That, at least, is what campaigners working against eating disorders insist. For years, they have complained that the waif-like, size zero models favored by fashion houses promote an unhealthy dieting culture. But digitally trimmed celebrities and models, they say, are much worse: many people don't even realize what they see is neither real nor attainable.
Now the British government is taking up their cause. Next month, officials are sitting down with advertisers, fashion editors and health experts to discuss how to curb the practice of airbrushing and promote body confidence among girls and women. If the campaigners get their way, fashion ads and magazines in Britain may soon have to label retouched photos to warn people that the perfect bodies they see are but digital fantasies.
Plus-Size Fashion Bigger and Better
Coming just after London Fashion Week, which is under way, it's the latest initiative in a long-running battle to force the fashion industry to show more diverse - and realistic - kinds of beauty.
"The trend does seem to be more and more 'extreme Photoshopping.' Everybody's just moving towards Barbie dolls," said Hany Farid, a professor specializing in digital photo forensics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "I don't think there's a single photograph in those (magazines) that's not retouched. They're all manipulated to hell."
Editors and ad managers have been making use of technology to improve the appearance of photographed models for some time. Before, it was taming the occasional stray hair or erasing a blemish. These days much more extensive trickery is approved without anyone batting a lash: flabby stomachs are tightened, necks and legs are lengthened, and bosoms are reshaped. The result: a flawless body shape no amount of dieting or cosmetic surgery can achieve.
Health professionals say the government must regulate such practices to stop the relentless pressure on young girls and women, but many others are dubious about the idea that we need the government to tell us what's real and what's not. Besides, hasn't advertising always been about selling dreams, and can a disclaimer change the fashion industry's aesthetic?
London-based fashion photographer Mark Nolan said that while he avoids and disapproves of extreme airbrushing, magazines are driven by what readers want. The government should stay away from policing the market, he said.
"I think they should back right off. The media is driven by the consumer," Nolan said. "Magazines should be an icon for looking your best. (Readers) know what they get are the most glamorous, the best looking girls. It's always been that way."
Experts who work with young people with eating disorders, however, want the fashion industry to take up some social responsibility.
"We know these images by themselves don't cause eating disorders directly, but they certainly are an influence on people, particularly those already ill, or seriously at risk," said Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat, a British charity for tackling eating disorders that's behind the campaign to tackle airbrushing.
Digitally sculpted models are particularly harmful to girls trying to recover from an eating problem, she said.
"They cannot understand why anyone worries about them, when they look around them they see pictures of people who look just like them who are celebrated as successful," Ringwood said. "It perpetrates their disturbed views that they are right."
Her views are backed by Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists, which is also pushing the government to regulate airbrushing. A growing body of research is linking repeated exposure of thin or perfect bodies to a drop in mood, more dissatisfaction in the viewers' bodies, and drastic dieting behavior, said Dr. Adrienne Key from the group.
Airbrushing disasters have occasionally drawn the public eye to the practice. Last year the label Ralph Lauren had to publicly apologize when one of its advertisements showed a model whose waist was cropped to look smaller than her head. GQ, the men's magazine, triggered an early backlash against airbrushing when it acknowledged in 2003 that it altered a cover image of Kate Winslet. The actress said she was shocked to see herself looking so strangely thin in it.
Still, most people don't tend to understand the extent of photo manipulation or stop to think about it, Farid said. Photo tampering is now common even in political campaigns and news media - in a recent cover of The Economist magazine, for example, a solitary President Barack Obama was shown on the Louisiana beach inspecting the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It turned out that two other officials were edited out of the image to make it more powerful.
Details of the British government initiative are still sketchy, but Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone, who is leading the consultations, has indicated that she will push for a health warning on airbrushed photos. But the plan would not be forced on advertisers, who are expected to adjust their practices on a voluntary basis.
Similar policies have been introduced in Australia, where magazines that signed up to a code of conduct would refrain from heavy photo tampering. Magazines that adhere to the guidelines will receive a "body image tick" of approval. Some advocates, like Ringwood, have suggested that labeling original, untampered-with photos may be easier in practice, as well as send a more positive message.
Jill Wanless, an associate editor at Look Magazine, a British weekly, conceded that offering an escape to a more glamorous world is part of the appeal of adverts and women's glossies.
But more and more readers are demanding clothes and models they can relate to, she said. The magazine has responded by using so-called "plus size" models, and it plans to feature curvier girls at its catwalk show during London Fashion Week. They're not alone: a recent announcement from Marc Jacobs that it would introduce a plus-size line suggests that major fashion houses are finally ready to cater to larger women.
"Sometimes readers want hyper-reality in a way - they want to be taken out of their own situation," Wanless said. "But there's a line that can be crossed when you alienate them by presenting something completely unattainable."