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)
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)
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