children who grow up looking in the mirror and not being able to live up to the images their parents have chosen to hang on the wall.



Exposing the Lie

Most people acknowledge being aware that advertising is at the very least dishonest if not an outright lie - Dove's incredibly successful viral "Evolution" video (below, link here if it isn't working) showed most people for the first time a step-by-step process of falsifying a standard of beauty, followed up with several other videos encouraging women to embrace their natural beauty - perhaps ironically promoting their own brand of beauty products which includes promises to make skin more beautiful and features a special line for older people called "pro-aging" instead of "anti-aging."  Nevertheless, that first video confirmed what most people suspected: that we have been lied to for years.  Brand X youth-intensifying spackle cream has never made our wrinkles and pores disappear, Brand Q tooth whitening strips are only effective at making our teeth hurt and gums bleed, and buying Brand X diet protein shakes didn't magically give any man or woman a narrow waist and a 6-pack.  We know that top health and beauty magazines continue to lie to us, and perpetuate business for their interested parties.  If we don't have a fantasy kept fresh in our minds of how make-up, whitening strips, and protein shakes will give us that perfection we seek, why would we keep spending money?


The western health and beauty industry has effectively homogenized our collective perception of "beauty" for both men and women, by both men and women. Retouched photographs were first employed extensively by the advertising industry to sell their health and beauty products by presenting images of people we should strive to emulate by investing in their products and services - lotions, make-up, pills, diets, you name it.  They are selling the idea that you, too, can look perfect.  If you buy their stuff.  They want to make money, from you, but it's not rocket science to know that all the money you spend making your outside look beautiful won't make you feel beautiful inside.

For decades, companies have been promoting a level of perfection that quite frankly is humanly impossible - we are inundated with images everywhere of people with glowing white teeth, wrinkle- and crease-free faces, invisible pores, large yet firm and perky breasts or pecs, flat bellies, chiseled arms and stomachs, and thighs so smooth Barbie would be jealous.  Just for fun, though, look here to see botched Photoshop jobs which in many cases merely illustrates the extremes that the fashion, entertainment, and advertising industries go to make us believe an alternate reality.  While the botched photos are humourous, the ones we actually need to be afraid of look like this expert photoshopping, where we are quite successfully tricked into seeing something unreal, as real.

And don't even get me started on the irony of magazines intended to promote healthy lifestyles that feature photoshopped perfection on the cover.... ~sigh~

Jennifer Love Hewitt almost thin again Jennifer Love Hewitt Shape Magazine Bikini


Dying to be perfect

skeleton7.jpg (30640 bytes)

Above is unacceptable, but below more unacceptable; both are deadly conditions.   For whatever it's worth, once upon a time pasty women with a little meat on their bones were seen as desirable because the skinny tanned ones were of the poor working class variety.  I know there's at least person who reads this who just said, "I wish I was that skinny," and at least one person who is perfectly healthy who looks in the mirror and sees themselves like the images below.

Fat woman obese obesity

The image below is an example of how Photoshop has been used to alter a skeletal appearance and give us an unrealistic expectation of what being exceptionally thin (meaning, the exception, not the norm) looks like in reality.  

photoshop1.jpg

Isabelle Caro (below) was part of a controversial ad campaign in 2007 which prompted the French government to bring in an anti-anorexia law and CNN to try and ban anorexic models from the catwalk.  She died of complications from anorexia on November 17, 2010.  She was 28 years old, and frequently stated in interviews that a designer told her she needed to lose weight if she wanted to be a model.  She also blamed a difficult childhood for her disease.  Her own mother committed suicide on January 20, 2011.  I'm sure we will never know the full depth of this family's tragedy.


Side note: While there are "manorexics" out there, men with body issues more typically inject steroids that will turn dozens of raw eggs into muscle instead of take laxatives that turn food into, well - liquefied poop.  Both gender extremes have internet support sites which encourage continued or worse disordered thinking, supporting people in their unhealthy journeys.  Examples here for ladies, here for gentlemen.

Since we can't photoshop our real selves

Men and women are generally conscious of facts like our boobs are only going to be as big as they are, our butts may be forever flat, our noses won't be button-like and straight no matter how much we will them to be, and our teeth are naturally putty coloured.  Skinny bitches have cellulite, healthy young men have love handles, brown people are brown, and white people are, well - white.  Here is an ad from the developer of bodybuilding website blatantly asking for "edits" on 6 images.  Rather disturbing.

In our never-ending search for this computer-generated perfection we have sought more invasive help from plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentistry, tanning salons... if you weren't born with it, and can't fix it with creams and lotions and magic powders, off you go to get bleached, suctioned, rhinoplastied, injected with toxins, implanted, veneered, and more.  

Older men don't get to be distinguished.

Blepharoplasty Before and After

And Asian women don't even have to have Asian eyes anymore:


Jocelyn Wildenstein was a gorgeous, wealthy, well-travelled and educated woman whose obsession with plastic surgery reportedly developed after her first husband left her for another woman.  There are various stories floating around about whether she started off wanting to look feline, or went feline after too may surgeries started giving her a feline appearance.  Either way, this is a result of severe body dysmorphia.

