Sunday, August 30, 2009

A berry unfortunate situation?

Retouching on magazine covers and in other major photo spreads is nothing new; we've touched on this before. (So does that mean we're "re-touching" the subject today? Yuk-yuk.) Editors and especially art types defend the practice by pointing out that (a) they get one shot per month at strutting their stuff, (b) like it or not, many readers are appearance-obsessed and expect the magazines they read to project a certain image, and therefore (c) there's nothing wrong with trying to make models and featured celebs look as perfect as possible on the covers and elsewhere. It's their idea of perfection that's the problem. To them, perfection = super-skinny (but with big round boobs), even if the tweaking process leaves models looking vaguely like Martians, or maybe like really tall squids with mascara on....

The reason for this, of course, is that the culture continues to promote a be-skinny-at-all-costs mentality, despite some of the recent attempts to help women feel more comfortable with their natural selves. (As we've noted here on SHAMblog, even the photos in Dove's much-ballyhooed "real women" campaign were apparently retouched. That whole area of the "plus-size model" is a canard, anyway. I'm betting that most of the current crop of plus-size models are slimmer, perhaps a whole lot slimmer, than the average American woman who buys plus-size clothing. Clearly in the fashion world, anything above a 4 is a plus size.) But one is given pause by the lengths to which photo editors will go in seeking just the "right" look. I wasn't kidding about the Martians and squids. Quite often the computer-assisted transformation yields a cover model whose overall body proportions are not-quite-human, with limbs in particular that are featureless, waxy and unfinished, as if the model is newly emerged from a seed pod in that old sci-fi classic. Sometimes the joints aren't even in the expected locations. By the way, we're not talking about third-rate magazines here. We're talking about some of the nation's most popular, and in some cases prestigious, publications. Publications that are tops in the beauty biz.

This is a tough topic, because there's no question that American women, and Americans as a class, are getting heavier. That's probably not a good thing, medically speaking. Trouble is, the prevailing you-must-be-skinny-to-be-beautiful* message has nothing to do with health; rather, it tends to take the form of a full-out assault on a person's dignity, thus driving countless American women out of their minds with guilt and self-loathing. It is this same emphasis that makes so many women vulnerable to every new weight-loss fad/fraud that comes down the pike, including, most recently, the acai berry scam. For the record, that's pronounced in three syllables with a soft c in the middle: ah-sigh-ee.

This new "health and weight-loss miracle"
which, according to urban legend, was blessed by Oprah and her pal Dr. Oz (though not really, if you watched the relevant shows with any degree of discernment)sets a dubious precedent in the annals of direct marketing, because it's a scam on so many levels. For starters, yes, the acai berry may be rich in antioxidants, fiber and certain other nutrients, but likely no more so than dozens of other berries you can buy in your neighborhood grocery store that won't set you back an extra $80 a month. Besides, the jury is still out on the value of antioxidants in the first place. Further, though it's doubtful that any one berry is going to solve just about every health problem known to man, that's the tenor of the ad copy. And once you order your "free 14-day trial"which is typically how the product is pitchedyou may find out that the clock on your trial starts running the minute you place your order, not when you receive the pills and begin using them. Since the pills themselves don't arrive for a week or 10 days, that gives the consumer maybe a whole big four days to road-test her new berries. The typical consumer never realizes this; if the info is anywhere at all, it's in the fine print on the manufacturer's website. The national complaint box brims with reports from consumers who insist they complied with the terms of their free trials in every respect, yet ended up getting billed for $69 or $79 or even $89 month after month. Some had to cancel their credit cards in order to get the billings to stop. Others saw their credit ratings dinged. (And gee, how shocking it is that companies that sell a fraudulent product might actually do fraudulent things with a customer's account info!)

And though I can't say this for sure, I suspect that most of these customers, at the end, were no closer to looking like Jessica Alba on the cover of some magazine. They were just poorer.

* or even worth looking at.


Anonymous said...

The most flagrant abuse of retouching happens when the actual physical looks of the celebrity do not back up the story. Such as Faith Hill "Looking fabulous at 40!" - but her "mommy arms' had to be slimmed; freckles removed; and chin tightened up. And American Idol Kelly Clarkson has never looked very idol-like - she's naturally chunky. Yet the Shape magazine article where Clarkson professes to be "comfortable with her body" makes the reader wonder "which body is that Kelly? The one the photoshop gave you or the one you are lugging around on stage?"

The funniest retouching I remember was done by TV guide 20 years ago (August, 1989)when they put Oprah's head on Ann Margret's (darkened) body. As a billionaire, Oprah can have many things. Ann Margret's body is not one of them.

Cal said...

I believe I said this before when the topic was broached -- this is one part of the American culture that African-Americans and Hispanics will never endorse. Super-skinny means anorexic in these communities. It's not something a woman with one of these ethnic backgrounds typically aspires to be. We are apt to give one of these supermodels a couple of double cheeseburgers before she is celebrated as some beauty. The fact was exemplified by the song Baby Got Back in the early '90s.