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Photoshopping Models Is A Public Health Issue

Congress may legislate unreal bodies in advertising


Back in 2011, the American Medical Association took a hard stance on the use of Photoshop in advertising. Their strongly worded position—reportedly in response to a ghastly Ralph Lauren muck-up—was that doctored female bodies create unrealistic expectations that lead to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Now a bill before Congress could help legislate the AMA’s convictions.

H.R. 4445 was introduced in 2014 but got revived earlier this year by a trio of bipartisan Congress members. Dubbed the Truth in Advertising Act, it’s currently in the spotlight due to online fashion company ModCloth. Modcloth, known for its real, unvarnished model shoots, hosted an event in Washington last week where its CEO attempted to give Congress members the hard sell on H.R. 4445.

ModCloth, like American Eagle brand Aerie and the long-running Dove campaign, has proven that promoting models with real bodies can actually be quite profitable. Their approach involves using more typical human bodies to begin with, then not retouching anything—be it wrinkles, tattoos, birthmarks, or size.

Modcloth has also launched a letter-writing campaign to tell Congress: “The harm done by Photoshopped ads is real.” The campaign touts some dark stats—over half of 13-year-old girls have issues with their bodies, while 40 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls have tried to lose weight. And overall, a full 91% of adult women are unhappy with their bodies.

The UK has long policed its advertising for unrealistic imagery, like when they pulled a Natalie Portman Dior ad because her lashes were clearly fake. The Truth in Advertising Act would not grant this kind of regulatory authority; rather, the FTC would be required to study the consumer harms that Photoshopped images can create, then present results to Congress for (presumable) further action.

Clearly this issue is larger than brands touching up their billboards and magazine ads. Still, the links between advertising and body image are clear and provable; any incremental gains are welcome. To quote Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., lead sponsor of the bill: “Imagine what could be accomplished if young Americans were free to focus their attention on improving the world around them rather than focusing hopelessly inward to change themselves on the basis of false and unattainable physical standards.” Indeed.

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