Jocelyn Wildenstein

Heidi Montag, at the age of 23, has undergone such extensive surgery that I imagine people who grew up with her would have a hard time recognizing her on the street.  There is not enough history for so many surgeries at such a young age to say exactly how this severe body modification will affect her appearance later in life, but I think we have enough evidence built by those starting later in life to suggest the future looks pretty grim.

heidi-montag-plastic-surgery

I was going to throw a picture of Michael Jackson on here to prove it affects men, too, but I think the point has been hammered home sufficiently.  Look here if you want to see more celebrity surgeries.  Most experts agree that plastic surgery is a case of putting a Band Aid on a bullet wound by treating the symptom, not curing the disease.




The perceived benefits of plastic surgery is something people are willing to risk a lot for.  Look what happened when an obsession to create perfection through plastic surgery went horribly wrong for Korean celebrity Han Mi Ok (above).  She's not an anomoly - 1 in 298 patients will develop serious complications, and while the rate of death is comparable with other surgeries, considering they are elective and not live-saving procedures, that says something right there.



For those of you who have never worked in Photoshop, there's a feature known as "marching ants" that comes up when you have selectively chosen a part of the image to work on.  I think it looks a lot like plastic surgeon's marks, yes?

Reality Check, Please!

I doubt many people would dispute the obsession we have with "perfection."  The explosion of "reality shows" (which is a misnomer as there is nothing real about them) has brought a new means of marketing perfection to us via shows that exacerbate and capitalize on our feelings of inferiority. Biggest Loser, a show which generally promotes an ideal of healthier eating habits, pushing yourself harder, and generally being inspirational as a lifestyle transformation, has on its staff trainer Jillian Michaels, who is famously quoted from an interview in Women's Health saying she will adopt a child to avoid "ruining" her body.  Perhaps ironically, she has had a nose job done, and describes herself in the before picture (below) as having "struggled with obesity in her teens."


I'm not really sure if this picture just doesn't do her giant disfiguring nose and enormous elephantine figure justice, or if I'm just not brainwashed enough to see the problem with the before - what do you think?

While Biggest Loser (in the big picture) promotes healthier living, it does so with extreme dieting and exercise routines which come with a number of health risks. Additionally, most people would stand a better chance of success if they had a dietician, trainer, and personal coach on staff like in the show. As inspiring as it may be to some (how many of us have had "Biggest Loser" contests informally announced in our workplace or circle of friends?) the entire concept of making it a competition rather than a personal journey to better health isn't the right mindset for making a permanent and lasting lifestyle transition.  

More disturbing, however, are shows like Extreme Makeover, where women who deem themselves outside the realm of "beautiful" undergo massive amounts of cosmetic surgery to completely reform their looks.  Oddly enough, most people find the after results only moderately better than the before, and in some cases say they are as bad, awkward, or occasionally worse.  

Extreme Makeover Before and After
It would be very interesting to see how the Extreme Makeover contestants would have looked in before and after pictures if they had opted for a more traditional "makeover" that involved a new haircut and colour, professionally applied make-up, and a couple of great new pieces added to their wardrobe on "What Not To Wear."
What Not to Wear Before and After
One of the issues brides often face after getting engaged is insecurity about how they will look on their wedding day.  Aside of eloping alone, even small weddings take an incredible amount of time and are very stressful for usually the bride who tends to be the one doing most of the planning and organizing. It's very hard not to get wrapped up in how she is going to look standing up in front of everyone for an entire day and how she will look in her pictures.  Often, they buy their wedding dress in the size they want to be as "motivation" to lose weight - it's not uncommon, then, for brides to purchase a second (larger) wedding dress weeks before the ceremony because they set unrealistic goals for themselves.

Business is capitalizing on some pretty deep-seated expectations women have about looking perfect on their wedding day, feeding off this insecurity to hook women in for things like pre-wedding weight-loss specials and group deals on cosmetic procedures for the bridal party like tanning, Botox, dermabrasion, or collagen lip plumpers.

Bridalplasty "before" group shot
Bridalplasty is the lastest rendition of the reality TV makeover mania.  Sadly, since reality TV is not real and most women won't ever have the opportunity to complete in this twisted competition, I often get asked by brides during consultations if I'm going to make sure they look "good" in all their pictures, implying they are hoping I will perform the minor procedures they can't afford to go under the knife for - tooth whitening, removal of pocks, pits, wrinkles, and fissures, breast enhancements, etc.  When I say that I am a photographer and not a plastic surgeon, they usually choose another photographer who is willing to cross that line.
Bridalplasty before and after
Bridalplasty winner Alyson Donovan declined over half the surgeries she originally listed after winning, with the most dramatic change in her appearance coming from self-directed diet and exercise that resulted in a 35lb weight loss.  Critics are still debating if this bait-and-switch was staged or not to lessen the criticism the show received, but from what I saw of the show most of those women needed therapy, not surgery.


