Reality in the eye of the beholder: A Photoshop reality check

November 28, 2011
Actress Kim Cattrall in an image before digital retouching. Credit: PNAS

You know they couldn't possibly look that good. But what did those models and celebrities look like before all the retouching? How different is the image we see from the original?

Dartmouth Computer Science Professor Hany Farid and Eric Kee, a PhD student at Dartmouth College, are proposing a method to not only answer such questions but also to quantify the changes.

As Farid writes, "Impossibly thin, tall, and wrinkle- and blemish-free models are routinely splashed onto billboards, advertisements, and magazine covers." He says that this is "creating a fantasy of sorts." Going beyond considerations of aesthetics or any dishonesty of photo editors or advertisers, Farid and Kee voice public health concerns.

In a paper published in the (PNAS) on November 28, 2011, they point out that these highly idealized images have been linked to eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction in men, women, and children. The authors note that the American Medical Association has recently adopted a policy to "discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image."

Image of actress Kim Cattrall after digital retouching. Credit: PNAS

There have already been repercussions in the United Kingdom. A Reuters news story from July 2011 reports: "Two L'Oreal cosmetics adverts [advertisements] featuring actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington were banned in Britain by the Advertising Standards Agency, following complaints by MP [Member of Parliament] Jo Swinson. Liberal Democrat MP Swinson said the magazine adverts for foundations made by Maybelline and Lancome, both owned by L'Oreal, were misleading because the photos had been digitally altered." On a prior occasion, L'Oreal had been forced to add a disclaimer to another ad.

But Farid and Kee assert that outright bans or simple disclaimers may not be addressing the issue fairly or completely. They are seeking a way to for advertisers to truthfully and accurately characterize the extent to which an image has been altered while allowing the public to make informed judgments. The goal is to create a metric that provides an objective assessment of how much alteration has been made.

The authors propose a rating system that takes into account common practices such as cropping and color adjustment while providing assessment of other kinds of modifications that dramatically change a person's appearance. They consider geometric alterations such as slimming legs, adjusting facial symmetry, and correcting posture, as well as photometric manipulations that might include removing wrinkles, "bags" under the eyes and skin blemishes.

"We start with the before and after digital images from which we automatically estimate the geometric and photometric changes, effectively reverse engineering the manipulations that a photo retoucher has made," Farid says.

In the study, to crosscheck and validate their metric, human observers were asked to compare and rank the differences in hundreds of pairs of before and after retouching images. The results correlated highly with the mathematical metric.

"Such a rating may provide incentive for publishers and models to reduce some of the more extreme forms of digital retouching that are common today," the authors conclude, but they add, "It remains to be seen if this rating can mediate the adverse effects of being inundated with unrealistic body images."

Explore further: Investigating Digital Images; What's real and what's phony?

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5 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2011
We really need to grow up here, we need to face neural facts about faces: what we 'see', in general, is general, an abstraction, the abstract essence of the available data that far overwhelms what our brains can provide from what our senses can absorb. The PROBLEM is not advertising showing us, as they have since Ancient Greece, the abstract essences of beauty trimmed of detail noise; the problem is parents failing to recognize that these are not 'real' pictures, and so explain to the denser children who cannot figure it out themselves that these are not 'real' images, they are abstract pictures, no less 'manipulated' than a da Vinci; the images capture what resonants in our neural circuits as the noise-less face, which then leaves open bandwidth for the political, commercial or religous message. An icon depicting Jesus with a wart on his nose would simply shatter the communications!
4.6 / 5 (9) Nov 28, 2011
Simple solution.
Ban mirrors.
Instead, have flat screens and cameras to project our images back to us. After of course some automated alterations to make our fugly selves look more presentable. No more low self esteem when we can only look at our altered selves through rose colored technology.
Problem solved!
5 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2011
Simple solution.
Ban mirrors.
Instead, have flat screens and cameras to project our images back to us. After of course some automated alterations to make our fugly selves look more presentable. No more low self esteem when we can only look at our altered selves through rose colored technology.
Problem solved!

You'd think there would have been an iPhone app to do this by now! :)
5 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2011
And people look at me funny when I argue advertisement is "evil"? Ha! In the end, I will be vindicated!
3 / 5 (4) Nov 29, 2011
Kim is aging very well.

It was a mistake for her not to marry me.
1.5 / 5 (2) Nov 29, 2011
I think that Ekim and Deesky are on to something here. iPhones are probably too small but an iPad should work. Can I buy into your start up?
1.3 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2011
We start with the before and after digital images

Now do it without the before image and that would be really something!
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 29, 2011
How is this different from what makeup artists do? Now if they introduced a law requiring politicians to tell the truth that would be something.
not rated yet Nov 29, 2011
The difference is makeup artists can't remove tissue from the face. They can make an illusion that it's slimmer, but they can't just erase parts of a person like a Photoshop artist can.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2011
Oh forget the women and the make-up, computer enhancement and augmentation; I'll never care to meet one of them anyway. I'll tell the worlds worst offender - Taco Bell! Have you seen an ad for the flatbread tacos? They show a pound of chicken squeezed between the folds of the bread, but in reality they only swipe the chicken on the bread and add a little sauce! Let's get serious if we want to be outraged!
not rated yet Nov 29, 2011
Worst part yet is they probably went through at least 20 chickens to get "just the right size and shape" pieces for the presentation model.
not rated yet Dec 03, 2011
Jeez they erased her smile lines?? She worked hard for those!

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