This isn’t entirely the fault of Photoshop, of course. While the name of the program has become synonymous with photo editing of any sort, photos were edited long, long before Adobe went to market — and arguably, people have “edited” their appearance, via cosmetics and corsets and other means, since even earlier than that. But Photoshop made such editing easy. Mainstream, even. (A review of the “idiotproof” consumer version, from 1995: “if you own a digital camera or a scanner, you can now do your own photo retouching!”) The first version of the software, released in 1990, allowed basic edits like stretching and skewing and smudging and blurring. The second version improved on things like color handling. By the sixth version, Photoshop could “heal” blemishes, layer pieces of different images on top of each other, and “liquify” the whole thing, the better to smooth out bulky forearms or too-wide waists.
Before long, “Photoshop” referred not only to a piece of software, but to a constellation of social evils, most of them visited on women: the pressure to be beautiful and unblemished and thin, the media’s complicity in this campaign, the plummeting self-esteems of girls and young women who grew up believing they should look that fake, Photoshopped way. Faith Hill whittled to nothing on the cover of Redbook. Kate Winslet with yards-long legs in the British version of GQ. Julia Roberts’s Lancome campaign banned in Britain, over concerns that it didn’t “reflect reality.”
Just last month, a high school student made waves when she published copies of her yearbook pictures, which were edited by the photographer to make her appear thinner. “I was outraged!” The girl wrote on Reddit. “When we go and have our photos taken we are flat out told that our skin will be retouched to hide blemishes. We are not told, however, that more drastic changes are [also] made.” It seems appropriate, in hindsight, that the first photo ever Photoshopped was a picture of a faceless, topless woman, sunning herself at the beach. She was “the last woman,” Gordon Comstock wrote, “to inhabit a world where the camera never lied.”
Now the question is: Do cameras ever tell the truth? After all, photo-editing has evolved far beyond Photoshop; Adobe, at this point, is for magazines and advertisers and other professionals, the people charged with giving Beyoncé’s face that otherworldly, poreless glow. For your average smartphone-carrier, there are lower-budget tools: Instagram filters, selfie-enhancing apps, any number of free online tools. Every major social network has built photo-editing features into its app, the better to let users “touch up” the look of their lives.
“It is [so easy] to believe in a distorted reality,” explains Zilla van der Born, the artist who faked a trip through Asia with photo-editing. “I wanted to make people more aware that the images we see are manipulated, and that it’s not only the models in the magazines, but also our friends on social media who contribute to this fake reality … Together we create some sort of ideal world online which reality can no longer meet.”
It’s worth remembering however, despite appearances, that perfection and reality are not the same thing. No matter how much it galls the Beyhive, Beyoncé’s still human, and only human — complete with bumps and pores and tired eyes.