Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Truth in Labeling

As I get ready to guest teach a unit on counterfactual photography at UC Irvine with my longtime friend and colleague Jenny Cool, I am looking to update my talk.

Today's piece in the New York Times from "The Ethicist" Randy Cohen, who once commented on YouTube cheating videos in a segment of Good Morning America in which I was originally scheduled, specifically asks the question if photos "should come with warning labels" if they have been altered with the image software program Photoshop. Cohen opens with the example of a recent Ralph Lauren advertising campaign, a company that was also involved in an intellectual property dispute with the mega-blog Boing Boing after bloggers mocked a particularly distorted model. It's interesting that the examples originated with the blog Photoshop Disasters, which primarily criticizes amateurish execution rather than the ideologies behind the more finished work that the fashion industry specializes in.

Cohen notes that a number of countries are considering legislation that would require a disclaimer on artificially skinny images, so that young people with eating disorders won't have their warped view of the world and quest for impossible body types legitimized. Cohen admits that such warnings may be ineffective and they would almost necessarily become too long, if they tried to take in all the mitigating factors for a model on a fashion shoot, but he does think that the basic idea has merit, even if it might give more evidence for Cohen's critics who accuse him of social engineering. Cohen explains his position as follows:

Yet it’s still worth posting those alerts. That’s one way ideas percolate through a society. Social change is achieved by battling on many fronts: studying gender roles, learning about health and nutrition and calling attention to bogus photos. That is how we can move toward a less creepy concept of female beauty than the one promulgated by Ralph Lauren and, more ambitiously, resist the sexist assumption that beauty is a commodity women are obliged to provide to men. This is not to deny the delights of allure, of playfulness, of flirtation, of sexual attractiveness: bring them on. But don’t make it all the woman’s burden only, don’t make it contingent on what she buys and don’t lie to get her to buy it.

Meanwhile, the beauty industry is seeming to alter its editorial policies based on enthusiastic online comments and viral distribution of nude images that defy norms like this and this.

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