Keep It Real: Instagram vs. Photoshop

For Day Two of the Keep It Real Challenge, Rachel Grate explores whether there’s a difference between people using the filters on Instagram and magazines photoshopping people

By Rachel Grate

It’s no secret that the rampant use of Photoshop is having adverse effects on the self-confidence of consumers of all ages and genders. Well, it’s no secret unless you work in the magazine and advertising industry – in which case, shh!

It’s up to us to break the silence surrounding the damaging effects of extreme Photoshop, which SELF magazine editor Lucy Danziger defended as an “industry standard.” There is nothing “standard” about the images we’re being bombarded with, and the effects are real.

Even without Photoshop, the average fashion model weights 23% less than the average woman – and 48% of teenage girls wish they were as skinny as models. So it’s no wonder that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just 3 minutes leafing through a fashion magazine, when faced directly with this unachievable beauty standard.

The reason the Keep It Real campaign is so important to me is because I’ve recently started to see a shift. Photoshop is no longer something we consume only in the process of reading magazines and seeing advertisements. With the increasing use of Facebook and other social networks (such as Instagram, which will be utilized during the final day of this campaign), individuals are sharing their own photos with more people than ever. And, disturbingly, they are starting to Photoshop (whether with the actual program, or simple tools like “Retouch” included on iPhoto) their own photos more than ever as well.

My sophomore year of high school, a friend made me give her photos I’d taken of us so that she could retouch them before I posted them online. (She, like the rest of our friends and I, struggled constantly with self-esteem during high school.) After acquiescing, I tried to explain how unnecessary the process was, and she only replied not to worry because she had retouched me as well. She had edited out any blemishes I had – which I admittedly appreciated – but also many of my freckles. And that’s when I got angry.

The thing is, I like my freckles. When I was little and bored I played connect-the-dots across my skin. I tried to count once, and I have over 50 on each arm, and over 100 on each leg, and a healthy smattering on my face. They are a part of me and something I’d never thought to be ashamed of, until someone else assumed I should be.

Just viewing Photoshopped images of others causes us to see nonexistent flaws in ourselves, so what happens when our own bodies are edited? When others delete flaws we didn’t even think we had, or that we may previously have been proud of? In this modern era, even I’ve taken to editing out blemishes before posting pictures on Facebook, so why was I so disturbed by the deletion of a freckle?

I was struggling to find a way to feel less hypocritical about my views on Photoshop when I read Bossypants by Tina Fey. I didn’t fully agree with Fey’s perspective on Photoshop (namely her assumption that “people have learned how to spot it” so it’s no longer dangerous (more on this here) but I agree with her conclusion that when used well, Photoshop should “make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.”

Essentially, what Fey is getting at is that she likes Photoshop when it helps her express herself – her inner beauty, in an ideal set of circumstances – with her assumption that people know there’s obviously fake elements of the photo. Similarly, when we use Instagram tomorrow to express our beauty ideals, some may use a variety of obviously fake filters to transform the photo into a more authentic expression of their individual vision of beauty.

The problem is, that’s not how mainstream magazines use Photoshop. Not only do I not believe their edits are obvious, but they often repress the model’s personal expression, rather than enhance it. “You can barely recognize yourself with the amount of digital correction,” Fey writes. “You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pox scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?”

Take Kelly Clarkson’s September 2009 SELF cover, for instance. While the magazine claims to be about her “Total Body Confidence” and Clarkson talks about being comfortable with her weight in the article, Clarkson’s weight was dramatically decreased on the cover. Danziger, the aforementioned editor, said that the photo made Clarkson “look her personal best” as “the picture of confidence.” But how could Clarkson be “the picture of confidence” when her real personal best wasn’t good enough for the magazine? I can’t help but wonder if this repeated rejection of Clarkson’s body was what triggered her recent 30-pound weight loss, which magazines have praised.

Like my concern with the deletion of my freckles, celebrities often don’t appreciate the alterations magazines make. Kate Winslet spoke out against GQ’s Photoshop of her on their January 2003 cover, stating bluntly, “I don’t want to look like that!” Ugly Betty, a series I recently re-discovered on Netflix, tackled the negative effects of Photoshop on celebrities in their second episode; nonetheless, star America Ferrera was given the full treatment when she appeared on Glamour’s September 2007 issue. Sources have even claimed that her head was cut and pasted onto another woman’s body for the shoot.

My point is, even though I have a twisted appreciation for its zit-erasing prowess, Photoshop isn’t good for anyone – perhaps most of all for the people it is used on. Celebrities and the average person alike are just left feeling that their natural body isn’t good enough, with a heightened awareness of their specific “flaws” that would be better deleted. Because, come on – everyone has zits. Unfortunately, I just seem to care about mine more when I can zoom in on it 200x with iPhoto.

Zits are admittedly a mild example of the lack of body-esteem we’ve all experienced. But how can you feel satisfied with any part of your inherently, beautifully flawed self when magazines prop up perfection as if it’s a reachable goal?

Keep It Real isn’t asking for much – one unphotoshopped image per issue, and one blog from each of us who realize how important this is. Because, insignificant as one image sounds to us, it’s a start. Maybe magazines will realize how ridiculous their other images look when contrasted with a real, unretouched photo. And maybe girls will stop feeling the need to Photoshop their own images and “edit” their own bodies in real life with unhealthy behavior.

Rachel Grate is an intern at and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.