Here is another candidate for enshrinement in the Pantheon of Well- Intentioned But Terrible Ideas.
In an article published Monday in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” Dartmouth researchers Hany Farid, a professor of computer science, and Eric Kee, a doctoral student, propose a rating system of publicly displayed photographs of models, actors and celebrities to let viewers know exactly how and how much an image has been altered by photoshopping, airbrushing or other means.
“Impossibly thin, tall, and wrinkle- and blemish-free models are routinely splashed onto billboards, advertisements and magazine covers,” the two write. “The ubiquity of these unrealistic and highly idealized images has been linked to eating disorders and body-image dissatisfaction in men, women, and children.” In the interest of limiting the damage caused by unrealistic images of human beauty, the researchers argue that graphic images should include labels that disclose “geometric adjustments” such as slimming legs, hips and arms, as well as adjusting facial symmetry—reducing a nose in size, or slightly enlarging eyes. Users of such photos should also flag photometric adjustments that change the appearance of skin tone, blemishes and texture, such as wrinkles, dark circles under the eyes or cellulite, say the researchers.
Please, for the love of God, nobody introduce these guys to Sarah Deming and her lawyer, who are suing the distributers of the film “Drive” because the trailer was more exciting than the movie. And let us all remember this proposal when we are tempted to pooh-pooh accusations that the government is regulating creativity, commerce, art and enterprise right out of existence, and with them, individual liberty as well.The tea parties should use Farid and Kee’s article for recruitment.
Let’s just begin the task of exploring what is wrong with this proposal and the thinking behind it:
- Would it be limited to commercial imagery only? I have a friend who photoshops out his wife’s wrinkles and slims her down a few pounds for his annual Christmas card. Presumably private photos that misrepresent human flaws are as dangerous to perceptions of body image as public ones. How long before his Christmas cards are required to include a disclaimer that “my wife is really a size 16 and has a face like a baseball mitt?”
- Why just post-photo alterations? If the same illusion can be created with heavy make-up, the right lighting and a skilled photographer, should those deceptive tactics also be revealed in the rating system? Why not? The deceptive effect is the same.
- How about photos that are accurate only for the split second in which the photo was taken? Shouldn’t viewers know this too? For example, competitive body-builders are typically de-hydrated and starved, and pumped-up by recent exercise when they have their photos taken, and this peak condition is literally impossible to maintain. This illusion is no more deceptive or dangerous to impressionable minds than photoshopping.
- Wigs? Botox? Face lifts? Hair transplants? Breast augmentation? Falsies? Shoe lifts? Slimming stripes? Should Pamela Anderson’s boobs carry a rating label? Joe Biden’s hair? Nancy Pelosi’s face?
- The appearance of height can be manufactured by camera angles and by the use of scale, perspective and optical illusions. Isn’t the self-esteem of impressionable children warped by the impression that their idols are tall, when in fact many of them are shrimps?
- Why just photos? Surely videos and films that show actors and athletes doing amazing stunts and athletic feats require full disclosure too.
- If the argument is based on the welfare of our youth, and it is judged that freedom to create beautiful illusions in the pursuit of commerce or art is so dangerous, why not just ban unusually beautiful models and actresses? They are all aberrations, after all—full breasted but slim women, freakishly lovely facial features, men with perfect shoulder-to-hip-ratios and washboard abs. These people cause body anxiety by just walking down the street: why not declare them all a health menace, and certify only flabby, pimply, saggy-breasted and pot-bellied models with crooked noses, bad teeth and receding chins for public display?
Yes, I could go on forever. Photography is art, and art is illusion. This proposal is an insidious form of censorship, ruining illusions and ruining art by making illusion impossible. I do not doubt that presenting images of impossible beauty and physical perfection contribute to body anxiety problems, but presenting the human being in idealized form is both aspirational and pleasing. Our boys from Dartmouth would have wanted disclaimers on Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David.
Honesty is seldom an ethical issue in art, and even graphic advertising is an art form. When image manipulation is used to deceive the public about events, that is unethical. When academics seek to constrain the art of illusions in the pursuit of what they, in their artless world view, consider a greater good, that is also unethical. Their ends do not justify these means. Art and illusion are vital to the human spirit and the enjoyment of life. Over-reaching researchers and their allies, ham-handed government regulators, need to keep out of a creative area they clearly neither respect nor comprehend.