Making important distinctions about relativity

Everything is relative.  For example:

Some people are naturally thin:


And some have pot bellies:


Sometimes people are "ugly" after cosmetic surgery  


While it's generally understood that everything is 'relative' ie) suffering is measured intangibly by its relative impact on an individual's life BY that individual, the images here make a pretty good argument for the disparity between "relative" (perceived) and "real" suffering, and yet most of us would look away if not turn a cheek because they do not fit within our ideals of beauty even with the transformative reconstruction that has been performed correcting damage from birth defects, disease, and serious accidents.


Two-Face baby and Lakshmi Tatma (pictured below) had disfiguring birth defects that were seen as reincarnations of goddesses worthy of song, dance, and praise not ridicule and disgust.  While the Two Face baby's parents have opted to not have corrective surgery done, Lakshmi (below, with her godly likeness)underwent surgery as her parents felt that she might have difficulties later in life.

vishnu before 1 Hindu Goddess Born With 4 Legs and 4 Arms picture


In some cases, surgery is not an option for medical reasons, and sometimes for personal or even religious reasons as is the case for Jose Mestre (below) who is a Jehovah's Witness and refuses to receive the necessary blood transfusions he would require to have his face restored. (Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood and blood products as sacred and not to be ingested - non-compliance would result in disfellowship (shunning) of the individual.)


Beauty is definitely a social/cultural thing, though - in many cultures tattoos and piercing are seen as beauty enhancements while in western society we are only just beginning to see these practices as not being deviant.  There is no denying that the difference between weird and wonderful as opposed to scary and ugly is exactly like beauty: in the eye of the beholder.


Beautiful Photography vs. Beautiful Photoshopping

The issue I have with Photoshop is that people are not just unable, but unwilling, to separate fantasy from reality, largely because people are guarded about having un-retouched photos of themselves released.  In the case of photographers, we are culpable for perpetuating the lie under the guise of retaining creative license, protecting industry secrets, etc. and maintaining the illusion that professional photographers are more talented with a camera than your average joe because the people look better than real people.  I can guarantee you that the pictures you take on your camera aren't as bad as this industry would like you to believe.  I'm pretty handy with a camera and this is what mine look like:


A Google search of Photoshop art brings up these images, most of which are clearly fantastical.  Most people can pretty safely agree that no one believes these images are real.  They are simply digital art made from photographs.  This is what a Google search brings back for newborn photography but this is what a search for newborn babies brings up.  Unless you can convince me that the second group of photos are just exceptionally ugly and imperfect children, then I would argue that we have now come to a point where we have acquired a homogenized taste for what beauty means not just for adults, but as early in life as children fresh out of the womb.  While I'm not intending to attacking newborn or baby photographers in particular, I'm going to focus there because it seems somehow wrong that it starts so early.  And so cheap - $5.95 each pose?  Damn - that's WAY less than you'd have to pay for surgery!

(I wish I could remember where I found the above photograph on the internet, but it came with a caption written by the new parent, "In case your child isn't born with a body issue," and a wish from the parent to not actually see a company representative for fear of wanting to smack them with their own camera.)


In a style that was hugely popularized by Anne Geddes, words like 'organic' and 'natural' are being used by photographers to describe sometimes surreal but mostly hyper-real (better than real) images of babies and children that look like glass-eyed plastic baby dolls that came off a shelf in the toy aisle.  They tout themselves as capturing a moment in time, but when we transform these images, are we not effectively erasing if not altering it?  If you're into chaos theory (or just a bit geeky) it might be interesting to consider the butterfly effect that this alteration of "captured moments" would have over time.

Photographers who specialize in what is popularly called "baby art" (please see note on TM at end of article) will defend what they do. The fact remains that a large part of the final product is in fact not what real babies look like, and I have to admit a lot of what I see out there is only marginally different to me than pageant retouching. I am not trying to make anyone who specializes in this feel guilty - the images are beautiful, but they do not depict reality.  At least most pageant retouching is so over the top and often so poorly done that it looks fake, instead of better than reality. The intent of digital art is to present a hyper-realistic fantasy, whereas most photographers are essentially selling parents an alternate reality with threats like, "Why entrust your newborn photography to someone who gives you real pictures?"  The producers of digital art using real babies do not promote themselves as digital artists, but refer to themselves ambiguously as "baby art photographers" or just plain old "photographers."



