Retouching photographs of models in magazines and newspapers has been a point of controversy in the publishing industry ever since technology like Photoshop has become readily available. Most magazines, especially ones dedicated to fashion and/or celebrity stalking, have no qualms about retouching “imperfect” pictures. I think this practice is absolutely reprehensible.
There are instances when it’s appropriate to retouch photograph. For example, if a person in a photograph has red eye or some stray hairs, or the lighting isn’t good, or there’s some other imperfection that doesn’t change the concept of the picture to a ridiculous degree, I don’t see a problem with that. I do take issue with pictures retouched to the point that the original subject is unrecognizable or completely changed, especially in the mass media.
Dozens of studies have proven that young women are very much influenced by how the media portrays women, whether television or the Internet or magazines. (A specific study I have in mind was conducted in Tahiti, where girls were almost universally happy with their bodies until the Americans came in and inculcated them with the media.) As a result, when models are depicted as super-skinny with heads wider than their hips (as included in this post), that sends girls a message that they need to be as thin as possible in order to be accepted, “normal.” This sort of thing is why anorexia and other eating disorders are so common in our society. If models and celebrities were shown in magazines looking the way they do without make up and Photoshop enhancements, young women would be able to see what “normal” really is.
I think the purpose of photographs should be to represent reality. If a person wants it to represent art, he or she should draw or paint. Photographs shouldn’t lie. Photography shouldn’t be based on the concept of, “I took this picture and I know it’s not perfect, so instead of trying again and again until I get it right, I’ll just Photoshop it when I get home.” Yes, if at second glance there’s some minor imperfection with the photograph, I don’t think it’s a big deal to retouch it a little bit, but to completely change a picture is just wrong.
Religiously speaking, there’s the concept of genevat da’at, tricking a person to think one thing when that’s not the reality of the situation. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that majorly retouching a picture can fall under the prohibition of genevat da’at. (This isn’t my original idea - when a Hasidic newspaper infamously Photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of the historic picture in the Situation Room after Osama bin Laden’s death, Rabbi Jason Miller opposed this on the grounds of genevat da’at.) A retouched picture of a model depicts a person that doesn’t really exist, and displaying it to people is tricking them into thinking that such a person does.
So yeah, I think that retouching pictures isn’t the right thing to do, for numerous reasons. As much as I may say this to myself and others, I know that my inner moral compass screaming “ANOREXIA! LYING! GENEVAT DA’AT!” isn’t going to stop me from fixing every tiny imperfection in my yearbook photo, though. It’s easy to talk about not caring about how you look, but a lot harder to actually have to live that way.