My Mum and I have the same shaped face. Round, with marble cheeks that bulge happily when we smile. Our eyes are quite far apart, an almost alien-like look, and are slightly almond in shape. When we laugh – as we do together quite a lot - the skin around the edges of them crinkles in the exact same places and our top lips stretch into thin pink lines. These are imperfect features I share with her that I love, because they connect us physically as mother and daughter.`
Often, when we’re out together shopping and chatting away, Mum and I will get comments from strangers about how we look similar or how much fun we seem to have together.
Recently, it was the owner of a jewellery store we were perusing who sashayed over and struck up a conversation.
“Oh, how lovely to see a mother and daughter together having such a good time,” she cooed as we complimented each other on our earring choices. “Can I take a photo of you for our shop’s Instagram?”
“Sure.” It’s always nice to have one more family photo, I thought. So we posed for her phone camera, bought the earrings and left.
But the next day, when Mum opened the app, I was floored by the photo of us on the screen in front of me, already with more than 800 little love hearts validating our appearance. Because it wasn’t really us. Or, rather, it was us but…better.
UM, WHAT THE HELL?
Wrinkle-free skin smoother than silk, teeth whiter than milk, thinned faces and bigger, more defined eyes. A stranger’s version of the better looking us. So much better, in fact, that if I didn’t know me, if I couldn’t look in the mirror right now and see my imperfections, I’d want to know what skin care and makeup products I use.
“Um, what the hell?” I asked when Mum showed me. “That’s not what we look like.” She agreed. We are definitely not that flawless.
At first, I was offended for both of us. So, what, this woman doesn’t think we’re good looking enough for her Instagram as we are? She couldn’t bear having an imperfect mother and daughter duo representing her brand? How dare someone other than me think they have the right to decide how I should look.
Next I wondered if we were actually supposed to be appreciative. Perhaps the jewelry shop owner / ‘friends to women everywhere’ thought she was doing us a favour by Photoshopping out our flaws. Maybe she thought we would be offended if she didn’t touch us up a little before she posted our picture online to her thousands of followers, leaving us haggard- looking and exposed to an unkind digital world. Then I realised that either way, whether she judging us or ‘helping us’, it was not okay.
Because regardless of the intention, what matters is what this photo says. To Mum, me and other every woman with a flaw. To every woman who sees that photo of us and think it’s natural. It says: You are not good enough. This is how you should look. This is the standard you need to be living up to.
IT’S NOT JUST MODELS
Women are constantly bombarded by the media to attain a standard of beauty that is comparable to perfection. Every day we see images of models, actresses and other celebrities in magazines and on websites with flawless-looking skin, tight butts, perky tits and glossy hair. But with the rise of social media, selfies and photo editing apps like the mega popular Facetune, these images of ‘perfect’ women are no longer confined to the media. They’re in our Facebook newsfeeds and the Instagram posts of our friends.
These days, with a few simple swipes of their finger, anyone can whiten their teeth, thin their waist and smooth their skin in seconds. All of a sudden, we’re not just comparing ourselves to people who are paid to be beautiful and still Photoshopped to look better, but we’re trying to live up to the standards our own friends set in the edited images of themselves at a BBQ or in the park – or the ones of them uploaded by jewelry shop owners. There’s no escape from the unrealistic standards of beauty and it’s resulting in a number of mental and physical health problems for girls and women of all ages.
But here’s the thing about standards: they’re set. And if they’re set, it stands to reason they can be changed, too.
In recent years, models have been calling out the Photoshopping of their images by magazines and websites in a worldwide movement that challenges the unrealistic standards of beauty portrayed by the media.
In September last year, model Emily Ratajkowski said French magazine Madame Figaro Photoshopped her lips and breasts to look smaller. She shared an unedited version of the magazine cover on Instagram, along with a critique of the fashion industry.
“Everyone is uniquely beautiful in their own ways. We all have insecurities about the things that make us different from a typical ideal of beauty … I hope the fashion industry will finally learn to stop trying to stifle the things that make us unique and instead begin to celebrate individuality.”
In May last year, model Iskra Lawrence criticized heavily edited photos of herself on Instagram. Not only were her legs, arms, and waist slimmed down, her eye bags and skin were also smoothed out using Photoshop. She said seeing edited images of herself actually gave her ‘more insecurity and body image issues.’
“Please,” she wrote, “NEVER EVER compare yourself to images you see, many aren't real. Perfect does NOT exist so trying to achieve that is unrealistic and editing your pictures will not make you happy. What's real is YOU, your imperfectly perfect self that's what makes you magical, unique and beautiful."
It’s not just models who can call out the setting of unrealistic beauty standards. Us mere mortals have that option, too. Firstly, we can start by deciding not to compare ourselves to photos we see that are more than likely touched up. Secondly, we can resist the temptation to edit our own photos so we’re not complicit in creating this standard. Thirdly, like those models, we can call out the people who dare to Photoshop us and tell them loud and clear: this is not okay. It looks like I’ve got a phone call to a jewelry store to make.