The Photoshop Effect

by Iphone_user7 on April 25, 2017 - 1:12pm

In an increasingly technology-oriented society, photo editing has become endemic in the media industry and is now standard practice. The use of Photoshop in advertisements and magazines remains a highly polarizing issue. Before being published in media outlets, pictures of female models or celebrities are almost always edited to enhance their beauty and presumably increase sales and viewership. Such is the case in a 2010 issue of Rolling Stones magazine, which features the half-naked Katy Perry as the cover star. A time-lapse of the picture shows the many changes made to the original picture leading up to the final product. Notably, her breasts were enlarged, her thighs were slimmed, and her skin was smoothened (Carlson, 1). Many condemn this technique, which they argue targets the insecurities of the female viewership by creating unattainable standards of beauty. This issue therefore raises the question: “should Photoshop be banned from the media?” This moral dilemma ultimately constitutes of two clashing ethical frameworks. Deontology, on one hand, deems this to be a form of censorship and therefore opposes outlawing digital editing software because of the dangerous precedent it could set. On the other hand, utilitarianism points to the negative consequences that photo editing has on its viewers with low self-esteem.

            The ethical rationalist approach to this dilemma protects the use of Photoshop, which it recognizes as artistic license. This framework evaluates moral action according to its categorical imperative, that is, that an action is morally justifiable if all rational humans would will it in that instance. Banning Photoshop from mass media is an example of censorship and therefore does not pass the categorical imperative, which protects creative license. Immanuel Kant, the father of deontology and ethical rationalism, further notes that logical minds are built with the innate ability to think critically, which allows them to understand that advertisers will often alter images to appeal to the public. This suggests that everyday consumers should be able to recognize Photoshopped ads and realize that the images like that of Katy Perry are drastically manipulated. Furthermore, in these examples, Photoshop is simply used as an accessory to refine the image of a celebrity. Albeit different in nature, beauty products and aesthetic tools such as lighting share this function. In this sense, outlawing photo-editing software would in turn prohibit the use of makeup, push-up bras and light sources on photo shoot sets. If an exception is made for the latter, then the entire premise of a Photoshop ban is inherently flawed. Without exercising full censorship, there are unclear boundaries defining when laws set forward are disobeyed. Therefore, from this standpoint, banning Photoshop is not a viable course of action.

            The utilitarian perspective to this dilemma considers the negative effects of Photoshopped images of models on impressionable viewers. This ethical framework judges moral action according to the outcome and the amount of happiness it provides. In the case of the afore-mentioned Katy Perry Rolling Stone magazine issue, the aftermath is troubling. These manipulated images of celebrities usually display unrealistic physiques that are impossible to attain. As a result, they incite easily influenced consumers to turn to drastic and potentially dangerous measures to conform to these beauty ideals. Since teenagers grow up idolizing celebrities like Katy Perry, they also aspire to share their physical qualities. A study conducted in 2015 reported that 47% of girls between the 5th and 12th grade in the U.S want to lose weight due to what they see in magazines (Shen, 3). In extreme cases, these distorted ideal types can also cause anorexia and eating disorders amongst teenagers who become obsessively self-conscious about their physical appearance. Therefore, from a utilitarian standpoint, the only ethical action is to outlaw Photoshop in an attempt to prevent body shaming and to help young females remain healthy and confident. 

            Many celebrities have resorted to social media to voice their discontent over their photoshopped images. For example, American artist and singer Zendaya was furious when Modeliste magazine published a photoshopped image of her without her consent in 2015. She issued a public statement on Instagram saying: “These are the things that make women self-conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.” (CNN). Many celebrities have followed her lead by emphasizing that the images of them in media outlets often display refined physiques. They openly protest this by saying that their flaws make them human, and that removing them leads to unnatural and “fake” beauty. However, this reaction to Photoshop amongst the famous is two-fold. Celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Madonna recognize it as a dominant practice in the media industry and thus hire Photoshop technicians amongst their staff (Jones, 4). This divide clearly illustrates the tensions associated with this predicament given the popularity of this software and the moral objections shared by many.

            Instead of completely banning Photoshop from mass media, there exists a viable solution to appease all the parties involved. It would require creating a law that forces corporations to disclose the photoshopped images they publish. A notice specifying that the picture is photoshopped would be mandatory in the corner of the image, indicating that the picture is photoshopped. The warning would have to appear in a predetermined, legible and large-sized font. Models and celebrities would also have to sign contracts in advance to consent to having their pictures photoshopped. A similar bill was set forth in France in 2015 after careful consideration and analysis for 6 years, and it has proved successful to date (Lubitz, 1). This would therefore protect creative license, but also help female (and male) viewership realize that these body-types are nothing more than fabrication. Given the significance of this issue and the severity of the potential consequences on vulnerable youth, finding the most beneficial and practical solution to this problem is crucial. It would help these teenagers feel less self-conscious about their appearance, and hopefully reduce the amount of anorexia and eating disorders associated with their resulting low self-esteem. The previously mentioned law seems the best way to do so while respecting deontological values that are important to this context. Despite the growing technological advances in our society, it is imperative to remind the population of about the essence of natural beauty and of our bodies.

Works Cited

1. Lubitz, Rachel. “France Passes Law Requiring Companies to Admit When Models

Have Been Photoshopped”. Mic Network Inc. Dec. 18, 2015.

2. “Model-actress Zendaya 'shocked' to find herself Photoshopped”. CNN. Oct. 22, 2015.

3. Jones, Meredith. “Media-Bodies and Photoshop”. 2013.


4. Shen, Shelly. “Photoshop: The Tool to Being Unrealistically Gorgeous”. April 9, 2015. toshop.pdf

5. Carlson, Nicholas. “Katy Perry Isn't Hot Enough For Rolling Stone: This Animation Shows How They Touched Up Her Cover Photo”. Business Insider. Feb. 4, 2011.