To see what photographers go through to make newborn infants "perfect" please go visit this site then watch this tutorial (to see results only go to 12:38) by two very talented photographers (their original images are beautifully lit and composed) who specialize in extensive Photoshopping on portraits of infants.  In addition to removing blemishes, it involves removing under-eye shadows, skin smoothing and retexturing, sharpening, and of course desaturation of the too-pink to be pretty hands and feet of typical newborn babies.  You can watch tutorials on everything from photoshopping children and teens to recreating skin to removing wrinkles, bulges, fat, and scars and adding boobs or whiter teeth - youTube is your friend.  If you just want to see Photoshop before and afters, Google is your friend.  Have fun.  Below is the result of me following the aforementioned tutorial at 100% opacity to exaggerate the effects, with the exception of using actions and fake skin which I did manually.   I also went for a slightly faded vintage tone instead of the popular yellow-peach hue that seems to be all the rage these days, and forgot to remove the red from the little boys' eyes:


In case you forget, here is the original:



(Click to see images larger)

Viewing people that look better than people has been so effectively ingrained in our collective psyche by the media that we often have a difficult time making distinctions between what's real and what's not.  Long before Photoshop was around (~380BC) philosopher Plato noted in "Republic" that, "Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn't, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change; it is therefore of the utmost importance that the first stories they learn shall aim at producing the correct moral effect." When they are young, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are as real to children as Mommy and Daddy.  They eventually outgrow these myths because they are relatively easy to eradicate but as a society - as parents, caregivers, and educators - we are doing very little to dispel the visual myth of perfection rammed down our children's throats at every turn.

The mentality of parents who invest in "art photography" seems to be somewhat conflicted.  They want to capture priceless images of their family... and have them digitally altered to look like plastic replicas of themselves.  They go get annual portraits done, each and every time with equal amounts of Photoshop editing, which equates to children from birth on seeing these perfected images hung on the wall, shared online, and distributed to friends and family, often in larger-than-life proportions.  Not the snapshots from family vacation or the self-portraits that make Mom look fat or show Sonny's pimples - those aren't worthy of being displayed or shared. Only the ones that say, "If we were better than ourselves, this is what we would actually look like."  Now yours, right from birth, right in the hospital, for just $5.95 each pose!!!

Mass media: breeding grounds for sexual abuse

The primary causes of body dysmorphic disorder, bulimia, and anorexia are a) parents who are themselves obsessed with appearance, b) parents with unrealistic expectations of their children, and c) sexual abuse or trauma.  It's easy to understand the possibility that hanging photoshop-perfected images of children in the home might be an obsession with appearance a parent inadvertently passes down to a child, translating to unrealistic parental expectations in a child's mind especially against the backdrop of perfect people on TV and in magazines and movies, but how does sexualization of women and girls in the media contribute?

Let's start with the controversial image of waifish 15-year old Miley Cyrus, hugely popular with kids between the ages of 4 and 12, sitting in a disheveled post-coital pose, half naked, smudged lipstick and all.  It was even more disturbing that in the same spread she was photographed draped across her father's lap in what many would call not a natural father-daughter type interaction.  If you did not know they were father and daughter you would think they were a couple that included a stereo-type of male sexual prowess illustrated by a middle-aged man and his young virginal partner.


Calvin Klein has made use of racy, hyper-sexualized ads for decades.  In fact, the picture below of 15-year old Brooke Shields sparked a similar controversy in 1980 that still gets debated 30 years after the fact, and enjoyed a revisitation when Annie Leibowitz's pictures of Miley hit the stands.  It's almost laughable now that this was met with public outcry.


Amidst CK's orgiastic B&W ads that looked like this...



...they released these images advertising children's underwear, which were pulled after only a day in circulation because of public outrage.  While the images below are not blatantly sexual, the style of photography was too blatantly reminiscent of the signature style associated with Klein's sexually charged ad campaigns.

calvin klein advertisement calvin klein advertisement

While Barbie has historically taken a lot of flack for being too unrealistic and perfect, at least she's had an illustrious career track that has included (a very fashionable and glamourous) nurse, paediatrician, business person, veterinarian, firefighter, RCMP officer, and teacher of various things including ballet and sign language.  Even after her body remodelling, Barbie's been freakishly out of proportion for years and is kind of flaky in her movies as a sparkle-fart fairy or some sort of princess, but at least she hasn't been consistently portrayed as a boy-crazy twit.  We won't discuss the fact her boyfriend Ken was modelled after her brother in real life... but I digress.


One of Barbie's prime competitors a couple of years back were the Bratz line, often referred to by both conservative and cynical parents as "Prostitotz" or "Slutz."  Bratz Dollz are an example of how sexualized airhead females were ruthlessly promoted to young girls.  The images on the packaging showed these often scantily-clad bedroom-eyed dolls striking stripper poses, while the cartoon featured clips of them self-obsessing over how they looked so boys would notice them.  Bratz executives tried to argue that these dolls were being purchased by the 11-18 year old crowd (?), but The American Psychological Association's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls stated that since the identified target market for these dolls was 4-8 year olds, something was very very wrong.

The Bratz dolls Feelin' Pretty line shows the pouty lips and miniskirts that a psychological report says are "worrisome."


