The galvanization of women, whether as candidates for political office or as voices speaking up as part of the #metoo movement, has challenged yet another traditionally sacred practice: the airbrushing of beauty images into unachievable perfection.
This week, CVS, the American pharmaceutical giant, has pledged to stop “materially altering” all of the imagery associated with its beauty products — in stores, on its website and on social media. Starting in April, the photographs women see when they go to buy a CVS brand lipstick or perfume or moisturizer will not have been so smoothed, color-corrected or otherwise remastered as to produce overwhelming insecurity in the shopper.
“It was really a response to the bigger conversation women are having over their own level of empowerment in society,” said Helena Foulkes, the president of CVS Pharmacy and executive vice president of CVS Health.
To not, in other words, be complicit in sending a message to shoppers about not being good enough by showing them photographs of women they should aspire to be, knowing that such aspiration is actually impossible because even the women in the photos don’t look like they do in the photos.
Phew, got that?
This is pretty much where we’ve been for the last many years, though it is also true that a backlash of sorts has been brewing. Remember the outcry on social media last year over Melania Trump’s official White House portrait, which was so fuzzy and soft-focus it looked as though angels were about to start strumming?
As Bonnie Fuller wrote at the time, “There’s photoshop, and then there’s photoshop.”
In addition to pledging not to alter its own imagery, CVS is also asking all of the brands it sells (companies like L’Oréal, Maybelline and Coty) to do the same, or to label retouched images clearly and visibly as “modified.” The company has created what it is calling a “beauty mark” (catchy, that), which looks kind of like a heart within a broken circle. It will be applied to all images to signal truth in advertising. CVS will start phasing in the new system in April and is hoping it will be complete by 2020.
Get ready for crow’s feet! Laugh lines! The occasional age spot and dark under-eye circle or two. It’s hard to imagine, right? We have lived in an airbrushed world for so long, the sight of a visible pore really would be something shocking.
“We felt it was important to be as transparent and authentic as possible with the women who come into our stores,” Ms. Foulkes said. “We want to be clear about the issue and make beauty something that makes women feel good, as opposed to not good enough.”
That’s an awfully good … well, sound bite, but it does raise the question of what “materially altered” means? After all, not “altered at all” creates something of a loophole for those taking part. Erasing a pimple here and a worry line there may not seem material to one brand, but it could be material to an individual. There’s a sliding scale of what constitutes transparency for most of us, and we aren’t the ones selling skin care.
According to the official statement from CVS, the company is defining “materially altered” as “changing or enhancing a person’s shape, size, proportion, skin or eye color, wrinkles or any other individual characteristics.” Not, however, taming a flyaway hair (to suggest one example that might sneak through).
“It’s a conversation we are having now with our partners,” Ms. Foulkes said. “If a famous actress shows up for a shoot and she’s had a very late work night and has dark circles under her eyes, is cleaning them up materially altering her image? I think it is, but other people might not.”
The actress question is, as it happens, not just any old example. In 2011, Lancôme, part of L’Oréal, got in trouble with the Advertising Standards Agency in the United Kingdom for a Julia Roberts ad for its Teint Miracle foundation that showed Ms. Roberts miraculously lit from within, with not a visible line or spot. The problem was, said the agency, which banned the ad, her glow was probably due more to digital postproduction work than to the actual product.
Similarly, in 2014, Diane Keaton made a speech at the Golden Globes in all her 68-year-old glory, only to appear with the skin of a twentysomething in a L’Oreal commercial that same evening, a contrast that was widely mocked.
While we most often complain about the negative effects airbrushing can have on the body images of young girls — the American Medical Association has identified it as health issue — the impact of Keaton-esque treatment can be just as detrimental for us more mature women, even if theoretically we are supposed to know better (or at least be able to recognize the impossible, or implausible, when we see it).
Having been at many fashion shows where older models are trotted out onto the catwalk, I have been struck by the discrepancy between reality and representation. No matter how great they look (and many of them are amazingly beautiful women in their 40s), their bodies and their faces generally look nothing like they do in the pages of glossy magazines. They have back fat. They even have the occasional pimple. They have what my middle child once called “those holes in your face” (pores).
Only, of course, in their photographs, they do not. But maybe they will soon.
There have been anti-airbrushing movements before. Last November, Lupita Nyong’o publicly criticized Grazia UK magazine for erasing her ponytail. In 2016, Pirelli published a non-airbrushed calendar for the first time and got women like Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Helen Mirren to pose unfiltered. But the CVS news takes the initiative to a new level, thanks to its size: 7,900 stand-alone stores in the United States selling beauty, with an average of 571 square feet per store devoted to the sector, and five million people passing through the stores daily, 80 percent of whom are women.
That’s a lot of eyeballs. Hey, wait … are yours bloodshot and squinty today? Me, too.