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Girls & Women

Will the US be the next to ban body-shaming ads and photoshop?

Flickr: Charlotte Astrid

Earlier this week Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, banned body-shaming ads throughout London’s transit system. The announcement followed the controversy that stemmed from fitness and sports nutrition company Protein World’s ad last year.

Now, some are hoping the US will follow suit. The co-founder of clothing company ModCloth, its chief creative officer Susan Koger, and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spoke in support of the Truth in Advertising Act of 2016 on Capitol Hill today. The bill proposes that the Federal Trade Commission regulate the use of airbrushing and photoshopping because these practices and imagery encourage people - particularly women and girls - to strive for unrealistic bodies. If passed, the bill would call for the regulation of all ads, not just those that appear on public transport.

ModCloth has been a big supporter of abandoning photoshopping practices and was the first retailer to sign the “Heroes Pledge for Advertisers,” which advocates against “chang[ing] the shape, size, proportion, color and/or remove/enhance the physical features” of models in post-production for featured ads.

The perils of photoshop

Zadie Smith explains the impact of advertising in her 2014 essay “Find Your Beach” best. “Across the way from our apartment—on Houston [St.], I guess—there’s a new wall ad. The site is forty feet high, twenty feet wide. It changes once or twice a year. Whatever’s on that wall is my view: I look at it more than the sky or the new World Trade Center, more than the water towers, the passing cabs. It has a subliminal effect,” she said of her New York City view.

The wall to which she is referring is the same wall I personally pass on my way to work each morning, the same wall which now bears a semi-nude Justin Bieber laying in bed and the size of godzilla - an ad for Calvin Klein underwear with the tagline “I dream in Calvins.”

Crosswalk censoring, East Houston and Lafayette #billboard #nolita #calvinklein #biebs #nycstreets

A photo posted by EV Grieve (@evgrieve) on

Ads transmit subliminal messages that impact us far more than we realize. Society sees thousands of ads during daily commutes. Ads in subway stations and in the trains themselves offer the only alternative to looking at the floor or uncomfortably into the eyes of a stranger (which could make you fall in love!). Ads are getting so sneaky and subliminal with their messaging, sometimes we don’t even realize they’re ads, but they still have a strong effect and influence on constructing “social norms.”

The bottom line is, advertisments are simply unavoidable, as are the subliminal messages they aim to send. And photoshop plays a big role in sending those messages - erasing blemishes and stretch marks, shrinking waists, and enlarging breasts and eyes. Essentially, advertisers are using photoshop to make real people more closely resemble unattainable body images.

via GIPHY

And it’s girls and women who tend to get hit the hardest by the warped body ideals that these ads project.

42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner. 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.
These are not worries young children should have; unfortunately, body image anxiety only seems to worsen as society gets older.


80% of women in the US report being unhappy with their appearance, but many believe the body type they aspire toward (often body types frequently shown in the media) is not something they can achieve. On the other hand, one poll found that 15% of women between 18 and 24 believe that the photos of models and celebrities they see in the media are true reflections of their appearances.

That’s a lot of cognitive dissonance, and it’s easy to see how that creates unrealistic and unhealthy pressures, and can lead to eating disorders or distorted self-perceptions.

That is Khan’s worry. He noted that his extreme concern about advertising “which...demeans people, particularly women, and make[s] them ashamed of their bodies” is personal - he has two teenage daughters himself.

Challenging "beautiful"

ModCloth and Khan are not the first to tackle body image issues this way. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign has been challenging accepted beauty standards for years, featuring models of all races, ages, shapes, and sizes. It’s efforts have been more recently joined by campaign’s like Aerie’s #AerieREAL initiative, which are photoshop-free and highlight models of different sizes.

Shake it & show your #AerieREAL swim photos & videos! @HilaryDuff

A video posted by aerie (@aerie) on

The desire to change industry standards of beauty and the acceptance of photoshop is being echoed by celebrities who are often the subjects of all that post-production work. Zendaya and Keira Knightley are two among many celebrities who have publicly criticized photoshopped images of themselves. Keira Knightley actually posed nude in protest of photoshopping practices. And Alicia Keys recently spoke out about her choice to go “makeup free” because she’s tired of trying to conform to unrealistic ideals.

Though nothing has been decided on Capitol Hill, this is an important conversation to have.

No one should be made to feel inadequate based on their size, gender, race - or any other physical trait. People should not be pressured to conform to impossible ideals, directly or through (not so) subtle advertising.

Everyone deserves to feel comfortable in their own skin.