The Bratz cartoon series inspired little girl to dress-up and play make-believe modelling themselves in similar poses, talking with "brattitude" and wearing adult-oriented clothing like micro-mini skirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas.  What we have then is a clear example of how little girls are socialized to be sexual beings at a very young age, long before they even understand what it means.  While a woman should never blamed for being sexually abused or assaulted because of the way she dresses or acts, when we consider the point of females dressing and acting provocatively is in fact to attract the attention of the opposite sex, it's not a big leap to assume that lacking the maturity to understand the behaviours they are mimicking, they are going to suffer uninvited or unwanted sexual comments, advances, and possibly assault. If we don't want our children at risk of acting and being treated as sexual beings at an early age, we need to be aware of how and where and by whom or what they are being influenced.  Ignorance is not always bliss.

Everything old is new

Before you get all up in arms about body dysmorphia and eating disorders not being new, yes, I am aware.  I'd like to point out that too-high parental expectations, obsession with appearances and sexual assault have always been an issue, and still go under-reported today especially within the male population.  Social norms also morph from decade to decade and century to century.  Just in case you didn't know, not so long ago it was the fat rich ladies in robes and gowns who were desirable, not skinny tanned girls in low-rider jeans or high-rise skirts. (paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, c. ~1618)

" Rubens's Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus confronts its viewers with an interpretative dilemna. Painted about 1615 to 1618, the life-size composition illustrates the story recounted by Theocritus and Ovid of how the twin brothers Castor and Pollux (called the Dioscuri) forcibly abducted and later married the daughters of King Leucippus. Rubens's depiction of the abduction is marked by some striking ambiguities: an equivocation between violence and solicitude in the demeanor of the brothers, and an equivocation between resistance and gratification in the response of the sisters. The spirited ebullience and sensual appeal of the group work to override our darker reflections about the coercive nature of the abduction. For these reasons many viewers have wanted to discount the predatory violence of the brothers' act and to interpret the painting in a benign spirit, perhaps as a Neoplatonic allegory of the progress of the soul toward heaven, or as an allegory of marriage. Although I agree that a reference to marriage may be at play here, I also believe that any interpretation of the painting is inadequate that does not attempt to come to terms with it as a celebratory depiction of sexual violence and the forcible subjugation of women by men...." "... painted by Rubens from 1609-12. The painting was looted from Germany by a Russian soldier during WWII, and has been exhibited in St. Petersburg's The Hermitage and Moscow's Pushkin Museum. The history of the painting and Germany's attempts to have it returned are covered by The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, and Passport Moscow."

What's different in this day and age is that we live in an age were it's not just those with the capacity for conspicuous consumption who have access to images touting the glories of high fashion and technology, but virtually anyone with access to TV or the internet, which is pretty much everyone.  I'm also going to take it a step further and point out that women have been intentionally toeing the line of sexual provocativeness for centuries.  For example, in the Victorian era it was inappropriate for a woman to show her ankles; this was circumnavigated by manufacturing boots that featured contrasting colours or textures that mimicked "showing a little leg."

Gold Victorian Boots Lace up Boot Granny Boots Costume Dame-115 - Click Image to Close

We, as women, have for years both sent and received some very mixed messages - we want to be sexually liberated but don't want to be treated like sex objects, we want to dress provocatively but think men are pigs when they notice our boobs might fall out of our shirt, we want our little girls to be sweet innocent little girls then dress them up like miniature adults...  While women's sexual liberation is a whole other argument, the point is that our children are being socialized to be very confused about their own sexuality, whether that's being too promiscuous or not promiscuous enough.  You can try and blame the guys for being independently barbaric but really, our own indecisiveness lends itself nicely to girls experiencing real or perceived sexual trauma, which as I mentioned earlier is in the Big Three for common factors in eating disorders.

One of the reasons male rape/assault goes largely unreported is an interesting point to ponder.  Women don't report it because of fear of being labelled a slut or having to admit they have lost their virginity amoung other stigma.  Men, when faced with the prospect of sexual stimulation, regardless of gender, will often have an erection despite their unwillingness to participate.  Because of this biological response, men are afraid to admit they have been assaulted by a man because they will be stigmatized as gay when they are heterosexual.  Likewise, if they have been assaulted by a woman who society would deem as unattractive, they are afraid of being stigmatized and often turn the tale into one of sexual exploitation.  "I wanted to know what it was like to f*ck a fat/ugly/old/drunk chick."


Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, not a size 2 - a real heifer by today's standards.  Women: despite males having this bizarre need to act all machismo, the flip side of this biological response works in our benefit because when a man genuinely finds you interesting and stimulating, I assure you the last thing on his mind when you are naked, ready, willing, and able to be sexually intimate with each other is whether you have too much flesh on the inside of your thighs or if your nipples are the wrong shade of erect.  Besides the Kinsey Reports, there are countless studies to support this, but here I am way off topic again...

Our legacy is oh, so very broken


There are women who brag about how little they have gained during their pregnancy on social networking sites, others - particularly young first-time mothers - who are genuinely horrified at how "ugly" newborn babies are, and still other who try to control the weight of their babies because they think they are fat.  They are often under-educated and/or suffering from mild to severe depression, an eating disorder, or body dysmorphia which they then project into their babies.

Brittainy Labberton, 21, was sentenced to one year in jail, but King County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell suspended the sentence.

