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May 21, 2010

Is it okay to airbrush models to be heavier?

By now you may have seen the story about the British magazine Healthy airbrushing its April cover model to be... less skinny:
Holland & Barrett has been plunged into a row over size-zero models after airbrushing a shockingly thin girl to make her appear curvier and healthier.
The health food giant altered the body of Polish model Kamilla Wladyka in an attempt to conceal how thin she was when she appeared on the April cover of its customer magazine - called Healthy.
Miss Druker claimed Miss Wladyka had appeared healthy during casting, but looked too thin to feature on the magazine's cover on the day of the photo shoot a week later.
The details on Miss Wladyka's modelling card claim that she is a size 6, with a 24 inch waist. 'There were plenty of clothes that we couldn't put on her because her bones stuck out too much,' Miss Druker said.
'She looked beautiful in the face, but really thin and unwell. That's not a reflection of what we do in our magazine, which is about good health.' [Daily Mail]

After years of magazines airbrushing models to be thinner, this story might have come as a refreshing change. However, I don't completely agree.

1. It's dishonest.

Maybe airbrushing models to be heavier instead of skinnier feels a little bit better, but that still doesn't make it right. It's ultimately the same thing - altering a model's actual, genuine body to meet some idealized version of what you think they should look like.

Kamilla Wladyka may not meet Holland & Barrett's ideal representation of healthy beauty - and that's okay - but she looks the way she looks. The body on the cover of the April 2010 Healthy magazine is not Wladyka's body. The woman on the cover of the April 2010 Healthy magazine does not actually exist. Wladyka is not perfect. No one is perfect. Magazines should show real women they way they really look. If they don't like they way they look, then fine, but then don't put them in your magazine.

Once you make the decision to put someone on the cover... you're not just printing their photograph, you're holding them up as a representative of the magazine. If they don't meet that desired image - you can choose to accept that or you can just not put them in the magazine. You can't just mold them to whatever image you desire if it's not true.

2. It sends a mixed message.

I'm not sure how famous Kamilla Wladyka is at this point in her career, but people can clearly see how skinny she actually is in any other photos. By viewing an airbrushed version of her on the cover, readers aren't going to necessarily realize that it is a "heavier" version of her. They're just going to see her on the cover of Healthy and associate her with "healthy". So they're essentially still sending the same message - that thin is healthy - but just sort of covering their asses about doing it.

(Plus did you catch the cover stories? "Carbs Don't Make You Fat" and "Lose 10 lbs No Need to Diet". Mixed messages indeed.)

I'm sure there were models with actual curves that they could have hired instead of airbrushing fake cures onto Wladyka. So basically the magazine is still only hiring the super skinny girls. Even if Wladyka arrived at the shoot thinner than she was at casting, she was still pretty thin to begin with. According to her modeling agency stats, she is a UK size 6 (the equivalent of a US size 4) . How much weight could she really have lost in a week to take her to what they called "shockingly thin" if she wasn't extremely thin to begin with? (Check out her portfolio.)

If Wladyka's body was not a reflection of good health (according to Holland & Barrett's standards) on the day of the shoot, are we supposed to believe that it was a week earlier at casting? Why not cast someone a little "healthier" to begin with?

Photos from the Healthy shoot that show Wladyka at her actual weight.

Older photos from Wladyka's portfolio from FashionModelDirectory.com

While I'm sure there are plenty of women that size who are naturally thin and totally healthy at size 4 or below, it seems contradictory for the magazine to hire a "size 4" model and at the same time claim that they don't want to portray bodies that are too thin as healthy. If that was truly the case, then why hire models at all and instead feature some prominent public figure known for their healthly lifestyle on the cover?

3. It reinforces an unfair generalization that it's bad to be thin.

Just hear me out on this one! I'm happy that magazine editors are more cautious about featuring super-skinny models because of the detrimental effect they can have on girls' (and women's) self-esteem and body image... and the unhealthy actions some might take to try to look like them. But thin doesn't always mean unhealthy. Bones sticking out doesn't necessarily mean you're malnourished. Some people are just naturally very thin and it's not fair to vilify them because of something they can't control.

In the same way that it would be wrong for anyone to feel pressured to be thinner... we shouldn't make anyone feel pressured to be heavier either.

