The great Photoshop debate

Written November 2014

The debate on the ethics behind Photoshopping images is not new, but the complete juxtaposition between the recent images of Keira Knightley and Kim Kardashian offers an interesting moment to explore how people’s bodies are presented in the media. Keira Knightley had a topless photograph taken in a shoot, and when she was asked about it by The Times, she explained that she had been happy for it to be taken provided that her breasts weren’t Photoshopped, as they had been on various film posters and advertisements in the past. Shortly afterwards, images of Kim Kardashian came out which were so obviously manipulated that they have caused something of an uproar. How much Photoshop is reasonable? Is it reasonable at all? What are the photographers and re-touchers trying to do when they print images which are, essentially, drawings?

There are many examples of Photoshop done badly, and many examples of it done well. When it’s smoothing away the bags below someone’s eyes, or removing goosepimples from the flesh of some poor model who was too cold during a shoot, perhaps it doesn’t make that much of a difference. But what about advertisements with women whose faces have been smoothed so much they just look plastic? I know men are Photoshopped too, but this is a good example of the chasm between the sexes: older men in watch/aftershave/underwear adverts are allowed to have some wrinkles, or stubble, because it gives them ‘character.’ Women apparently have to look as youthful as possible. There were some adverts with Julia Roberts a while back where she just looked bizarre- she was smiling but there were no smile lines. At the extreme end of this spectrum are photographs like the recent ones of Kim Kardashian- so manipulated that you just think: what’s the point? What are we trying to achieve here? She no longer looks like a human being. This is so obviously not real that I can’t understand why you’re trying to pretend that it is. If she really did have proportions like that, she would not be able to stand or walk because the weight of her arse would keep her stuck on the floor.

Does it matter? Is it just a bit of a laugh, taking what are in real life impressive measurements and exaggerating them for effect? People won’t actually aspire to look like this – will they? Some women have strange surgery to make their arses bigger, known as gluteoplasty, and sometimes- as with all plastic surgery- it can go horribly wrong. A former Miss Argentina died in 2009 after complications from a gluteoplasty operation. We may be running the risk of young women looking at these pictures of Kardashian, and aspiring to have her figure. If they’re looking at real pictures of her, that may not necessarily be a terrible thing- although, as when a politician said women should stop dieting and try to look like Christina Hendricks, the problem here is that most women would have to have a serious amount of surgery- and a completely new bone structure- to come even close. But if girls are looking at pictures like the most recent ones of Kardashian, and aiming for that figure, they’re aiming for something that doesn’t even exist.

It’s for this reason that I want to find Keira Knightley and give her a high-five. She’s been a bit of a hero of mine for a long time, as she became popular when I was in my teens and lost in a crisis of self-esteem owing to being labelled ‘too skinny’ by friends, classmates, doctors, and the world at large. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me if I was anorexic, I could have bought a really massive fry-up and eaten it in front of them to try and prove I didn’t have an eating disorder (although they’d probably just have assumed I was bulimic instead). Keira Knightley becoming not only famous, but considered attractive and sexy was a massive revelation for me. And now she’s done it again with this photo shoot, being unafraid to show the world exactly what she looks like (breasts are often UNEQUAL SIZES, who the hell shows you that in magazines?!) and stand up for the real girl.

I have read articles arguing that her point about people being too obsessed with the perfection of women’s bodies might have been better made without, to put it crudely, ‘getting her tits out.’ It’s a fair argument, but I think this is one of the problems modern feminism has. There shouldn’t be a call for no nudity ever, an Everybody Please Remain Clothed At All Times approach, because it’s ridiculous and it’s dangerous. The human body is very beautiful, people have been painting and photographing it for years, and as long as the person being portrayed is happy then there’s no problem with that. We are sexual beings and the human body is a sexual thing. Yes some people will look at the picture of Knightley and fail to realise she was trying to make a political point. But they might also notice that she looks real. And I feel like Knightley allowed that picture to be taken a) to make herself feel stronger (from the sounds of it she could have said no if she was completely uncomfortable) and b) for all the women out there who want, and need, to see somebody who doesn’t look like they’ve been reshaped, smoothed, sculpted – invented – on somebody’s computer. It must be a deeply unsettling thing to see a picture of yourself and think, as Knightley said she did once when looking at a picture of herself, ‘I don’t know whose those things are, but they aren’t mine.’ Of course, some people will see the picture of Knightley and aspire to look like her, as part of the ‘thinspiration’ trend. As with the Christina Hendricks example above, not everybody can look like Knightley because that isn’t the way they’re built, it isn’t the way they’re supposed to be. At least, unlike with the Kardashian pictures, people are looking at something that is genuine. We can’t stop people from looking at others and aspiring to look like them, but if we show a wider and more probable range of what people look like, maybe people will be more satisfied with how they look themselves and not be constantly trying to change the way they are.

The number of Photoshopped images is certainly much higher than we realise, even if the manipulation isn’t as obvious as it is with Kardashian- in a way it’s better when it is so obvious, because at least then you can tell it’s a drawing. It’s another case of having to question everything we see, and not let it make us feel small or inadequate, because we may be chasing after something that isn’t real. I hope that more people like Knightley will make a stand on photographs of themselves, and ask that all pictures- not just nudes- show their bodies as they actually are, and not in some idealised or just plain ridiculous version of the way they could, or “should,” look.

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