No one seems to like those impossible pictures of models retouched into waxwork perfection, and I completely agree that the culture of obsessively airbrushing images is far from healthy. It’s true that no-one should feel they have to aspire to such inhumanly perfect ideals, but I think our relationship with retouching is more complex than that. I would like to put forward the possibility that so much censure is directed at these images not because they represent an impossible ideal, but because they are an insufficient ideal.
There is nothing there to aspire to: the faces are so smooth that your eyes slide right off them.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant highlights the problem of drawing a distinction between beauty and perfection (in his Critique of Judgement of 1790). When it comes to people, he claims that perfection is found in the average: for instance, the mind pictures all the men it has ever seen, and then “gets a perception of the average size, which alike in height and breadth is equally removed from the extreme limits of the greatest and the smallest statures; and this is the stature of a beautiful man.”
But wait: a beautiful man? Clearly Kant never heard the phrase, ‘tall, dark and handsome’, nor ever met his contemporary Lord Byron and seen the effect on men and women of his tall, club-footed charisma. Average never turned anyone on. Kant does betray some uncertainty, in his following retraction: “But the normal idea is far from giving a complete archetype of beauty in the genus. It only gives the form that constitutes the indispensable condition of all beauty, and, only correctness in the presentation of the genus.” Like the glossy magazines, Kant is reluctant to entirely give up the idea that perfection is required for beauty, but he cannot deny that perfection alone is not enough. It produces a correct human, but not quite a real one. And not quite a beautiful one either.
This is the problem with retouched images: they turn people, who often are beautiful in the flesh, into perfect, correct mannequins without that compelling spark of beauty. However, there is still an aspirational element to these images – the practice of retouching surely wouldn’t be so widespread otherwise. We may not have that gut (or groin) response to heavily retouched images of people, but:
Who would turn down a bit of retouching on their own image?
I read somewhere that Girls Aloud only agreed to a particularly revealing photoshoot because the retouching would make them look perfect – and, perhaps, make them look less like themselves. One of them wished that they could be “retouched all the time”.
But it would seem odd to claim that what we (and Girls Aloud) aspire to is that waxy, inhuman look which is touted as an ideal of beauty. Maybe the thought of retouching in our own individual cases has appeal as a way of becoming our ideal selves. Individuality remains central, whereas it is glossed over in cosmetic advertisements. Fair enough; they are advertising their products. We are advertising ourselves, so it is no surprise if we would like to put our best face forward. I am certainly not defending the media’s obsessive retouching, just trying to explain its appeal when the consensus seems very much one of disapproval. Problems with the aspirational factor occur if, like Kant, we blur the distinction between perfection and beauty, and aspire to something beyond the capabilities of flesh.
But I still haven’t said nearly enough on the matter – this link shows very clearly how retouching may be seen essentially as the art of lying.
Are you lookin’ at me?