For years overweight people were warned about the plethora of health problems they were likely to face - high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, etc. - and while it's true that obesity has been linked to many health issues, weight is not the only factor. It is more about the reason for the obesity (poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyle, etc.) than the weight itself. Now people are finally realizing that being "fat" doesn't necessarily mean unhealthy. The same is true of being skinny. Someone who looks "malnourished" isn't necessarily unhealthy.

I've known many "overweight" (i.e., average-sized) girls who were completely healthy but longed to attain a weight that would've been inappropriate and unhealthy for their bodies. Some of them did achieve their goal weights, but messed up their health in the process of crash diets and purging. I've also known almost as many naturally "skinny" girls who were criticized as "anorexic" and "flat-chested" and "malnourished", who envied everyone else's curves but found themselves unable to put on weight. I know one girl in particular, who was constantly criticized so often for being anorexic and unhealthy, that she started eating the fattiest, greasiest foods in an attempt to finally put some meat on her bones. (She remained relatively thin but her health deteriorated, including a drastic spike in her cholesterol levels).

I definitely don't think that magazines should continue to reinforce the stupid (and dangerous) idea that a skinny body is the only kind of beautiful body. But at the same time, I'm uneasy about jumping straight from that to the stereotype that a skinny body is an unhealthy body. Either way we're ascribing to a one-body-fits-all ideal of beauty and health that will never, ever actually "fit all".

Now I'm not speaking about Wladyka specifically, because I have no idea if she's naturally thin or if she's healthy. My guess would be that if she really did lose a drastic amount of weight in a week, then it probably wasn't done in the most healthy of ways. Most models probably do not fall into the healthy/skinny category - which sucks for the ones who actually do - so it's quite possible that Wladyka wasn't the best example of health. But that wasn't really their argument. Their excuse was she looked "unwell". I'd really like to know what they meant by "unwell" because it's very arbitrary.

I think it's good that a health magazine doesn't want to put a superskinny model on their cover, but that should be because to be that thin would not be healthy for the typical woman... not because thin is unhealthy, period.

4. It was unnecessary.

I think the magazine has the right idea in not wanting to put an extremely thin model on their cover, but then don't hire an extremely thin model! Sometimes a little photoshopping or other digital altering of photo is necessary. The lighting was off, an unsightly shadow or glare, the color of a dress looks a little washed out... fine. But changing a model's weight? Easily avoidable. How? Hire a heavier model to begin with! The model you cast shows up to the shoot way too thin? Send her home.

She wasn't the size they cast? She didn't fit the clothes properly? She was skinnier than they expected or wanted? She doesn't meet their definition of "healthy"? Don't shoot her. Or at the very least, don't put her on the cover!

Eleni Renton, of Leni's Model Management, said: 'When magazines start changing body shape, it becomes unhealthy. 'That girl probably should have been sent home from the shoot.' [Daily Mail]


Anonymous said...

I liked this article a lot. Thank you for saying that thin doesn't necessarily mean unhealthy. I have always had a slender body type and people have been saying nasty things to me about it on a regular basis for over a decade, so I am very very self-conscious about how I look. The whole "REAL women have curves" media movement doesn't help either. Trying to make myself weigh more has made me really stressed and anxious. I've also eaten foods that are greasy, sugary, and all-around unhealthy so I can try to look more acceptable (but it doesn't work). It just doesn't do much for your self-eseem when it seems that people might hate you just by looking at you for a second, and yet at the same time it's hard to find any sympathy from anyone about how much this all bothers me. It shouldn't be about everyone having certain numbers of measurement but about how you eat and live. I wish more people had your attitude that it's not okay to criticize someone or make assumptions about their health just based on how light or heavy they appear.

Trish Austin said...

I agree airbrushing either way is dishonest. The magazine editors knew she was thin-portfolio. Came down to the money. Cheaper to airbrush than get a new model. And they were afraid of sales if bad publicity.

I like to be thin. I'm not underweight for my height, but I like to be on the lower end of the weight range for my height. I'm not unhealthy. That's just me. I feel better. The doctors actually encourage it. I'm in my 40's. So, anonymous be proud of your body. Don't eat unhealthy foods to try to be something you're not meant to be...

airbrush classes said...

I don't think airbrushing in general is a bad thing, especially if moderated and done for the right reasons. However, doing so for false advertisement or sending wrong messages is definitely abusing things.