Credit: Joeyy Lee via unsplash

Photoshopping law: too little too late?

By Rachel Campbell and Ananya Srivathsan

Two writers offer their perspective on the new photoshopping law proposed by the government.

TW: discusses body image, mental health, and eating disorders.

Rachel Campbell argues that making influencers disclose edited pictures is needed to help mitigate an Instagram “mental health crisis”.

MP Dr Luke Evans has introduced a bill which would mean commercial images posted to social media which have been enhanced or altered would have to be labelled as such. At the moment, the proposed bill would only include advertisers and publishers to mark their photoshopped images as modified, yet when speaking about whether this would apply to social media influencers, the MP called it a “grey area” but claimed the industry was “actively trying to define social influencers”. Should the bill be passed at all, and should it go further to include these influencers? I argue yes.

France has already introduced a similar bill in 2017, with advertisers legally obliged to attach a “photographie retouchée” warning label on their edited images or they could be fined €37,500 or up to 30% of the price it took to produce the advert. The legislation passed in France shows it could be a reality here too, despite claims it would be difficult to police and could be extended to include those with platforms on social media. It is undeniable that advertisements sell us more than a product, and the implicit messages behind ads are often the most penetrative and harmful. Bombarded with “slim-thick”, muscular, able-bodied white people with smooth skin and bright-white teeth on billboards, TV and in magazines, we have, since the dawn of advertising, been unwittingly brainwashed into seeing this as the ideal. We can tell ourselves that not even the models look like these images really and that we shouldn’t have to either, but the internalised notion that we are less than those who are being used to sell something is hard to completely destroy.

What’s more, with the rise of social media influencers, the effects of retouching and enhancing are only growing. Dr Luke Evans raised this point: “Edited photos on Instagram are fuelling a mental health crisis and creating a warped sense of beauty,” citing his work as a GP as first-hand experience of the true effects this photoshopping can have on body image issues, and ultimately, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. It’s true that this law won’t mean a stop to the photoshopping which has this negative effect on the mental health of so many users, but I do believe that having a label reminding you that this image is not a true representation of reality, and therefore is not something to aspire to, will help.  

As a child and young teenager, I didn’t have the same onslaught of edited images and false aspirations that lie at the fingertips of young users now. Yes, there are age limits on many of these apps, but whether they are followed is another story, and even if they are; is 13 old enough to be completely aware that these people with millions of followers are selling you a false version of themselves? Is it old enough to realise what it may surreptitiously be doing to your view of yourself, and your view of what you want to be? And is it old enough to protect yourself from that? I’m not sure, at 20, that I feel completely in control of how the content I consume affects me mentally, and so I find it terrifying to think that people are growing up while simultaneously being inundated with false information which can alter their self-esteem and body image for years to come.

I choose to unfollow accounts which make me feel bad about myself or ones which I can tell use edits to change their images. However, this was only a change I made recently when I realised how much it could affect my view of myself to be constantly looking at altered bodies and selfies. What happens when you can’t tell so easily? There are Instagram models and influencers who are very talented at making these edits; making the unreal seem real, so that people comment “UNREALLLL! <3”. Unreal should not be a compliment. We need to praise the real again. I do believe this law is a good way of taking us in that direction, so that, at some point down the line, we will leave doctored images in the past. 

Ananya Srivathsan argues that including influencers in the new proposed photoshopping law is an impossible task, and instead offers a different way to help change the social construct of beauty.

So, it’s 2020, and it’s a year to remember. Not because of all the crazy parties and nights out at HIVE, but more because there’s a pandemic running wild and we’re all spending time at home and not having any pints of fun (which is probably the reason we remember so much). Not to forget all the political changes that have been addressed this year which have been strongly driven by social media. This year, social media is seeing a change in how the world interacts with it. 

With “self-timer bathroom pics” becoming the new “night out with the gals pics” we might be seeing some other changes in the way we use social media. A bill drawn up by MP, Dr Luke Evans, claims that “heavily edited images” on social media are “fuelling a mental health crisis” and that such images “create a warped sense of beauty”. The proposed law suggests that influencers and celebrities need to openly disclose when they have posted a picture that has been “heavily edited” on their social media. 

While this all seems well and good, I have a few questions: how exactly does the government plan to decree exactly which photos have been “heavily edited” and which pictures have just been “edited”? What is the difference between the two? What about “heavily edited” pictures posted by someone who isn’t a celebrity? And more importantly, is there a way to decide exactly which photos are causing this specific mental health crisis? So what do we do with photos that aren’t edited at all, but suggest that only a certain body type is perfect? 

Arguably, the problem we are facing is not with the way one person edits themselves in a photo, but rather the underlying social constructs of beauty itself. People choosing to edit the way they look in a picture suggests that they see something with their body that they think needs to be changed in order to meet the standard to be able to post it online. Instead of glorifying influencers who can use photoshop, I think the government should focus on funding our mental health services properly and running campaigns to help improve body positivity.

Beauty standards and the “perfect body” are concepts that cannot be tackled merely by influencers declaring their editing skills in an Instagram caption. Approaching mental health with a social media announcement is like trying to put a plaster on a stab wound. Like stab wounds, these ideas are deep-rooted social constructs and need to be addressed with positivity – by encouraging everyone to realise that every single person is beautiful. 

Earlier this year, the prime minister revealed that £10m was going towards funding a fatphobic campaign to “tackle obesity”. Is this the government’s attempt to help those struggling with body image related mental health crises? The campaign advocates the wrong ideas about body image and, more significantly, tries to approach the situation with negativity, suggesting that certain people need to be ashamed of their bodies and worried for their health due to their body shape, when very often that is not that case.

That £10m could be used to fund counselling centres and phone lines throughout the country where people can go to talk to someone and to get help with body dysmorphia. It could be put towards building community health centres where everyone is welcome and encouraged to come and lead a healthier life. It could be used to run campaigns and show the world that every body is one to be cherished and loved. 

The main point to take away from this whole discussion for me is the fact that the government is starting to realise that body image issues are beginning to seriously impact the public. While the way they’re trying to tackle this may be wrong, they are at least trying to bring about change. And change is the most powerful thing we have. We can change the way we look at ourselves. We can change the way the world looks at beauty. We need to talk about these walls that have been built around us in order to work to tear them down.


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