July 8th, 2008


Alesha Dixon had a really good show on BBC 3 last night- all about the retouching of photos in glamour and fashion magazines and how it makes young women despair of their bodies.  Did you know that every image of every woman in every glossy magazine has been worked over- her pimples removed, her hair untangled, her eyes brightened, her figure adjusted, her legs lengthened? Well I suppose I did, but only at a semi-conscious level. Mostly we still think that if it's a photograph it's got to be true- because as some idiot once said, "the camera doesn't lie". Well the camera may not lie, but the computer does- and Alesha showed us just how its done and how far it goes.  As an extreme example of what can be achieved one of the evil magicians waved his wand over an honest picture of Alesha's wrinkly (but handsome) old mum and turned her into a peachy-skinned 17 year old. And not actually so extreme, because these tricks are regularly performed on elderly celebs and the results are everywhere.  Alesha challeged the glamour and fashion mags to run an unretouched picture of herself on their covers- but of course the editors were all in meetings when she rang.  In the end the Mirror's Celebrities magazine- a supplement to the Saturday or Sunday paper- picked up the gauntlet and ran just such a picture- and very attractive it was too. Alesha is a phenomenally beautiful young woman; to think that her image needs tidying up-  well, it's crazy!

Of course there's nothing new in the blanding out of images of women. Before there was digital retouching there was airbrushing and before there was airbrushing there was Thomas Gainsborough. And women have always punished themselves in an attempt to live up to the look they're being sold. Todays young women get boob jobs (we were shown one of them on the operating table- I had to look away- it was like watching a chicken carcass being stuffed); in the 18th century- Gainsborough's era- they used to poison themselves with slatherings of white lead. What's new is the overwhelming presence, the inescapability, of the propaganda of the beauty industry. You know what? I think the magazines that service it- that run the images- which means all the glamour, fashion and celebrity magazines aimed at women and girls- are worse than top shelf porn. The porn magazines only tickle lust (and is that so bad really?) whereas these others spread self-hatred and despair.

Bodies: we're stuck with them. We want them to reflect the beauty of our inner beings and they don't (though Alesha's comes close) and there's nothing we can do about it- though God knows we try.  Down the years I've tried to educate myself to see the beauty in what's actually there- to get rid of the ideals that have been planted in my head and enjoy the quirky, the individual, the characterful, the jolie-laide- but its like dragging a barge upstream whilst swatting away mosquitoes. Our culture- in a degraded parody of the Grail Quest- is mad for an unreal, unrealisable beauty- and bombards us with its dogma and cult images. How does the individual stand against it? I don't really know- you just grit your teeth and put your head down and push on forward- but well done, Alesha, for trying!