By Rachael Liberman
In an effort to put airbrushing on the legislative agenda, MP Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems in the United Kingdom have put a proposal together that would make feminist media scholars jump for joy: ban airbrushed ads aimed at those under sixteen and clearly indicate airbrushed ads aimed at adults. Swinson was quoted as saying, “Today’s unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure not than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no-one can live up to in real life.” She also noted that the “focus on women’s appearance has gotten out of hand.” While these conclusions are seemingly correct, and holding the manipulations of airbrushing, including Photoshop, accountable for the circulation of hegemonic femininity appears to be a step in the right direction – how can this really play out? Is this too idealistic?
For media studies, this would represent the bridge between scholarship and practice that most academics spend their lives hoping to accomplish. The endless studies on body image, marketing to children, gender and identity construction, and a host of others, would be lifted out of the ivory tower and placed on the social agenda. Unfortunately, though, there are reasons that these changes have not happened sooner.
There are reasons that airbrushing continues to be integral aspects of advertising and marketing. Without going into too much detail, it’s safe to say that advertising is constructed with the market’s interest in mind, which includes transforming the audience into a priceless commodity (see Dallas Smythe). In other words, unattainable images of beauty and wealth are central to advertising’s cycle of self-doubt and consumerism. That being said, “natural” beauty would cause in a significant rupture in the marketplace.
Now, setting aside issues of political economy, image composition, power, and patriarchy, how would this be enforced realistically? This is not included in Jo Swinson’s statement on her website. Can publications afford to deny advertisements that use airbrushing in this economic climate? Will there be an “airbrushing agent” staffed at each advertising company to oversee the process? Also, how will Swinson and her staff differentiate between media aimed at those aged under sixteen and those aimed at adults? Further, fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys read “lad mags,” as well as adult men – are the images in those magazines going to be banned as well? The problem here is that Swinson is attempting to police a side project of a bigger social issue while not getting at the underlying problem itself: modern societies that have become undeniably obsessed with youth, age and profit margins. In the end, Swinson’s proposal has the potential to represent the blood, sweat, and tears of many activists and academics (including myself) – but I wouldn’t hold my breath.