Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lessons from the Photoshop

Esther Honig went viral when she asked 40 photoshop users from 25 countries around the world to make her "beautiful" using a single unedited image of herself.  The results were a fascinating study of beauty standards around the world.

But that wasn't the end of the story.  Since then, the experiment has been replicated with even more interesting results, and we are starting to see patterns emerging as multiple participants from each country begin to reflect a cultural, rather than individual standard of beauty.

Priscilla Yuki Wilson asked 30 participants from 25 countries to make her beautiful, with similarly interesting results.  As a biracial woman, she was particularly interested in whether people would lighten her skin or hair.

And recently, Marie Southard Ospina asked 21 photoshoppers from 17 countries to do the same.  As a plus-size woman, she was interested in whether they would "slim" her.

What can we take away from all three experiments combined?  For me, the three primary lessons are:

1.  There are a lot of people out there who think they're better at Photoshop than they actually are. I think we can all agree on that. 

2.  Beauty standards are radically different in different cultures. This should be obvious to people, but yet each cultural beauty standard claims to be both superior to all others, and universal and/or natural (with a hefty dose of evo-psyc thrown in for cognitive dissonance).

3.  If there are no actual universal beauty standards, then we're probably wasting a lot of time, money, heartache, physical and emotional health, and potential trying to conform rigidly to one or the other, as a culture.

Treated as a preliminary experiment, I think these three projects open up a lot of questions that warrant experimental investigation.  For example:

1.  Marie Southard Ospina was asked by one editor if she was in pornography, but none of the others reported this reaction (despite almost identical poses involving bare shoulders so that editors could add clothing as they wished).  Does this mean that the sexualization of fat bodies is more universal than we think?

2.  If this experiment were repeated a hundred times, involving both professional and amateur image editors, could we start to see a divide between what the media (professionals) consider beautiful, and what the average people in the country consider beautiful?

3.  If this experiment were repeated a hundred times, could we start to see definitive patterns emerge both by nationality and by the ethnicity of the editor?

4.  What happens if a man performs the same experiment?  What about a genderqueer or androgynous person?  How would the editors manipulate the gender presentation in order to conform to their aesthetic ideals?

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