The Ugly Truth Behind Pretty Pictures

Six ways to help your kids resist the Photoshop effect. By Sierra Filucci
The Ugly Truth Behind Pretty Pictures

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 such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé 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 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 lengthen legs, slim waists, 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. Even photos of friends on Instagram or Snapchat are too perfect, thanks to flattering filters and selfie-editing tools.

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, such as Seventeen, to do more photo spreads that don't use Photoshop. Glamour magazine opted out of Photoshop for its February 2017 issue. Some clothing companies, such as ModCloth, have agreed to not alter the images of models they use in their ads.

Celebrities (including Zendaya and Lena Dunham) have stepped up to show a more realistic image of themselves online and in photo shoots, and in doing so they 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 magazines and other media outlets.)
  • 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.)
  • Talk about the disconnect. Plenty of celebrities have come out against being Photoshopped. Meghan Trainor explicitly calls it out in her song "All About That Bass" with the lyric "we know that s--t ain't real." Ask your kids why the industry insists on putting out unrealistic images (it's usually all about the money). What would they do if they were the photo editor of a magazine? Would they airbrush the models or let their so-called imperfections shine?
  • Connect the dots. Discuss the connection 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 yourself 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.)

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About Sierra Filucci

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Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more... Read more

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Comments (12)

Adult written by J W

Esther Honig did a global photo-shopped project. You can see how the world used photo-shop to "make her beautiful" at
Kid, 12 years old

I agree. I see magazines like those all the time at Walmart. In 5th grade sex ed, I learned that the models are photoshopped to look perfect. Our teacher told us that we should be happy about ourselves and we are all beautiful in our own way.
Parent of a 2 year old written by Mama91

You realize that if you teach your child that they are beautiful then they won't have these issues of comparison, right? It is no fault of social media for bad body images. It is how they are taught by their own parents to view their bodies. If taught to respect their bodies by eating right, getting exercise, learning good hygiene, and wearing clothes that do not make them an outcast then they are usually more than confident in themselves. This crap that its someone else's fault for having a different body type turning kids into comparison depressed fatties is such a lie. Stop blaming others for your lack of parenting and stop letting social media be their teachers if you really want a change. Too many lazy parents are just turning themselves and children into victims to avoid parental responsibility. It is the PARENT'S fault. DO YOU JOB AND THESE ISSUES DO NOT EXIST.
Adult written by Monera

I honestly don't get the hype. I understand that people can have damaging insecurities about themselves, but let's face it; everyone has something they don't like about their bodies. Some people don't like curly hair, some would rather have straight and vise versa. Some people want blue eyes, some want brown, some want more muscles, some want a fuller chest. Some don't like a specific feature like a nose or eyes. Also, why not draw attention to other insecurities people have but are often overlooked. Many adults want to "turn back the clock" and look younger. There are hair dyes to cover graying hair, Botox to cover wrinkles, and yet, not much outrage. Why isn't that unhealthy to be obsessing about? Shouldn't adults be allowed to age gracefully as we all will? The argument seems to be about the general body shape and weight. There's no denying the harshness of society when it comes to that, but look how persuasively judged aging is looked upon. Why say one insecurity is more damaging than the countless others one can find about their bodies? Also, every culture has their own beauty standards. It's part of what makes a complex culture and the media is a product of our culture. It reflects us as a culture. Other cultures have different standards of beauty that are different than ours, but why are our beauty standards more morally reprehensible than beauty standards anywhere? It's up to people to control their insecurities. It's only human to have many insecurities and it's completely normal. The only time it's unhealthy is when your insecurities overshadow your entire life and fighting them is your only goal. I think the best way to fight the temptation to demean yourself is to focus on things you are proud of, your achievements, your goals, the things you do like about your body. It's all about balancing all your positive thoughts and negative thoughts. Having insecurities is something every human being shares, it's up to you to control how much they take over your life as a whole. My advice to anyone overshadowed by insecurities is to look at your life as a whole, insecurities are just a part. If our culture's beauty standards are thin for women and muscular for men, let it be. It's unrealistic to try to say we should have no beauty standard in our culture, as it's ingrained in being human. It's up to the individual to form their own opinion about themselves and move on to to other thoughts.
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 of a 2 year old written by Mama91

Teach your children that everyone has different bodies and how to take care of their own best. Stop skinny-shaming. I have a barbie like figure after having 2 kids and what you said is absolutely skinny-shaming. That would be like my daughter being envious of Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect and me saying that is unrealistic... Guess what? If someone wants to be fat they are gonna be. If they care about their health and want to be skinny they are gonna be. STOP SKINNY SHAMING. Just so you know, most people who do this are doing it out of HATE because they are not where they should be physically, just saying as a psychology major here, but whatever. Instead of posting that we need to deal with it in different ways, deal with it head on. That is what you need to do instead of posting ambiguous non-solution based responses online.
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.
Adult 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".


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