I would like to present the case of Brittainy Labberton (above) who was not only underfeeding her children but giving her 2-month old laxatives because she was afraid the baby was overweight and would grow up to be fat.  It is generally acknowledged that she had poor parenting models herself, but the details of exactly what this means are not public knowledge.  We can probably imagine.  In the image above, she is pregnant with her third child; the courts were able to put into place an order to remove the baby from the parents' custody at birth as she was not eating enough during her pregnancy to nourish the unborn child.

With the exception of cases like Ms. Labberton and serious birth defects that limit a person'a ability to experience even a modest quality of life, we generally agree our children are perfect when they are born.  Bruises, fat, scrapes, pimples... warts, and all.  It's our bias, and we are entitled to it.  Unfortunately, a study from Harvard actually showed that women shown pictures of ugly babies (ones with facial irregularities or skin conditions) were two and a half times faster flipping past the "ugly" as the pretty babies.  Faster than what?  Men, actually.  Seems that women are the ones programmed to be preoccupied with appearances more than men, which isn't surprising.  Actually.

The purpose of personal photographs


As a parent, I've always been relentless (read annoying) in my pursuit of taking pictures of my kids, in whatever state they are in.  And I tell the stories that the pictures remind me of.  As adults, though, we avoid getting our pictures taken.  We're afraid we are too out of shape or old or wrinkly to be photographed.  We deny our children and grand-children and great-grandchildren the same visual history of us that we expect to have of them despite the fact they will have a lot more years of wanting to look at pictures of us when we are dead and gone than we will of them while we are still living.



We are not advertisers who need to trick people into thinking that they can buy our product and be closer to perfection - we're people with families who want pictures to commemorate our time as a family.  Yet we've allowed ourselves to be socially conditioned into a pattern of thinking where if our child gets a zit, scratches their knee, or has a birth mark, it diminishes their beauty and our willingness to have them photographed, for fear of... what, people seeing what we look like in real life? When we look back at pictures of our children, we remember how sweet and cuddly they were.  As we look at pictures of our parents or grandparents, especially those of us with parents and grandparents who are dead, we don't see them as people with excess fat or weird noses or wrinkles, but recall the way they smelled or their laugh or how loved we felt.  But if we are looking at pictures of ourselves, we seem to pine for our youthful appearance or beat ourselves up for how unattractive we looked.  This flies in the face of common sense, really - isn't the point of having pictures to have a visual trail of where we came from?


The pairing below shows a beautiful edit of a beautiful belly that I personally can't understand why we're programmed to think is "ruined."  We take for granted our stretchy scarred bellies - but a belly that has housed babies is a special thing, something women and men who can't have their own children might envy.  Please look here and here for some beautiful real photographs of some beautiful real women, who view their bodies as a road map of where they have been and remark on the real joy that accompanies living in a real body.


As a photographer, it's interesting (and ironic) that when most parents arrive for a session, they have a story about how their child got the big scrape on their knee or where they were when all the mosquito bites happened.  Even at a wedding, there's a story behind why the best man had a black eye.  It's not just a part of the story, it IS the story, the one that people will reminisce about for years.  Yet we as photographers are often asked (or expected) to erase these parts - starting from the puffy eyes babies have when they are born to removing the stretch marks from pregnancy and the crow's feet we earn as we age from... smiling too much?   Do you believe the picture below, knowing what you know now? (Source is here.)

Javine Hylton shows off her stunning post-baby figure.



Which side of the fence?

The obvious question right now might be, well, how much do YOU edit, Mrs. Walls?  Yes, I edit my photographs.  First and foremost, I am a sucker for high-contrast - I like my whites super-white and my blacks super-black, probably a big part of the reason I am always partial to B&W photographs.  I don't care about colour casts but do prefer an image that is pale and cool rather than astro-bright.  I like soft focus, but I don't have a lens or filter I'm willing to put vaseline on so I do it in Photoshop.  I like the unpredictability and challenge of natural and available light, and consider using flash as a last resort.  I like wrinkles, scars,  bruises, and puffy eyes because they tell the whole story instead of the story we wish we could tell.

The perfect(ed) picture
original

a typical edit for me now

which I admit I prefer in B&W anyways
But, I am going to be brave enough to admit that I have operated on both sides of the proverbial Photoshop coin.  When I first started out as a photographer, back in the days of film, it was my goal, my mission, to be a "perfect" photographer.  At one point, I even had something written into my bio like everyone deserved to have a picture of themselves that looked like a tear-sheet from a magazine. When I kept getting prints back from the lab, people still looked like real people, and I started asking for digital scans so I could touch them up, then spent a few years dabbling in altered realities.  The funny thing is, I go back and see the edits v. the real pictures and I always spend way more time looking at the original pictures.

I am not a technically perfect photographer.  The image below was one I lamented over for months, possibly years, because it was not perfectly in focus.  I love this picture.  I love everything about it.  I was so swept up in the moment that I was photographing that I wasn't paying attention, and in later years this has affected the way I do business: I make a disclaimer to clients that I don't guarantee clear pictures during emotionally charged moments because I am probably crying and physically incapable of taking a decent picture.  Below is now just as much a portrait of me as a photographer as it is of this amazing couple.  And they love it as much as I do.


