The Tina Fey Photoshop Problem

Tina Fey

I know Bossypants is kinda 2011, but 30 Rock is back with new episodes (thank God — does anyone else start to despair and watch The Big Bang Theory reruns on TBS ad nauseam during the dark days of December? Just me?), and so my friend Kate and I started discussing this Tina Fey question via email the other day. So, seeing as I’m tres busy making my new website all pretty for you, I thought I’d reprise that email into a blog post and… go!

Kate: I just finished reading Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, which is great and funny and I really enjoyed it… although I found her bit on Photoshop to be somewhat curious.  It also made me wonder if one’s relationship with or ideas about Photoshop in magazines changes if you’re actually, you know, in magazines on a regular basis.  I would probably obsess over how I look in those photos, too.  But anyway, I’d flagged some pages to show you and then while bored at work the other night I typed up some passages, as I’m curious to hear what you think. 

VA: Just for the record, I have to say that I love that Kate typed me whole paragraphs of Bossypants. That is why she is awesome. Okay, onward.
Kate: So, at first I was inspired and thought-provoked by something she said about seeing herself Photoshopped on a big-time magazine cover:

 You can barely recognize yourself with the amount of digital correction.  They’ve taken out your knuckles and given you baby hands.  The muscular calves that you’re generally very proud of are slimmed to the bone.  And what’s with the eyes?  They always get it wrong in the eyes.  In an effort to remove dark circles they take out any depth, and your face looks like it was drawn on a paper plate.  You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pox scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?(pp. 156-57)

 But then…

 I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion.  It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society…unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool. (p. 157)

 Aaaand then…

 Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues?  I do.  I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop…. People have learned how to spot it… As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. (pp. 157-58) 

 Yet, there’s more…

 If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings.  No one’s ears are that sparkly!  They shouldn’t have to be!  You’ll have to get mad about oil paintings – those people don’t really look like that!  I for one am furious that people are allowed to turn sideways in photographs!  Why can’t we accept a woman’s full width?!  I won’t rest until people are only allowed to be photographed facing front under a fluorescent light. (p. 158)

 And there’s this whole section on feminism + Photoshop:

 Some people say it’s a feminist issue.  I agree, because the best Photoshop job I ever got was for a feminist magazine called Bust in 2004. (p. 159)I looked at the two paltry lights they had set up [for the photo shoot] and turned to the editors.  ‘We’re all feminists here, but you’re gonna use Photoshop, right?’ ‘Oh, yeah,’ they replied instantly.  Feminists do the best Photoshop because they leave the meat on your bones.  They don’t change your size or your skin color.  They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble.  Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light. (p. 160) 

