It all started with seeing two pictures side by side of the model Twiggy. The first picture is an ad for Olay definity eye illuminator. The second is a picture of Twiggy taken during the photo-shoot for the ad. It does not look like the same woman. We all know that advertising images are touched up, digitally enhanced and magically transformed to make the models look picture perfect. But knowing it and seeing it for yourself is not the same thing. In the ad, Twiggy, a woman in her sixties, looks flawless: not a wrinkle, not a blemish, not a line. Her face is as smooth as the face of a child. In the real life picture she looks like a beautiful woman in her sixties, with all the wrinkles, sagging skin, laugh lines and crows feet around the eyes that come with having lived a few years. The difference between the two pictures is staggering.
Radiant wrinkle-free Twiggy in the ad tells us that ‘Olay is my secret to brighter-looking eyes’. The ad goes on to tell us that the product ‘reduces the look of wrinkles and dark circles for brighter, younger-looking skin.’ Standard advertising stuff for a beauty product. And it works, unlike the beauty products.
That’s what gets me. Dermatologists not in the pay of the beauty industry have told us again and again that there is no magic cream that can smooth away wrinkles. Once skin sags, the damage is done. You cannot reverse the signs of ageing. You can at best argue that cosmetic procedures like Botox or plastic surgery reduce wrinkles but they don’t make people look genuinely younger, they only make parts of their bodies look less wrinkled than other parts. And there is certainly not an eye cream in existence that will reduce wrinkles and remove dark circles. But we all buy it.
I buy it. I love beauty products. The creams, the potions, the masks, the serums, all of it. I am enchanted by beauty emporiums, all those colours and smells, all that intimate boudoir luxuriousness, it is irresistible. I listen entranced as shop assistants tell me the marvellous science that makes each product so particularly fantastic. I know as I listen that it is not quite true, but I am still charmed by the lure of it. And just in case we have doubts, the advertising pictures show us famous women in their fifties and sixties smiling benignantly at us and looking radiantly beautiful, proving that it is possible, the signs of age can be beaten.
Well it is possible. Twiggy’s secret is not a cream but the skill of a good photo technician. We could all look ten years younger in a digitally enhanced picture.
This week the Advertising Standards Agency banned the Olay advert on the grounds that it was misleading. This follows a campaign by a British politician, Jo Swinson, to ban air-brushed advertising pictures. Ms. Swinson collected 700 complaints against the ad and sent them to the ASA. She argued that the ad was not only misleading but socially irresponsible citing the ‘negative impact on people’s perceptions of their own body image’. The ASA agreed that the add was misleading saying that the post-production retouching around the eyes could give consumers ‘a misleading impression of the effect the product could achieve’ and banned it. However they disagreed with the contention that the ad was socially irresponsible.
Poor old Olay, all they did was make the mistake of allowing someone to take pictures during a photo shoot. They are right to feel a little hard done by, all they did was what everyone in the industry does: touch up pictures to create images of beauty. That these pictures are misleading is undeniable. It is what they are designed to do. They are designed to lead us to buy a product. For this to happen we must first feel frustrated with our own looks. They need to create the gap between the real and the imagined for in that gap lays the disappointment that leads the consumer to search for a fix.
But is it socially irresponsible?
My view is yes. Air-brushing has gone a step too far. It is no longer just a case of easing out a crease or hiding a blemish but of creating a whole perception of beauty that is unattainable. Women now live in a state of continual disappointment with their looks. It may not sound like a serious problem. We should get over it, it’s true. There are more important things in the world, but ask any woman how miserable it makes her feel and you will see that it is not such an un-serious issue after all.
Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in London. For feedback,write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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