Sadly, it wasn't until I gave birth to my own daughter that I really began questioning what I was trying to accomplish as a photographer.  I know it was wrong to not see it because I had sons, but I had the pleasure of talking to a gentleman just the other evening who pointed out that I might not have known in large part because I wasn't a guy... and that guys face other "macho" standards that often contradict their own morals and feed into the female view of the world.  Even with this information, I have encountered clients (always the women) who have asked me to remove everything from pimples, scrapes, bruises, and mosquito bites (which I often oblige in at least a few pictures) to scars and birthmarks (which I usually talk people out of) to doing full-on surgical procedures like evening out the size of their breasts and replacing the missing teeth on their children (which I outright refuse.)  I was even once asked to remove the "brown" tint in a woman's nipples and make them more pink... (?)

On a personal note

You may be wondering why this is such a big deal to me, and why I, as a photographer, am seemingly undermining the very industry I work within.  Watch the intro to this bulimia episode of Intervention.  (You can watch the whole episode on youTube or on Netflix if you have it.)  The first minute and 45 seconds hits me really hard every time because the quote at the beginning of this article was in fact written by me, excerpted from a series of emails that were exchanged just a few days ago (yes, days) while I was waffling with whether or not to hit "post."  Initially I was going to "Photoshop" my story but decided that it was better to present the raw data and let you see what disordered thinking actually looks like.  I have a history of sexual trauma, bulimia, body dysmorphia, battered wife syndrome, unrealistic expectations of myself, and lingering issues of clinical perfectionism manifesting in insomnia and OCD-type behaviours. Is this a legacy I wish to pass along to your children?  No.  I am working diligently to NOT reveal my disordered thoughts to my own children, directly or indirectly - so far, I hide it as best as I can. But I'm only human, and they aren't stupid - I'm bound to slip up from time to time.



I was not held up to standards of perfection nor abused in any way by my parents but rather adopted intense amounts of guilt and shame via indoctrination to Catholicism while attending Catholic School.  While we weren't Catholics, it was generally held that as children of divorced parents, my older sister and I would fare a better chance of growing up "right" and "good" if we had the influence of God to replace the father we only saw on alternating weekends and holidays.  In class I had to learn the rules, but was not able to partake of the rewards for obeying them like being forgiven or going to heaven because I was not a card-carrying member.  We didn't attend a Catholic church, I could not go to confession, I could not receive the sacraments, and in my mind was therefore destined to an eternity in purgatory until and unless I could prove I was worthy.

Oddly enough, a lot of ascetics (persons who deprive themselves of worldly pleasures in the name of spiritual enlightenment such as nuns and monks) see starving their bodies as yet another way to show their absolute devotion.  It is believed that the first recorded case of anorexia nervosa was St. Catherine of Siena in about 1363 (she died at the age of 33 like Jesus) and Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, wrote about his starvation habits in his journals as he struggled to live up to the impossible expectations of Catholic purity he put upon himself while becoming a Catholic Monk.

I transferred to the public school system in an affluent area in 6th grade.  In our secularized world where people are more prone to visit the homes of the stars than the resting places of the saints, I found solace in obsessing with fashion magazines and ballerina culture.  I read every issue of Cosmopolitan and Harper's Bazaar, designed clothing, and created paintings and drawings of delicately posed skeletal figures for years.  Because I was short, I knew I had to be skinnier to look taller; the towering runway models were never bigger than a size 6, so I knew I needed to be smaller than that.  You can understand how between my religious aspirations and my desire for physical perfection that would hide my spiritual inadequacy, the framework I had built for my self-perception and self-worth was a recipe for disaster.  I was, frankly, deluded.  And very very sick.  As I withdrew more and more into my pattern of self-abuse, greater and greater demands were put on me to conform, and with the need to keep my private life private I chose to move out and live on my own when I was 15.

My commitment to disenchantment

My amazing friend Christine Hopaluk took this picture of me at our annual photography retreat in October of 2010.  I am wearing black.  My skin is pasty white.  I am holding my silly pink heart guitar.  My hair is in a pony bun.  I am sporting heavy black-rimmed glasses.  I am 40lbs overweight.  I am smiling my crooked smile. After years of not letting people take pictures of me, or flipping the bird when they had me cornered, I am trying to be more gracious on what I call the "wrong" side of the camera.  Even 5 years ago I would have been horrified to see much less share this picture.  But, after much reflection, yup - this is me.  


This was towards the end of the emails a few days ago:

"On the surface I think I'm afraid people will think I'm really screwed up in the head, but honestly, I have a feeling I'm pretty normal and average in terms of the number of skeletons in my closet, even if they are different from other people's skeletons. I know I don't want to be "thin" anymore - I just want to be healthy so my kids don't have to watch me kill myself or heaven forbid repeat my mistakes.  Really, I don't know what healthy looks like but I vaguely recall what it feels like being 10 years old and on top of the world.  I want that."

