Recently, I posted a modified image of myself on social media and awaited the response. There was no real subterfuge; the caption read “Post hairdresser selfie. Heavily photoshopped.” Still, it seems most people don’t read the captions and it got the desired response. “Bootiful!” “Gorgeous!” they typed in the comments box below.
I left it a while before posting the pre-photoshopped version and adding my own comment to the original post: “What I’m interested in about his image is that while it looks good, it also doesn’t look particularly fake or tampered with (I think?)… Photoshopped is the new normal.” The point being, we have become so accustomed to seeing images that have been adjusted to improve them, we no longer notice.
Later that day, I realised my experience had been echoed in a twitter update from the 17-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, who posted two photographs of herself taken while she was onstage. “I find this curious – two photos from today, one edited so my skin is perfect and one real. Remember flaws are okay.” she wrote.
After I pointed out my own fakery, friends agreed they hadn’t registered that the image had been adjusted to make my skin smoother and my cheekbones more defined. One, who has known me since I was fifteen and is fully aware of the fact that I (like most people) do not have perfect skin, said she thought only that I looked particularly “well” in the photoshopped image. Another said she thought it was just nice lighting.
I was in the car outside my children’s school on a grey Irish day so good lighting was not a factor in the original picture. It seems we have become utterly desensitised to photoshopped images, even of people we know well.
Does it matter? Well, only in as much as it effects our self-esteem and our expectations of what an ordinary, everyday person might look like.
Much has been written about the modification of celebrity images and the impossible ideals of perfection these heavily adjusted photographs espouse. Online, there are now multitudes of before and after pictures that reveal what were once print industry secrets: how legs are lengthened, curves are curbed and skin smoothed.
These days it’s no longer a secret. It’s also no longer a special skill reserved for those with technical knowhow and the right kit. I took my photo and made my adjustments using an app on my smartphone. It took less than two minutes.
This year’s no makeup selfie trend, which raised an impressive and unexpected amount of money for cancer charities, was initially posited as part of an anti-ideals of beauty movement, but the selfies also resulted in negative comments about how only girls who looked good without their make up in the first place were pushing others to do it and most were spending more time adjusting lighting, angles and filters than was seemly for an apparent act of charity.
Most of the selfies I saw seemed genuine enough, but this kind of subterfuge is subtle and if we are all immune to it now, who knows which images were straight-up and which were adjusted for vanity’s sake.
The ethics debate will rumble on, but it seems likely this is a skill we all need to have now. So, here’s how to impress your friends with a vastly improved version of yourself online: up the vibrance, reduce the noise and the clarity, improve the contrast and add a few highlights. Bingo! Perfect skin. Just don’t complain when no one recognises you at school gate in the rain.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland Comment section in April 2014.