And she ends the chapter with the argument that Photoshop is at least not as bad as actually getting plastic surgery or otherwise trying to alter your appearance for real.
VA: First, a confession: When I first read Bossypants last year, I was on such a “I loove Tina Fey so much!” high with it that I unequivocally accepted all of this at face value. We were at a place in our relationship where she could have written “I think it’s good for every girl to have a touch of bulimia,” and I’d be all nodding, like, “she makes a good point.” I just think she’s so smart and funny. I got a little crush-blind.
So now it’s a year later, and I’m rereading this stuff, thanks to Kate, plus it’s been awhile since I’ve had some Tina love on 30 Rock. I’ve moved on to Amy Poehler on Parks  & Recreation (is it too early to decide I’m being a Pawnee Goddess for Halloween?). And so, yeah. Tina, I love you, but you got this Photoshop thing all wrong.
Okay, maybe not ALL wrong. I am okay with the abortion comparison, actually. I think a lot of people have not entirely logical reactions to these so not-black-and-white issues and I like when women admit that they’re buying into a beauty standard. (See also: Deciding to diet for purely aesthetic reasons.) Having a little bit of mindfulness with your hypocrisy goes such a long way.
Where Tina loses me is the “everyone can tell it’s Photoshop!” argument. This is a lie that women’s magazine editors and celebrities tell themselves so they can sleep at night. The average American woman or girl absolutely can’t tell. That’s why Photoshop is so problematic — because it’s perpetuating the idea that women can look that way, so you should look that way because hey, it’s not that hard, these women are doing it! Just eat like they eat/workout like they do/buy what they buy and if it doesn’t work… blame yourself for doing it wrong (certainly not the diet/beauty industries for selling you this Brooklyn bridge).
And with the whole sparkly ear argument, the wrong continues, only now, Tina is just riffing in a comedy club, rather than trying to present a piece of reasoned thinking. It’s just a bit. Obviously earrings don’t put the same pressure on women as full-body airbrushing. Slippery slope arguments are always full of holes.
So. It took me a year to realize it, but Tina Fey, our beloved feminist funny lady… let us down on this one. And it is disappointing, but not necessarily because I expected more from her (although I admit, I did) but because this is such a common failure of smart, feminist women working in media, myself often included. We need to make a little peace with the way business is done here, so we try to tell ourselves that the problem doesn’t run that deep.
It does. Airbrushed media images don’t cause eating disorders or low self-esteem, but they give validation to the crazy voices in our heads. And when we’re inundated with them, they chip away at our ideas of “normal” and “beauty” and “healthy,” until those words start to mean something entirely different from where we started.
But I will say this, in Tina’s defense: With the Bust Magazine shoot I am back to liking her. As much as I like my Photoshop to be big and obvious so we can spot the crazy, I do think this is a way of using Photoshop for good. And, confession #2: As much as I don’t want to perpetuate a false standard of beauty, my own professional head shots like this one over here were lightly cleaned up along the same lines — an exposed bra strap was removed (I’m classy like that), cleavage was toned down (again, classy), flyaway hairs erased, etc. While that photo clearly buy into any number of beauty myths, I don’t think it’s the Photoshop that does that or pushes it over into “nobody could ever expect to look like that!” territory. (I’m pretty sure most 5’5″ brunette white girls could easily look like me with minimal effort, zero diet restrictions and a good curling iron.)
I also don’t think Tina or I, or any woman who critiques the notion of a restrictive beauty standard has an obligation to only ever publish photos where we’ve made zero effort to attend to our appearance. But you can see how that puts us in some gray territory regarding lines and where we might draw them — one girl’s “light clean up” being another’s full face lift.
But at least it means that we can still be BFF with Tina. (Plus Amy Poehler.) So, phew on that front.
Thoughts? Anyone else wrestling with a defense of Photoshop? Or wanting to see a bigger push for Photoshop regulations (often threatened, rarely delivered)? 
[Photo: Tina putting on lipstick via Pinterest.]


Filed under beauty standards

10 responses to “The Tina Fey Photoshop Problem

  1. gina

    I have to admit that I gave TF a pass on the whole photoshop business when I read Bossypants too, she made me feel like a celebrity insider when writing assuringly that everyone can tell it’s photoshop. I thought to myself, you are right Tina, everything is photoshopped and everyone knows that so it can’t hurt anybody! Through reading this blog I know this is not the case. I guess you will keep having to remind us about this issue so that we can remind others within our own lives. Thanks for this article!

  2. Kate

    Great post Virginia!
    I completely agree. I remember reading Seventeen in middle school and believing that those young woman looked that way. It was only recently that I realized (and started to find really disgusting) how much photoshop people really use. Unfortunately I am in a small minority of teenagers who realize the photoshop.

  3. I wonder if the relationship with photoshop also has to do with the amount of approval someone is used to getting for their body. I notice that a lot of women who release un ‘shopped pictures of themselves are women who have had to deal with a lot of criticism about their bodies (Jessica Simpson and Brittany Spears for example). If they release an un-retouched photo and people say nasty things about their bodies, what the hell, it’s just another day for them. When someone is used to getting tons of approval for their body (and knowing what happens to those other women) there is a lot more risk in releasing an un-retouched photo and showing the world that they have cellulite or knuckles or whatever.


  4. I actually fully agree with her when she says that everyone can tell. WE KNOW IT’S PHOTOSHOP. All of us. Even my nan. And she’s 84.

    But what is so damaging about photoshop is that even though we accept it as industry standard, even though our brains are telling us, ‘a computer made her thighs so small,’ our hearts and our guts falter and that feeling of ‘oh my god she is perfect’ outweighs the reality that a computer made a girl pretty.

    Photoshop is all about the best day in the best light. Just like having your hair done. Just like wearing makeup. I think we are becoming way more savvy and can look at images and KNOW that they have been altered.

