The Ugly Truth Behind Pretty Pictures

5 ways to help your kids resist the Photoshop effect
Sierra Filucci Executive Editor, Parenting Content | Mom of two Categories: Celebrity Influence on Kids, Marketing to Kids, Media and Body Image
Executive Editor, Parenting Content | Mom of two

Walk past a supermarket checkout stand and you can’t help but see models and celebs in bikinis and slinky outfits plastered across magazine covers. Tween favorites like Katy Perry and Beyonce appear all over the Internet in glamorous outfits with incredible hair and makeup. And ads on billboards, buses and subways display long-legged models selling everything from liquor to lipstick.

Kids are bombarded with images of men and women -- famous or not -- who look incredibly perfect. Too perfect, in fact. And that’s thanks to photo editing, which, as many of us parents know, can eliminate a model’s pimples, make a celeb’s cellulite disappear, and make legs longer, waists slimmer, and erase wrinkles.

Pull Back the Curtain

But kids aren’t always so savvy. Kids who see unrealistic bodies or faces or clothing -- especially on folks they admire -- can feel inadequate as a result. In fact, several studies have shown that reading women’s fashion magazines or looking at images of models has a negative effect on women’s and girls’ self-esteem.

That’s why it’s important to teach kids about the reality behind the images that surround them. Empowering kids to see behind the photo spreads and the advertisements can help combat the negative effects of these images.

Add Your Voice

The good news is, some kids -- and even some celebrities -- are talking back to the beauty and advertising industries and taking action to encourage more realistic images. Young people have asked magazines that cater to kids and teens, like Seventeen, to do more photo spreads that don’t use Photoshop. Some clothing companies, like ModCloth, have agreed to not alter the images of models they use in their ads.

Celebrities (including Taylor Swift, Lorde) have stepped up to show a more realistic image of themselves in photo shoots and online, and in doing so help pull back the curtain on the amount of retouching that goes on in Hollywood and beyond.

Not sure how to approach this subject with your kid? Here are some ideas:

  • Do a reality check. Make sure kids know that almost every photo in magazines and advertisements has been altered. Show examples of models and celebrities where the before and after examples are starkly different. (My Pop Studio is a great site to help kids understand what goes on behind the scenes at a magazine, etc.)
  • Play “spot the Photoshop.” See who can spot the retouching on any ads or photos you come across. (Search online for “Photoshop fail” and you’ll come across some amazing examples of how poorly the tool can be used.)
  • Connect the dots. Discuss the difference between fantasy images and products being marketed. Talk about how photos are used to sell magazines, specific products, celebrities’ brands, and more.
  • Ask questions. Get kids to think about how images affect viewers (both boys and girls) and how images can distort our ideas about what’s healthy or beautiful. What would your kids say to a friend who felt bad after looking at an unrealistic image? How could you encourage them to celebrate their inner qualities? What kinds of things besides looking at magazines or celebrity blogs can you do to make you feel good?
  • Look for backup. Help kids locate resources to take action. Find out how to sign or start petitions. Encourage kids to speak up about these images in their classrooms, through their social networks, and among friends. (Check out our list of sites that encourage social action.)

Related tags

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women's and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley,... Read more

Add comment

Sign in or sign up to share your thoughts

Comments (6)

Adult written by msando28

I completely agree with you in the sense that everywhere you look there are images of bodies that are “too perfect” and unrealistic. Kids are easily influenced by what they see not just in magazines but in all types of media outlets. From magazines to movies, and television shows, even dolls. I read that girls as young as 7 and 8 have reported to have low self-esteem and the desire to have a thinner body because that’s what Barbie looks like. Sadly this can lead to bigger issues in the future, such as eating disorders, like anorexia or unhealthy eating habits like fasting (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2009). It’s not just girls, boys and young men also have the pressure to be fit and muscular and they also may take it to extremes such as using steroids. It is important for parents to be able to not only talk to kids about the truth, but also educate them about it and offer different ways to deal with what they are seeing. Your blog makes some good points and provides great examples of how to do that. I really enjoyed reading your blog.
Parent written by jazz pollard

There are many customers that are going through using few cellulite creams which works best for them..
Teen, 15 years old written by ASLgirl

I read an article on a British company that was sued for false advertising because they used photo editor software to a point that made their product results impossible to achieve. I agree. The use of retouching software has gone too far.
Parent of a 14 year old written by CrystalMirror

Kids know.They discuss it. I'm an adult and parent. A lot of my friends are male. The chief complaints I hear from them about their wives and girlfriends is they are too skinny, and too much make-up. Men prefer heavier women. I have heard this my whole life, but how many girls starve themselves for this impossible goal of perfection.
Parent written by ViannaR

Please consider that your comment is ironically committing the same kind of damaging judgement as what you are condemning. People's bodies are uniquely individual, and when discussing attractiveness with children or teens, what needs to be emphasized is that we are all made differently and that is what individual beauty really is. When encouraging our children's discovering who they might offer their hearts to, they should be guided in seeking a mate who appreciates and loves the individual who is in that body (which will change over time). Stating what size or shape men (or women) supposedly "prefer" is diminishing the person inside a body that is outside of that declaration. (By the way, when I was younger, and through my 30's and 40's I remained a very petite, small-boned woman with a fast metabolism--I ate all day long because I would burn it quickly. I have filled out since menopause. Please don't put my body type down. It's just as wrong to do this. I don't understand how folks don't seem to get that. I do not and would not ever criticize the shape or size of another individual.
Kid, 11 years old

Ok if y'all liked this article go to YouTube and watch dove evolution. It shows just how much they do to make models look "beautiful".