Women in the World

07.06.12

Seventeen’s About Face on Altered Photos

After 84,000 people signed a petition, the magazine promised to be more “transparent” about how it retouches photos. Okay great—but aren’t we all overreacting just a little bit?

So there’s word that Seventeen magazine is vowing to be more “transparent” about its photo shoots after a young feminists’ organization launched an online campaign alleging that “Photoshopped, air-brushed” images in the magazine promote unrealistic ideals of beauty. The move comes on the heels of Vogue pledging not to use models who appear to have eating disorders, and Glamour saying it won’t photographically manipulate models’ body sizes.

Amid a seeming rising chagrin over the sexualization of girls in media, one might note that well before there was the ability to Photoshop images, there was the art of “retouching," and that Mathew Brady, the famous 19th-century American photographer, was among its most adroit practitioners. Republicans took Abe Lincoln to be photographed by Brady shortly before he gave his famous Cooper Union speech in New York on Feb. 27, 1860, where he detailed his views on slavery. It proved to be one of his most significant addresses, and arguably helped propel him to the White House.

Honest Abe was photographed and the picture was retouched with ink and white paint and itself rephotographed. At that point, newspapers were given the retouched image to copy and publish, as was done by Harper’s Weekly.
 If one inspected an unretouched profile photo of Lincoln, pre-beard, in 1860, one can discern the changes made. The “new” Abe has a smoother face with a straighter collar, a neater necktie and a shorter neck. Brady would later assert that he had adjusted Abe’s collar, but didn’t disclose that he used paint to do it, according to Mary Panzer, a New York photojournalism historian and former photo curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

It wasn’t much different with photos of Mary Todd Lincoln. The camera lied. But folks didn’t really seem to care much, at least back then, when changes involved the rich and famous. 
So what to do about all these millions of girls staring at those perfect images in magazines?
 Well, maybe we can teach them to be justly distrustful of photography in general. In the same way, we can teach our children, “Hey, it’s only a movie,” when they’re taking on-screen events too seriously, we can teach them, “Hey, it’s only a photograph.”


Honest Abe was photographed and the picture was retouched with ink and white paint and itself re-photographed.
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A Mary Todd Lincoln photograph retouched by Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)

Panzer herself grew up with what she deems the impossible standards of Seventeen as her own model, thus becoming quite alert “to fly-away hair and bra straps that show. We weren’t striving to be skinny so much as impeccable, and that’s impossible, too, or almost.”
Cosmetics companies have exploited teen models for years in pursuit of selling adult makeup. Remember a young Brooke Shields hawking Revlon products? A result was that 40-year-old women would buy Revlon products with the aim of having their skin look just as pristine as it did so many years earlier, says Panzer, calling it marketing genius.
 It was a wake-up call only when magazines started promoting "heroin chic," using apparently drug-addicted models with their improbably lean physiques. Yes, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, said that a woman can't be too rich or too thin. But, please, we all realize you don’t want to resemble an anorexic near death.