Attention: retouching can damage your health

They prompt eating disorders and low self-esteem, so should retouched fashion photos come with a health warning? A politician in Brazil thinks so, writes TOM HENNIGAN in São Paulo

MOST READERS of glossy magazines long ago realised that many of the images of models and celebrities seen on their pages, with never a hint of love handles anywhere, are not exactly a faithful representation of reality.

These days the debate over the veracity of the old saying that “the camera cannot lie” has been made redundant by software programmes such as Photoshop, which allow publishers to remove from photos anything as unsightly as cellulite and wrinkles, while making legs leggier, tummies tighter and bosoms bustier.

Such hyper-real beauty, with its glaringly white teeth and perfect tan, might leave many of us mere mortals feeling somewhat inadequate. But now, in Brazil, a member of congress believes that such images are a danger to people’s health, causing low self-esteem in many readers and fuelling a rise in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia in this body-conscious society.

Deputy Wladimir Costa is pushing a bill through congress that will require such reworked images to carry a warning similar to those found on cigarettes or alcohol.

“We are not trying to stop people using Photoshop. We just want such images to carry a warning: ‘Attention: image retouched to alter the physical appearance of the person portrayed.’ That way readers will know it is not reality,” he says.

“These men’s and women’s magazines are artificers. They include models as if they have beautiful, sculptural bodies, when in reality it is a great lie. When you meet these people up close you realise that these photos have nothing to do with reality. If it has nothing to do with reality, then they are lying.”

Academic research provides support for a link between representations in the media and eating disorders. A recent national survey found that 64 per cent of Brazilians want to be thinner than they are, even those whose weight is medically healthy. Those surveyed were also tested for their response to media influence, and the results showed that those most under the media’s sway were the same respondents who displayed greatest unhappiness with their body size.

“Dissatisfaction with one’s body and susceptibility to media influence are directly linked,” says Prof Marle Alvarenga, a nutritionist at the University of São Paulo, who runs a clinic treating people with eating disorders and who conducted the research for the national survey.

“There are other psychiatric factors involved, of course, but these images make people ever more dissatisfied,” she says. “We buy images that are not real and people look for means to become different, among which are diets that put them at risk.”

Recently there has been a reaction to excessive Photoshopping in much of the print media. A proposal similar to Costa’s is being promoted by politicians in France. The April edition of the French Marie Claire was Photoshop-free, while May’s US edition will have Jessica Simpson on the cover without make-up or digital retouching.

Back in Brazil, Costa’s bill faces strong opposition. Edson Aran, head of the editorial team at the Brazilian edition of Playboy, a heavy user of Photoshop, describes the proposed new law as “too stupid to even bother commenting on”.

The advertising industry is also firmly set against change, saying the industry alone should not carry the burden for combating eating disorders.

“To put this responsibility on advertising and hope that advertising alone can combat these problems is wrong,” says Eduardo Fonseca Martins, legal adviser to the Brazilian Association of Advertising Agencies.

Fonseca says consumers are already protected by the industry’s own code of conduct, whose first article states: “All advertisement shall be respectful, comply with the laws of the country and also be honest and truthful.”

But Costa believes that self-regulation has failed and that it’s time for the state to step in: “There are ads with celebrities promoting anti-ageing creams and advertising agencies use Photoshop to remove these celebrities’ own wrinkles from the ads. This is criminally false advertising.”