How We Look at (Photoshopped) Images


It seems there’s a new scandal every couple of weeks about another Photoshopped celebrity or over-edited advertisement.

Much like when we read a book, how we see an image is a complex interplay between what the image actually says, what the image’s maker intends it to say, and our own particular background, emotions, struggles, etc.

But I unexpectedly found an explanation for why magazines in the checkout line don’t bother me in The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith. She writes,

 “I don’t know whether to be happy that even models are heavily Photoshopped, or mad that even models are heavily Photoshopped. Either way, I felt tricked and a little dumb for comparing myself with models. Even models don’t look like models.”

She goes on to compare the Photoshopped models to pictures of beautiful homes in home magazines. She talks about how silly it is to compare our homes to pictures in magazines and says,

 “The purpose of these photos is to inspire, but well-staged pictures can sometimes leave us feeling hopeless, frustrated, and even ashamed of how we live. Why do we compare our everyday homes with homes featured in magazines? Why can’t we see the beauty in both? If we feel bad after looking at a pretty photo, then we are looking at it all wrong.” (emphasis mine)

I think this applies to how we look a pictures of people, as well.

So I began to think, “How do I look at magazine pictures?’

Let me first reiterate: I do not think my looks are perfect. If I think about it for too long, I struggle with how I look and dwell on “what if’s?” but I don’t find that to be helpful.

So on a good day, how should I look at a magazine picture? I start with how I look at home magazines/advertisements. Because of my family’s “you can create that, too!” attitude, I look at pictures of a window seat cover and think, “I could make something like that!” When I see a clean, organized home, I think, “I could (maybe should?) work on making my home look like that more regularly.” I even see pictures in magazines of homes and dissect them for what I don’t like. After all, no one says you have to accept a magazine’s or culture’s idea of beauty.

When I see women in magazines, instead of feeling guilty or hopeless, I try to think, “I should try that eyeliner color!” or “I want to try that outfit” or “Why would anyone want eyelashes that long?!” And sometimes I think, “I wish my hair looked that good long.” Then I move on with my day.

I think we have become a bit victimized by magazines and commercials and Internet pictures. We tend to think the effect these images have on us is not our fault.. But how we view and let images affect us is up to us.

So what can we do?

1. Realize that there is a product to sell. Why would a makeup advertisement want a girl that looks average? Obviously they want to make the model as beautiful as possible (even if it’s fake). Would you buy mascara if the model looked like I do when I get ready for an average day? Answer: No. No you would not. The whole point of this image of perfection is to sell a product to you, emphasizing that it will make you look this way. It’s the same with home magazines. If they placed a nice couch in my living room and photographed it, it wouldn’t look all the great. So accept that selling is often a major motivator.

I love this quote from Myquillin. She writes about how we don’t compare our everyday selfies to a bridal portrait of someone else and says,

 “The purpose of a wedding portrait is to capture the bride on her once-in-a-lifetime special day. No one would accuse her of trying to show off and make us all feel bad.”

Realize the purpose and goals behind a picture. I enjoyed this TED talk by Cameron Russell, a model. It’s worth watching!

2. Don’t buy so many magazines (or look at certain sites). I love this graphic:

I went through my phase of loving beauty and style magazines (although I was too ashamed to buy them, so I just read them online or flipped through them in waiting rooms). But a lot of the health, beauty, and fashion info in magazines is recycled anyway.

We run to these magazines to help us feel better, and we eat up the stories about positive self-image, but it’s a vicious cycle. Accept the inspiration you can get from a magazine and then move on. And if there’s something more sinister lurking beneath the surface of a particular magazine (and I don’t deny that’s the case at times!), then get rid of it and move on.

3. Have a “can-do” attitude. Realize you can gain from some images–hair ideas, makeup ideas, clothing ideas. Be inspired whenever possible!

Sometimes, I have to accept the type of hair I have. I can’t always do what a celebrity does even if I want to. I’m not going to miraculously get a few inches taller or have thick, wavy hair. That’s okay.

4. Realize you don’t have to like it. This has been huge for me. Sometimes I look at a picture of a house and instantly think, “That’s the perfect living room! Wish I could have it!” But when I show my husband, sister, or mom, they say things like, “Really? I don’t like X, Y, and Z” This shows me I don’t have to accept that a particular look or style is good or something to strive for.

5. Let it bounce off. You have a life to live! I may love a room in a magazine but realize we don’t have the money for it right now. That’s okay! I may see a celebrity with great abs and realize I don’t have time  (or maybe the desire) to do the work to get them. There’s nothing wrong with that. Or I may see a tall celebrity with gorgeous hair and acknowledge her beauty while also acknowledging I will never look like her, and that is fine!

If I have daughters, I hope to model that it is up to them to decide how pictures and advertisements affect them. I want to give them an attitude that allows them to look at an image, accept its beauty (or deny it), gain any useful information, and then move on. If I feel shame when I see any type of image (and there are many times I do), it is up to me to decide what to do with it.

These words from Shauna Niequist in Bread and Wine have stuck in my mind recently:

“I’ve been catastrophizing about my weight since I was six…And through all that, I’ve made friends and fallen in love, gotten married and become a mother. I’ve written and traveled and stayed up late with people I love. I’ve walked on the beach and on glittering city streets. I’ve kissed my baby’s cheeks and danced with my husband and laughed till I cried with my best friends, and through all that it didn’t really matter that I was heavier than I wanted to be. The extra pounds didn’t matter, as I look back, but the shame that came with those extra pounds was like an infectious disease.”

These words apply to so many areas of life. We can feel shame at our home’s lack of charm or change what we can, accept what we can’t, and have people over anyway. We can feel discouraged at where we are vocationally, or we can decide to change jobs, or devote more (or less) time to our job, or find something inspiring to do in our freetime. I’m realizing more and more that there will always be things I could improve in my life or things I want to change. And I’m going to have to decide what is worth change, what is possible, and what I need to accept. I don’t want to miss out on living life because someone else has better eyes or more money, talent, or opportunity. As Myquillin says in her brilliant line: “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” You don’t either.


1-205213_1004873851456_1513170269_30061149_3088_nThis post is part of a series on mothers, daughters and body image, which focuses on how we can instill our girls with a healthy view of wellness. View all posts here.

Also, if you’re looking for a great read or a gift for a mother in your life, I highly recommend The Nesting PlaceIt’s encouraging, refreshing, and full of gorgeous pictures!


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