Body Image – Photo Manipulation

Photo manipulation, once the preserve of a small number of airbrush-equipped artists, has become commonplace in the fashion, publishing and advertising industries thanks to the introduction of photo-editing software such as Photoshop and filters on social media such as Instagram. Photoshop, first introduced in 1990, has become so widely used that “photoshopping” is often used as a synonym for photo manipulation. As a result, heavily retouched photos – of men as well as women [1] – have become almost universal, with industry figures claiming that nearly all photos in magazines are edited. [2]

“When I take a picture with no filter and that picture does not receive the number of likes I am expecting, it makes me feel bad about myself. Like for me to look ‘perfect’ and ‘liked’ I need to take pictures with filters.” [3]

As photo manipulation tools have become more widely available and easier to use, youth have begun turning to them to modify their own photos to meet media-created ideals of thinness and perfection. Some social networks have taken steps to limit the impact of unrealistic images, such as Instagram’s ban on “filters” that allow users to perform virtual plastic surgery on their photos and have been linked to “Snapchat dysmorphia,” a desire to alter one’s own body to look more like your selfies. [4] A year later, though, many such apps were still available on Instagram, as well as other platforms that had not banned them. [5]

Evolution of modellingRetouching photos in this way raises a number of concerns. One is that the already unrealistic bodies youth are exposed to are made literally impossible. Senior graphic designers have admitted that editing includes retouching everything, “they elongate necks. They tuck in arms. They take out veins”. [6] Even models have stated they, at times, feel inadequate and say they if they do not like the way they look to photographers they claim they can edit that part out.[7] This guarantees that even those who meet media standards of attractiveness will still be left feeling inferior. (This is a Digital Age twist on the old “ring around the collar” tactic of creating anxieties that consumers didn’t know they had.) [8] In some cases, real women’s bodies have been abandoned completely, as in the ads created for retailer H&M that put models’ heads onto computer-generated bodies. [9]

As well, photo manipulation reduces the number of different body shapes represented in media, pushing everyone to a single standard: even Keira Knightley, who is very slender, had her breasts digitally enhanced in the poster for her movie King Arthur[10] while Emily Ratajowski’s body and face were manipulated on the cover of a magazine, leading her to say she was “extremely disappointed to see my lips and breasts altered in photoshop on this cover.” [11] While former Vogue editor Anna Wintour once claimed that the magazine did not manipulate photos to make models look thinner, [12]she later admitted to the practice and announced the magazine would not be hiring underage girls as models or models who appear to have eating disorders.  [13]

Both of these issues may lead to negative effects on young people’s self-image and self-esteem. In 2011, the American Medical Association urged governments and industry bodies to stop retouching models, warning “we must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software.”  [14]

It’s hardly a secret that many bodies seen in media are digitally manipulated. A 2011 study found that 84 per cent of British young women knew what photo manipulation was and how it was used, and the same number agreed that using it to change models’ bodies should be unacceptable.[15] Unfortunately, just knowing that images are manipulated doesn’t defuse their effects. Placing disclaimers on photos stating that they have been manipulated does not reduce their effects on body dissatisfaction, as women still find photos realistic even when told they were digitally manipulated.As Dr. Kim Bissell, founder of the Child Media Lab at the University of Alabama, said, “We know they’re Photoshopped, but we still want to look like that.”  [16] 

In fact, young girls often use photo manipulation software to retouch their own photos. Connie Morrison, in her book Who Do They Think They Are? Teenage Girls & Their Avatars in Spaces of Social Online Communication, says “girls understand that the images on television and in magazines are manipulated, and for some this understanding seems to lead to an expectation that they can (or should) be doing the same.” As one of the girls she interviews puts it, “It makes me more comfortable… when my profile picture is something that looks flawless and ‘pretty’ even though I know it’s fake.” [17]


[1] “The Complicated Art of Airbrushing Abdominals.” Jezebel, October 7, 2010. <>

[2] Bruner, R (2018). Blake Lively says 99.9% of celebrity images are photoshopped while interviewing Gigi Hadid.  Time. Retrieved from

[3] Eshiet, J. (2020) “Real Me Versus Social Media Me: Filters, Snapchat Dysmorphia, and Beauty Perceptions Among Young Women.” Electronic Theses, Projects, and Dissertations. 1101.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mullin, G. “Instagram filters banned last year STILL encourage dangerous fillers and cosmetic ops.“ The Sun, January 27, 2020. <>

[6] Shen, S (2014) Photoshop: The tool to being unrealistically gorgeous. AI Standard. Retrieved from

[7] Bruner, R (2018). Blake Lively says 99.9% of celebrity images are photoshopped while interviewing Gigi Hadid. Time. Retrieved from

[8] Copeland, Libby. “How advertisers create body anxieties women didn’t know they had and then sell them the solution.” Slate, April 14, 2011.

[9] Caulfield, Philip. “H&M uses virtual models for new lingerie bikini ads.” The New York Times, December 6, 2011.

[10] Caplin, Steve. “When Photoshop can get you in trouble.” The Guardian, February 12, 2010.

[11] Wang, M (2017). Emily Ratajowski slams her own cover on Instagram. Vogue. Retrieved from

[12] “Anna Wintour: Vogue Doesn’t Photoshop Girls To Make Them Look Thinner.” Huffington Post, May 25, 2010.

[13] Gollom, M. (2012) Vogue ban of too thin models a ‘huge’ step. CBC News. Retrieved from

[14] “AMA Adopts New Policies at Annual Meeting” (press release). American Medical Association, June 21, 2011.

[15] Mcbride, C et al. (2019) Digital Manipulation of Images of Models’ Appearance in Advertising: Strategies for Action Through Law and Corporate Social Responsibility Incentives to Protect Public Health. Boston University School of Law. 45(2019). 7-31.

[16] Stalnaker, Deidre. “On the Cover, In the Mirror.” Research Magazine, January 21, 2010.

[17] Morrison, Connie. Who Do They Think They Are? Teenage Girls & Their Avatars in Spaces of Social Online Communication. Peter Lang Publishing, New York. 2010.