I am self-aware and self-accepting enough to continue managing my bulimia.  My husband and I have chosen to make some long-overdue critical lifestyle changes in the direction of better health, too - it's always better doing things with support.  But there it is, and there you have it.  I'm not a freak, and I'm not stupid.  I'm disenchanted.

What YOU can do to facilitate disenchantment

So now's the part where I potentially make a lot of enemies in the industry because we all know there's a very fine line between enhancing a photo and making a person look better than a real person.  I'm going to come right out and call bullshit on every single professional photographer who says that every baby they have photographed is exceptionally perfect and that they seem to just attract beautiful flawless clients to photograph with their fancy expensive cameras. I've birthed 3 babies, been in the room while several more were born, and have photographed scores of them from mere minutes to several months old.  I've also photographed enough people in enough shapes and sizes to know that even the most perfect light and make-up shot on any camera will not eliminate pores from a 40 year old woman, wrinkles from 90 year old man, or chicken pox scars and pimples off a kid.  I also know that many photographers practice "selective publishing" of client photos to their websites and blogs meaning if you or your family are flawed or fat, you won't make it to the blog or website.  In many cases, professional portrait photographers are just as culpable as the media for only putting images out there that display our current socially accepted standards of beauty.  Considering that the currently accepted "beauty norm" of being tall, thin, and flawless only applies to a marginal percentage of the population, it needs to STOP.


My challenge to my fellow photographers, the ones who do extensive digital enhancements (we, your fellow photographers, all know who you are - we know what pictures look like SOOC) is simply to provide an invaluable service to your clients: the truth.  Along with every photoshop-perfected image that you sell your clients I suggest that you provide an original 4x6 print or include a web-sized digital proof of one image used, one that is straight from the camera that you will be editing for their collection, but with not a single edit done - one that simply shows how perfectly human and perfectly flawed the people you are photographing are.  Don't worry - your clients aren't going to lose faith in your ability as a photographer or spread nasty rumours - unless you've somehow managed to undo 30 years of media brainwashing I can promise they will love you all the same for both your honesty and your mad PS skillz.  You could even provide a pamphlet, write a note on your website's homepage, or include a clause in your model release explicitly stating that Photoshopped images are hyper-realistic and advising parents to take the time necessary to educate their children, because knowledge is power.

Clients - ASK for an UNedited versions of yourself.  Ask for one 4x6 digital file or print (you can pay the quarter for printing if the photographer is a schmuck) of your unedited photo.  Think of it as a compass point for our youth, your own children, YOU... one that demonstrates honesty, integrity, and reality, so that there is evidence that you invested in a digital art piece "based" on a photograph you had taken of them.  So they know you do not have an unrealistic expectation of how physically perfect they should be.  Explain to them how perfect and beautiful they were, and how much you loved them from the moment they were conceived.  SHOW them the photograph and explain you wanted art, and tell them that it wouldn't have mattered if the photographer didn't edit a single hair on their head.

If you are not willing as a photographer to offer or as a client to request this service, I have two questions for you: who would care if the pictures weren't retouched, and if they did, would you actually value their opinion? I'm pretty sure most people, in this sense, are like me: I love my kids, husband, family, friends, AND clients, warts and all.  But, I also know there are people who don't; I urge you to succumb to that suspicious feeling that you might be preoccupied with a superficial and unrealistic view of beauty and reality and change your mind.  Lately, there have been a rash of songs attempting to encourage us to be ourselves, warts and all. While Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have put in admirable efforts, and Bruno Mars did a solid in the face of crappy male music like this, I think P!nk's "Perfect" deserves a nod, since her and I have been in the same shoes for a while now working in industries where being vocal about the industry itself always borders on professional suicide.

I realize that this is a lot to digest in one sitting.  Maybe take it in two or three so that it really hits home.  If this strikes a chord with you, I ask you to educate those around you about the need for disenchantment, especially with our youth, who are sure to continue in the direction of self-destruction if we do not provide them with a compass point now.

I welcome your feedback and thoughts via email or comments, and hope that you, too, think this is an idea worth spreading.  I also have two exciting new projects on the horizon, that are a little bit fun, a little bit odd, a little bit transformative - just like me.  Anyone interested in participating should shoot me an email ;)

~muchLOVE,

Hope

P.S. A HUGE thank you goes out to the parents of the beautiful babies featured in the before and after edits of the suitcase shots - your willingness to let me do horrible digital things to your perfectly normal and beautiful children for the purpose of this article is appreciated in ways that words cannot encompass.  Love love love A & D to bits and pieces, exactly the way they are, warts, pimples, pee squirts and all...


Note: "Baby Art" is a phrase which has been both officially and unofficially "trademarked" by a number of agencies in both Canada and the US.  Anyone can put "TM" behind something but until you see the ® symbol it isn't registered - which reminds me I need to update pictureLOVE  to ® before the end of March...


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