    I do absolutely believe that photoshop is responsible for all sorts of terrible feelings that we (that I!) have with my body. But I do think that when people like Tina Fey start talking about what they love and loath about it, it lets younger generations who will grow up with only seeing heavily retouched images know the manipulation in images. I’m optimistic about it. Yes, things have gotten out of control, but in the long run, we are all becoming more aware of what capabilities photoshop has and how it’s used.

    From there I really believe that we’ll see a shift towards greater understanding of reality and what bodies actually look like. I feel like there will have to be a shift in how advertisers present people in the future.

    At least, I hope so.

    • I have to say, I may be hopelessly naive, but I am an adult and only realized that all magazines were using Photoshop on all their pictures relatively recently (like, within the past year or two). Before that, I really did despair about how I could get my legs to look as smooth and perfect as that of the models, and I closely examined pictures of faces trying to understand how they got their makeup so flawless (at least I realized they must be wearing boatloads of makeup!). It was a huge relief for me to realize that it was all fake! And I can’t be the only one in the world who was so misled- I especially think about impressionable teen and preteen girls who read these magazines during the years in which a young woman’s body image is formed. I would venture to say that most of them do not know that what they’re looking at is not real.
      So yeah, I would disagree with you (and Tina) on this one, and add that even of those who are aware that Photoshop is used in magazines, many are probably not aware of the full extent of it.

  5. suite7beautytalk

    The excessive use of Photoshop these days is ridiculous! The message it REALLY sends is one of unattainability despite your “net worth”. If a woman makes 20 million/movie & can’t attain physical perfection, the rest of us should just hang it up & try to be our best selves! If only it were THAT simple. Magazines are there to SELL. This is why it takes flipping past 50 pages of glossy ads, (featuring fake lashes to sell mascara & airbrushed skin for “revolutionary” face cream) just to get to the article I want to read. Makes no sense whatsoever. Despite the occasional vocal celebrity (Jamie Lee-Curtis/ Aisha Tyler) who actually speak out against photoshop, the majority of Hollyweird is just fine with it or else they’d protest the same way they do when an unflattering photo pops up claiming they’ve really let themselves go. THEN IT’S TIME to call the publicist brigade & wage an all-out WAR! But the dozen+ pics chopping their face & body into unrecognizable shapes and smoothing their imperfect skin into a visual blur… THOSE R OK. Ya know, cuz what can they actually do about it anyway? Right? Hmph, puh-leeze.

  6. Marian sole

    The only problem is the “everyone knows ” line. Even if we guess which parts are photoshopped we still don’t know what real celebrities look like, so we still imagine them pretty close to the photo image.

  7. Jess

    I think the final comment about BUST really succinctly puts out what photoshop is for: “its okay to make a photo look like you were caught on your best day in the best light.” *Your* best day, not someone else’s. Yes, your bra strap can be placed back under your shirt, your dark circles slept away and that one hair that ends up in the corner of your mouth in every photo (that one’s mine) brushed aside. I see no question of ethics in THAT. It is a lot like the makeup lesson a lot of us had to learn when we got into the eyeshadow in middle school, and sometimes from that episode of Full House where DJ and Kimmy Gibbler learned it from Aunt Becky: The most successful makeup is looking like you aren’t wearing it at all. Put your best face forward!

    I also have a buddy who blogs for BUST who did a great piece about a photographer who photoshopped away her very prominent armpit hair and what it means in a more “artistic” context (not a magazine cover) as a former Fine Arts major. Again, its not a clear answer, but here it is if you’re interested: (I have not asked her about this, but I highly suspect that I am the “looming thighs” she references. And no, I couldn’t tell– they looked like they always look, no slimmer.)

  8. So true. I felt the same way when I read the book. That is such a lie that everyone knows it’s Photoshop. Everyone in the business may know, but most people don’t. So yes, Photoshop at times is a great tool, but also gravely misleading…

  9. I felt like the “sparkly earrings” line was disingenuous, even for comedy. As if attaching rhinestones to earlobes were the same as removing 20% of someone’s thigh.

    As I once commented over at The Beheld, I feel like what Fey calls “feminist photoshop” is WORSE than a head-to-toe ‘shopping, because it can give us the illusion that what we’re seeing is real: “Oh, they must not have touched this up much— you can tell by her realistic knuckles!”

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