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Beauty and the Airbrush: The Billion-Dollar Confidence Trick

Our Book Club review this time is Beauty and the Airbrush: The Billion-Dollar Confidence Trick by Nicola G Marshall.

As a mum to two daughters (now aged 22 and 20) I’ve experienced the difficulties associated with encouraging girls to grow up to be body-confident young women able to differentiate between ‘normal’ natural beauty and a healthy appearance, and the unachievable perfection they are bombarded with on an almost daily basis. I think adults find it much easier to be aware of and ignore the airbrushed perfection we see in magazines (although I also think we’re far from immune to it), but young people have never known anything different and I believe that for many of them it’s doing untold and lifelong damage to self-confidence and body image. And for what? So that companies can make huge amounts of money from an industry built on lies and deception.

Faces and bodies are reshaped; skin is smoothed, lightened or darkened; teeth are whitened, as are whites of eyes; acne, wrinkles, pores, broken veins, dark shadows and uneven skin tone are a thing of the past; lips are fuller; breasts are bigger – the list goes on, and on. Our perceptions of what’s achievable are being warped and we’re all being conned – and purely for money. We know that many, if not most, of the images we see are altered in some way, but do we really understand the full extent of retouching and the real extent of the deception?

Nicola Marshall is a former professional retoucher. She’s used 20 years’ experience as a retoucher at the very high end of the digital imaging business to give us an insight into the world of digital retouching. Nicola has worked for many big brands and retouched countless images of celebrities and models for magazines. It’s clear from her book that she feels a sense of responsibility about the work she did and its “potential to cause harm to society”. For a time she was able to ignore the potentially damaging effects that retouching work was having on people, but she eventually came to the realization that in her opinion it was no longer a way to make a decent living, and that she could make a much more positive contribution by sharing her knowledge of the world of retouching – and that’s what she’s done with Beauty and the Airbrush.

“People who knew nothing about human anatomy were asking for bodies and faces to be distorted to a more ‘pleasing’ look. They were hypercritical of anything that didn’t conform to their own narcissistic, warped ideas of total perfection. Nobody cared about the effects on the viewers of those images and nobody was listening to the growing tide of resentment from the public. Retouching seemed to be getting out of hand and I started to feel really uncomfortable about being a part of it.”

Nicola states that the main aim of the book is to teach people to recognize the extent to which fashion and beauty photographs are being routinely altered. She wants us to use the knowledge and understanding of the many techniques used in photo forgery to help us to be aware of the extent to which we’re being conned; to stop worrying about the way we look; and to make informed choices and decisions when buying beauty products. Perhaps most importantly, she wants adults to use this knowledge to educate our children.

The book covers areas such as…

  • What is retouching? And how photos are drastically altered
  • Reasons for retouching
  • The effects of retouching on our self-confidence and buying decisions
  • The future of retouching. There is no way back. Retouching has become an accepted part of modern life and it’s here to stay; regardless of how any of us feel about it.

Not surprisingly, Nicola is resistant to skincare advertising – she makes her own soap and skin cream, and in her book she also gives advice on how to do this for yourself.

There’s a lot in Beauty and the Airbrush that’s thought provoking. For example, Nicola makes an interesting point about the difference between the effects of fashion photography and the effects of retouching in skincare advertising…

“Looking at images of very thin fashion models has been widely deemed to be responsible for a percentage of young people claiming to feel extremely unhappy about their bodies and cases of anorexia in very young girls are often cited as proof of this fact. My experience as a working retoucher has always told me quite a different story though. Over the years, the people (mostly women) who discussed my occupation with me very rarely mentioned the fashion images that I retouched and it was always skincare advertising that was the first thing they talked to me about. I believe that the skincare industry is the big financial winner in the mass fostering of lack of confidence in human facial appearance.”

My instinct tells me that the preference for ultra-thin and often gaunt fashion models in magazines and on catwalks, plus the airbrushing of models’ bodies in magazines, inevitably has a negative effect on children’s and young people’s feelings about their shape, size and weight compared to others’; but I can also see that the financial big winners are those in the beauty industry – people are living longer than ever before and the primary aim of the skincare/beauty industry seems to be to make us ashamed and fearful of looking our age.

Nicola also says that she estimates that across the entire industry of creating photographic images that are predominantly seen by women, at least 80% of the work is carried out by men. “Theories could abound about the subjugation of women by men who are creating falsified images of unachievable beauty”; and why on earth women are allowing themselves to be deceived and made to feel a particular way about themselves by what is after all, simply a way for big companies to make an awful lot of money.

I enjoyed reading Beauty and the Airbrush and there was plenty more in it that was thought-provoking as well as enlightening. I wish there were more people prepared to speak out and keep us informed about the extent to which we’re all being deceived and manipulated by the beauty industry.

Beauty and the Airbrush is available on Amazon.

What are your thoughts about the seemingly ubiquitous altering of fashion and beauty photographs, and the potential effects of this?

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Angela Boothroyd

I'm a teacher and linguist who specializes in helping non-native English speakers speak English more fluently. I review books and interview authors for the Birds on the Blog Book Club - if you have any suggestions for reviews or interviews please let us know :-)